Friday, January 27, 2023

We've lit the fuse in fusion!

My business has been, and is, the future. I have literally built and helped businesses and organisations walk into the future, written four books on the future, predicted Trump victory in front of an audience at Trump’s alma mater in the US (not all futures are fun) on the night of his election, predicted Brexit, predicted the rise of online, now AI. After a lifetime, not of techno-determinism, but techno-optimism, seeing technology not as faultless but as something that makes life longer, more satisfying and easier, I was blown away by an even that took place on my birthday - Dec 5 2022.
Last night I watched Dougald Hines, of the Dark Mountain Project fame, who wants us to resign to our fate among the modern ruins of climate change and return to some sort of primitive world of poverty and self-loathing. He does however want you to buy his book and fly to a beautiful island in Greece for his conference this summer. To be fair he was articulate, then again so were most of the ascetics who turned the middle ages into the Dark Age with their self-hate and self-flagellation. Similarly with the Children’s crusade that is Greta and Extinction Rebellion, a priesthood who want to impose from. their position of privilege, a life of suffering on the already poor.
The thing that excited me and should have excites us all, but received scant news attention – was an event in ‘fusion’, the tech that promises huge amounts of cheap energy without emissions, waste or the risk of it being weaponised. We managed to light the fuse that is fusion.
People want climate change taught in schools, I’d prefer they taught it alongside science and fusion. Most rational beings agree that the future looks bad for the planet due to climate change and that we humans cause it. But there is a tendency for the extremes of both sides to exaggerate – the deniers and the doomsayers. I am optimistic because the FUSION story has just taken a jump forward.
What is fusion? Let’s start with E=MC2. Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. This last number ‘C’ is very large and squared, therefore huge. So if we can take a tiny bit of mass and turn it into energy, a gargantuan amount of energy is produced. This already happens in fission (current nuclear power) and is the same physics applies to fusion. But fission and fusion are opposites. Fission splits particles, fusion melds particles together.
Fission takes Uranium and forces the atom apart to create energy, which forms a stable but controlled chain reaction, a la Diana Ross, to create heat and then electricity. If that chain reaction runs away, it forms a nuclear reaction, hence the eponymous nuclear bomb. There’s also waste, but not as much as you think and compared to other energy sources it is relatively safe and, importantly, emission free. We should be using it now, something the world has found literally to its, and our, cost.
Fusion does the opposite of fission. We take hydrogen particles, squeeze them until they are super dense, become unstable and release heat as they change state, we force the neutrons together, until they release huge amounts of heat. This is actually the source for almost all renewable energy, solar and wind as all sunlight comes from the sun, which is a huge fusion reactor. It is also safe, which is why a star is stable for billions of years, has no runaway effect, so can’t be weaponised and is emission free.
We are the children of fusion, as all ne elements arise from this fiery process in stars. Without fusion, there is no us, no evolution, no brains that can eventually harness the very power that created us.
Governments and huge amounts of private investment (astonishingly only $5 billion to date), along with research know-how, have come together and the first success was in California in the US , where they shot 192 lasers at a tiny diamond capsule and for a tiny moment created heat from fusion. For the first time they extracted a net gain from ignition. The crossed the first of several Rubicons.
We predict a 1.5-2 degree temperature rise by 2050, yet the predictions for fusion are coming in the range of early 2O30s to 2060s. The median seems to be mid 204Os, confirmed by this recent breakthrough. Even if it is late we’re on track to solve this problem by the dates mentioned in the Paris accord. Disaster is averted without hundreds of millions being plunged back into poverty. We’ve seen a touch of that future, as this year begins with huge energy bills and worldwide inflation. We live lives of relative comfort, largely free from the domestic labour that I remember even in my childhood, with automatic washing machines, dishwashers, lighting, heating and cooking facilities, TVs and computers. Most of us have cars, TVs, smartphones and the internet. All of this can be adequately fuelled when abundant electricity from pea size fuel sources comes on tap through fusion. We will have guaranteed cheap energy. Electric vehicles will be universal and we can build a world based, not on destruction, but hope and optimism.
The Greek Promethean myth, where Prometheus was handed fire by the Gods, and created hell on earth, washed through the concept of sacrifice in Christianity, the historical determinism of Marxism, the dysfunctional psychoanalysis of Freud and now the hair shirts of Extinction Rebellion. The planet has gone through five major geological extinctions, by climate change, one an asteroid.
This is not an extinction event. AI will herald unlimited smart technology to solve problems and fusion will solve the energy problem. The triumph of our species is our ability to think, solve problems and adapt. Copernicus threw us out of being the centre of the universe to an annual orbit around the sun, Darwin made us humble enough to accept that we were creatures among creatures. We found ourselves alone and Godless, but we are Homo sapiens, the knowing ape, and have realised that we must solve our own problems. It is our responsibility to save ourselves and build the future for ourselves.

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