There was a recent Horizon episode that dealt with the current state of the art of nuclear fusion. It was mostly interesting because it bought the issue of energy production into sharp focus. In order carry on living the kind of high energy life that we currently live, we face a pretty stark choice: either we build prodigious amounts of sustainable capacity (to replace the un-sustainable resources that we are in the process of exploiting to exhaustion); or we find a way to control fusion.
Fusion has a long history, as long as i’ve been aware of it, something like 25 years, it has always been, “25 years in the future”. Back when i was a kid, and subscribed to the New Scientist, there were articles about the Tokamaks that would contain plasma streams at temperatures higher than the centre of the Sun… it just never seemed to get any further than being experimental, let alone being a net producer of energy.
Today there is news that significantly shortens the time horizon, down to two or three years:
The most energetic laser system in the world, designed to produce nuclear fusion–the same reaction that powers the sun–is up and running. Within two to three years, scientists expect to be creating fusion reactions that release more energy than it takes to produce them. If they’re successful, it will be the first time this has been done in a controlled way–in a lab rather than a nuclear bomb, that is–and could eventually lead to fusion power plants.
This is obviously not a tokamak, but a different approach using lasers to focus massive amounts of energy down into an extremely small space. If this actually becomes a reality, it will significantly change the path of human development. At this point i’m pretty jaded, and suspect that the engineering involved in building this thing may be well belong what we are currently capable of doing on a massive scale… but that is a hurdle that can be overcome. With a proof of concept build different talents can be bought to bear on those problems.
In all likelihood, a development such as this (an (effectively) unlimited power source) is our only hope for continuing our wanton destruction of the planet. Fingers crossed, eh?