While nuclear fusion cannot yet produce a reliable source of power, it seems to always generate substantial amounts of drama.
Ivy MIKE Thermonuclear Test
Defense behemoth Lockheed Martin swept the science world last week with their announcement of a new concept for the Holy Grail of energy technologies, a nuclear fusion reactor. Over the last 70 years, many have tried and failed to capture the wild potential of fusion, the process behind the barely-fathomable power of a burning star, but a number of prominent disappointments have created an open skepticism in the scientific community regarding the future of the field. Now Lockheed claims its breakthrough will produce an operational reactor 10 times as efficient as current nuclear plants in the next decade. In the company’s promotional video unveiling their ongoing research, after a dubstep intro, project leader Tom McGuire brags: “We can achieve that grand vision and bring clean power to the world. The true atomic age can start.”
All of the world’s functional nuclear power plants use fission, the reaction caused when one atom splits into smaller atoms. But fusion, the combining of two or more lighter atoms into a heavier material, is known to produce three to four times more energy and only negligible amounts of radioactivity, while running on a practically unlimited resource, hydrogen. While we’ve been capable of creating fusion for some time, a technology that can generate more energy than it uses has remained elusive.
Without any published results to support its claims or any scientific precedent for Lockheed’s unique, tube-like design, a marked departure from the tokamak model that has defined fusion research for the last half-century, responses have been largely cynical. Large Hadron Collider researcher Rosi Reed told Mother Jones that she knows of no materials that could handle the amount of heat required for Lockheed’s concept. Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Ian Hutchinson told The Washington Post that as far as he can tell, “They haven’t paid attention to the underlying physics of nuclear fusion.” Swadesh M. Mahajan, who studies thermonuclear plasma at the University of Texas, called Lockheed’s announcement “poppycock.”
While nuclear fusion cannot yet produce a reliable source of power, it seems to always generate substantial drama. The idea of free, unlimited, non-polluting energy has always captivated the world’s most brilliant minds, as well as frauds, opportunists, and naïfs; each breakthrough promises the precipice of a new era that never materializes. These are some of the odd characters, notable inventions, and bizarre moments that have defined the bold and often quixotic quest to harness the incredible power of the sun.
Edward Teller loved nuclear bombs and hated communism. Teller was an early, key member of the Manhattan Project, the scientific supergroup that developed the first atomic weapons under the supervision of “destroyer of worlds” J. Robert Oppenheimer. As soon as he heard his frenemy, Nobel Prize-winner Enrico Fermi, suggest the possibility of a fission bomb, Teller was already mentally concocting a fusion-based device, and soon after began his work on the hydrogen bomb, or as he would first call it, the “Super.” The Hungarian theoretical physicist’s limp, slightly sinister demeanor, and unbridled enthusiasm for all things thermonuclear would later influence Stanley Kubrick in his creation of the character Dr. Strangelove.
By most accounts, the “father of the hydrogen bomb” was a difficult guy to get along with, alienating most of the other scientists that worked with him at the Manhattan Project, and later, in a seemingly spiteful move, aiding in getting Oppenheimer’s security clearance revoked. Competitive and monomaniacal, Teller would often quibble over the share of credit he was given on his work with other scientists, and would storm off or be kicked off several projects throughout his career. But Teller saw his own ambition in the context of a war between good and evil, sincerely believing that if the West didn’t achieve nuclear superiority, it would be curtains for civilization as we knew it. He saw nuclear weapons as a solution to everything, from Project Chariot, which would have used a series of bombs to blast a radioactive artificial harbor into an Alaskan cape, to his support of a plan to nuke the moon, for no particular reason. But nothing must have made Teller prouder than the detonation of his baby boy, a thermonuclear device based on his design called Ivy MIKE, which—though they had to create an explosion so big it destroyed an entire island—for the first time, created a meaningful quantity of fusion energy.
Ronald Richter with family
After World War II there was a sudden glut of unemployed Nazi scientists with heads full of secret rocket technology, desperate to avoid indictment for their work during the war, and willing to work for any political entity that would shelter them. But when the U.S. started snatching them up by the boatload with Operation Paperclip, leaders like Argentina’s Juan Peron began to worry about missing out on their own taste of that sweet German efficiency, and basically began hiring anyone who knew all the words to Deutschland Uber Alles. It was never quite clear whether Ronald Richter had been a member of the Nazi party during the war, whether he was originally German or Austrian, or if he ever completed his doctorate—but he knew the right people. Peron took him on, with a plan to power the Argentina of the future with fusion energy. The top-secret project seriously pissed off most of the local Argentinian scientists of the time, many of whom were more qualified than this clown, and warned that achieving usable energy from fusion would extremely difficult. Despite these pleas for caution, Peron began building Richter’s facility in 1949, on an island in the center of a Patagonian lake. They called it the Huemul Project.
"Peron tomando un café" by Pinélides A. Fusco
In 1951, Richter lied to Peron that he had successfully achieved fusion, and embarrassingly, that March, the Argentinean government announced: “On February 16, 1951, in the…Isla Huemul…thermonuclear reactions under controlled conditions were performed on a technical scale.” Headlines all over the world trumpeted the news of Argentina’s triumph; scientists and researchers wondered if the revelation could possibly be true. But thermonuclear reactions had not in fact, been performed, and when Peron sent some other scientists out to see why the experiments hadn’t yielded any demonstrable ends, the jig was up—Richter’s laboratory shenanigans weren’t producing even close to enough heat for a thermonuclear reaction. He had no idea what he was doing and the Huemul Project was shuttered within a year. Though Richter was detained and interrogated, he was released soon after, and it remains unclear whether he willingly deceived Peron, or genuinely believed in his own genius. Richter remained in Argentina until his death in 1991.
Photo by Mike Garrett
If you want to make a nice fusion, you have to get your particles good and hot. When things get toasty (read: millions of degrees Celsius) protons and neutrons lose all inhibition, overcoming their mutual repulsions and allowing the nuclear forces to pull them together, forming new, heavier elements. Often to achieve this end, particles are coaxed into a form called plasma, the state of matter that allows for the continuous fusion process that powers the stars. On the sun, gravity holds the stuff in like some kind of invisible solar corset, but on earth, these plasmas would just burn through anything we put them in. French physicist Pierre-Gilles de Gennes once said, “We say that we will put the sun into a box. The idea is pretty. The problem is, we don't know how to make the box.”
One of the most successful, (although still flawed) models for that ‘box” is the torus design, a magnetic, donut-shaped tube. Plasma’s free-floating particles, present in equal positive and negatively charged quantities, make it particularly susceptible to magnetic forces, which compress and suspend the plasma in the shape of a rotating, pulsating torus, a sort of three-dimensional ring, within the container. Since it’s “floating” and not touching anything, it won’t burn through the machine (and everything else in the immediate vicinity). Soviet scientists Igor Tamm and Andrei Sakharov (who, as a political dissident and human rights activist, would later be jailed by the U.S.S.R.) cooked up the tokomak reactor design in the 1950s, which popularized the toroidal containment style, still commonly used in many of today’s operational fusion reactors. While these machines do create fusion power, none of these reactors have ever managed to produce more power than was needed to operate them, and they suffer from a design flaw that causes occasional “major disruptions”—spasms of system stability that can seriously damage the containers. Some scientists are critical of the tokomak torus model, pointing to what they believe to be more promising technologies like laser ignition, which has come close to “breaking even” (generating as much power as it uses), and the Navy’s polywell reactor. But many still believe in the power of the donut, and ITER, a major international thermonuclear fusion project in the south of France is currently building the world’s largest tokomak reactor.
Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons
The year was 1989; a mulletted young comedian in high-waisted jeans named Jerry Seinfeld was making his television debut, and the Cold War was winding down, wrapping up half a century of nuclear competition and animosity. Two prominent electrochemists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, announced to the world that they had made a breakthrough with enormous implications—with less than $100,000 in self-funded equipment, they had induced fusion at low temperatures, the first step towards a cheap, clean, unlimited source of energy. Forget the plasma, the lasers, and the multi-billion dollar facilities—these guys, using barely more than a chemistry set, had seemingly changed the world forever.
The press grabbed hold, and cold fusion fever swept the nation, exploiting newly prominent environmental concerns and national anxieties about nuclear power and energy dependence. But the dream, as beautiful as it was, didn’t last very long, and physicists all over the world scratched their heads in confusion as attempts to replicate the experiment failed over and over again. Cracks began to appear in the methodology of the original tests, even as grasping entrepreneurs and kooks latched on to the concept of cold fusion. It soon became apparent that fusion had never taken place, and Fleischmann and Pons left the country in disgrace. The affair would permanently taint the reputation of fusion energy, and cold fusion became synonymous with other impossible scams like “perpetual motion machines” —the kind of wild-eyed nonsense that marked anyone who would even suggest its possibility as an unscientific crank.
ITER and the nuclear future
Cool ITER logo
Nuclear plants produce about 12 percent of the world’s electricity, but the unease surrounding the use of fission for power is deeply ingrained in the general public, and the vision of a nuclear future has, over time, lost much of its sheen. The past several years have brought fresh sensitivity to the scientific challenges and financial burdens attached to nuclear infrastructure: Since Fukushima, Japan’s nuclear future has fallen into limbo, Germany announced plans to shut down its remaining nine reactors by 2022, and Switzerland voted to take all its plants offline by 2034. Perhaps most damningly, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee recommended in July that the Department of State and Department of Energy withdraw from ITER, a $20 billion (so far) transnational nuclear fusion project, originally developed out of a Reagan-era initiative, and currently being constructed in the south of France.
Image of ITER test reactor model by Gerritse
From the start, bickering has plagued ITER, said to be the world’s all-time largest and most expensive energy experiment—the U.S. feared that by including the Soviets in the project they’d be opening themselves up to espionage, Japan and France haggled over building contracts and the site of the reactor, and ground wasn’t actually broken on the project until 2007. But despite budget overruns, repeated delays, and skepticism regarding the project’s technology, ITER is forging ahead, aiming to finally get over the fusion hump, and finally take the technology from experimental physics to a viable source of power. ITER’s scientific critics point out serious unaddressed flaws in the reactor’s design, and many traditional environmentalists see the undertaking as a distraction from more attainable sources of renewable energy, and are hesitant to endorse any form of nuclear power.
But in a paper published last December, Columbia University climate scientist James Hansen estimates that U.S. nuclear reactors, which provide 20 percent of the country’s power, have helped stop 64 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution, and by reducing the amount of soot spewed from coal-fire plants, saved around 1.8 million lives. The quickest ever recorded drop in greenhouse gas emissions to date took place in France after the country transitioned from fossil fuels to nuclear fission in the 1970s and ‘80s. While the dangers of fission reactors and the memories of humanity’s nuclear failures remain terrifying, even if it doesn’t happen for decades, nuclear power still has the potential to transform the world. Right now, ITER is one of the biggest efforts—in both resources and momentum—that is pursuing that goal.
The future is elusive: Back to the Future II imagined a technologically advanced 2015 where any old garbage could be tossed into a portable fusion generator to power your DeLorean time machine.
Rossi shows off the E-Cat device
Andrea Rossi and the E-Cat Device
For the last few years, the hottest name in cold fusion has been Andrea Rossi, whose mysterious Energy Catalyzer, or “E-Cat” device has been the subject of intense speculation, unreasonable high hopes, and considerable scientific derision. Rossi, an Italian inventor previously jailed for fraud and dumping toxic waste, has been demonstrating the E-Cat to amazed audiences since 2011. While one might think that someone with Rossi’s background, working in field as fraught as cold fusion and peddling a device that appears to violate known laws of physics would be dismissed out of hand, the entrepreneur has picked up a handful of respectable supporters, and in May 2013, allowed a (somewhat) independent testing of his heating gadget. The truth about Rossi’s work is still unclear, but one has to wonder how long things can continue without a big reveal.
Why wouldn’t Rossi just show everybody how the damn thing works, and settle the claims once and for all? The obvious answer is that he’s a fraud, holding out to the bitter end, but if the E-Cat was the real deal, Rossi might actually have a pretty good reason for playing it close to the chest. After the late-80s cold fusion craze overwhelmed them with a deluge of homemade fusion contraptions, the United States Patent Office, in a move that affirmed the paranoid beliefs of conspiracy theorists (who believe the government is suppressing free energy technologies), stopped considering applications for anything that even mentions cold fusion or the work of Fleischmann and Pons. Even if Rossi had a tiger by the tail here, so to speak, it might be difficult for him to protect, and thereby profit from his invention without all the secrecy. That said, Rossi, like fusion itself, carries a dubious history of failure and intrigue, and whether the fusion “news” comes from the esteemed Lockheed Martin, or the basement lab of an itinerant tinkerer, it seems likely that ten years from now, we will still be looking forward to the advent of clean, abundant source of power.