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Seawater, Nuclear Fusion, & You: A Guide To Powering The World

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Once considered "science fiction", the collective fantasy of physicists to harness nuclear fusion -- the energy responsible for powering, well, the sun -- could be getting closer to earthly reality, but will require "significant investment from the government at a time when spending on scientific research is under threat," according to an opinion piece in the New York Times.

So how do we power the future? Plastics. Plasma physics. And seawater.

Nuclear fusion can be created using hydrogen isotopes extracted from seawater. Great. Just fuse some nuclei together and the mass converts to energy and presents as heat. That heat will be used to turn water to steam, the steam will make the turbines go, and the turbines will generate power without creating greenhouse gases or the possibility of catastrophic meltdown. Available everywhere in your local ocean. "When commercialized, it will transform the world’s energy supply."

Unfortunately, "the development of fusion energy is one of the most difficult science and engineering challenges ever undertaken. Among other challenges, it requires production and confinement of a hot gas — a plasma — with a temperature around 100 million degrees Celsius."

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So now, these potentially planet-altering technical challenges are being met with high tech applications of basic science. Like magnets. Approach number one, hot plasma seeks powerful magnet for lasting relationship. It could work... The second approach, naturally, is giant lasers. "Intense lasers" would be used to heat a "frozen pellet of fusion fuel" and cause fusion to occur "in a billionth of a second."

For reference, magnetic fusion produced in the lab has grown in power from 1/10 of one watt (that lasted for a fraction of a second) to 16 million watts produced for one second. That is "a billionfold increase in fusion energy" since 1970.

Although the United States is contributing to the worldwide ITER experiment set to produce "500 million watts of fusion power for 500 seconds and longer by 2020" there is no fully committed domestic fusion reactor program looking to "produce electricity for the American power grid."

Stewart C. Prager, the director of Princeton's Plasma Physics Laboratory and professor of astrophysical sciences, believes the first working U.S. fusion reactor could be twenty years away if not for the lack of political will, lack of economic will, and lack of $30 billion in funding. "[P]ut in perspective, that sum is equal to about a week of domestic energy consumption, or about 2 percent of the annual energy expenditure of $1.5 trillion."

We need serious public investment to develop materials that can withstand the harsh fusion environment, sustain hot plasma indefinitely and integrate all these features in an experimental facility to produce continuous fusion power...Fusion has the potential to help with all the emerging challenges of this still-new century: energy independence, national economic competitiveness, environmental responsibility and reduction of conflict over natural resources...Scientists and engineers stand ready to help.