Many of the world’s top scientists see nuclear fusion as the clean, affordable, nearly inexhaustible future source of energy which has the best chance of neutralizing the looming devastation of climate change.
“If any research project ever met the definition of high-risk, high-reward, this would be the one,” says Yet-Ming Chiang, Professor of Science and Engineering at MIT.
Fusion is the powerful energy generated within the centers of stars, including our planet’s sun. Under huge pressure, hydrogen atoms get squeezed together to create helium, releasing huge amounts of energy in the process.
Fusion is the opposite of nuclear fission used by modern day nuclear power plants. As the names imply, fusion forces atomic elements together to create energy where fission splits them apart.
Not only is fusion significantly more effective than fission, it releases no polluting greenhouse gases, carries less risk of accidents, and produces none of the highly toxic nuclear waste that has restricted the expansion of current nuclear energy on our planet.
A recent trend is the pursuit of cold fusion, based on the theory, slowly getting developed, that fusion energy can be generated closer to “room” temperatures.
HOLY GRAIL OR PIPE DREAM?
Whether nuclear fusion energy can ever be realized remains a source of contention among scientists. A clear indication of the rift are two recent headlines: “Google Gives Up on Cold Fusion Dream” and “Huge AI Breakthrough Could Bring Us Much Closer to Nuclear Fusion Energy.”
The negative headline refers to the recent disclosure that Google’s attempt, initiated in 2015 with great fanfare, has fizzled out. None of the experiments found evidence that cold fusion could be achieved through chemical means. Among the pessimists, physicist Frank Close of the University of Oxford commented, “There is no theoretical reason to expect cold fusion to be possible, and a vast amount of well-established science that says it should be impossible,” he said.
And yet a significant breakthrough was reported recently from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, a collaborative effort involving the U.S. Department of Energy. As stated on its website, “Artificial intelligence accelerates efforts to develop clean, virtually limitless fusion energy.” Researchers developed a computer algorithm able to predict any disruptions that halt fusion reactions and damage the lab reactors.
The most complex obstacle leading to commercial production is controlling the volatile elements within the reactor which up until recently only lasted a few minutes. But by collaborating with two other major fusion facilities, one in California, the other a joint European venture, the new computer “deep learning” algorithm, called the Fusion Recurrent Neural Network, is able to predict disruptions within 30 milliseconds. This is an important first step in learning how to control the volatile process.
“This research opens a promising new chapter in the effort to bring unlimited energy to Earth,” said Steve Cowley, director of Princeton lab. “AI is exploding across the sciences and now it’s beginning to contribute to the worldwide quest for fusion power.”
In addition to the recent report out of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, a laboratory at MIT has created a superconducting magnet that can operate cold fusion experiments over a sustained period, unlike current technologies which can only work a few seconds at a time without overheating.
This collaboration between MIT and a private company called Commonwealth Fusion Systems secured a $50 million investment from an Italian energy company. The research scientists are confident they can produce a working fusion plant within 15 years.
The effort to safely produce nuclear fusion extends far beyond the U.S. shores. In France a huge project called ITER is a collaborative effort among 35 nations, including China, Russia, the U.S., India, and the European Union, to build the world’s largest magnetic fusion device. The project will use a cloud of hydrogen gas held in place by giant magnets.
Individual fusion energy labs are operating in China, Germany, and the UK as well. The China lab set a record last year by generating a temperature exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius, hotter than the sun’s core.
While the goal of achieving clean, inexhaustible, safe energy is decades away at best, already a potentially significant medical related achievement has emerged from nuclear fusion experiments. At TAE Technologies, a southern California company whose scientists represent 30 countries of origin, a new machine is capable of blasting cancer tumors with a neutron beam. The AI driven machine smashes together forms of hydrogen with enough force to release huge amounts of energy that can target cancer cells.
Investors in TAE Technologies include the late Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital, the Rockefeller family’s Venrock, and Big Sky Capital, family money of billionaire stock trader Charles Schwab. They all see cold fusion as the greatest hope going forward to tame the ravages of climate change. TJ
It’s still not clear whether nuclear fusion will be the ultimate source of safe, clean, inexhaustible energy needed to counteract climate change. The encouraging trend is that underneath the constant headlines of trade wars and military threats, the search for this form of energy is creating a level of global collaboration and “fusing” of human intelligence with advancing AI never seen before.