On December 5, 2022 at 1,03:XNUMX a.m. scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California they operated the first fusion process that under experimental conditions produced more energy than it consumed. To do this, 192 giant lasers bombarded a frozen and diamond-encapsulated sample of deuterium and tritium -the heavy forms or isotopes of hydrogen- with 2,5 megajoules of energy (the equivalent of half a kilo of TNT), which in less than 100 trillionths of of a second, a fusion took place that produced helium atoms and a neutron flux of 3 megajoules: 0,5 more than the amount of energy applied (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/13/science/nuclear-fusion-energy-breakthrough.html).
The experiment reproduced the process by which the sun and stars fuse hydrogen atoms, generating energy and helium atoms. For the first time, under laboratory conditions, it provided more energy than it consumed, with no residue other than harmless helium. It is a step on the road to alternative energy sources that do not generate undesirable side effects. More than one naive person will see in it the magic wand that will suddenly supply 78,4% of the world's energy consumption free of charge, which up to now has been provided by fossil energy. After him, the commission collectors will arrive, preaching that we must stop giving away the oil because it is no longer worth anything. Let's see.
First, the fusion works from deuterium and tritium, both isotopes of hydrogen. Tritium is generated by the action of cosmic rays on atmospheric gases, but it has also been manufactured since 1934 in the laboratory by the action of lithium protons. It is radioactive and unstable: its duration is 4.500 days. In other words, we don't get tritium out of thin air; Its manufacture implies a complex and expensive process with the application of lithium, a scarce mineral that in turn requires laborious mining and which, like oil, is not renewable. Perhaps its indispensable nature for the manufacture of tritium explains the 2021 coup against Bolivia, a country with one of the largest lithium reserves in the world. The dominance of tritium and lithium, like that of oil, engenders a geopolitics that in turn arouses complex strategic, political and military machinations.
Let's evaluate how nuclear fusion is induced that generates more energy than it consumes. Since the first third of the last century, the search for and production of "heavy water" with deuterium hydrogen has become essential for atomic research and nuclear fission. This "heavy water" causes the death of the organisms in which it is housed. As for the fusion of it with tritium, only in 1997 began the construction of the National Ignition Facility in whose laboratories it finally took effect. By 2009, $3.5 billion had already been spent without producing a successful merger. Only in 2014 was it possible to provoke it, but with insignificant energy generation. Only in December 2022 it was possible to invest 2,5 megajoules of energy to create 3 megajoules. The terms of this equivalence are misleading. Producing that extra 0,5 megajoule - equivalent to the energy of less than a pound of dynamite - actually required stadium-sized laboratories, plus 192 giant lasers, plus hydrogen-freezing equipment at absolute zero, more diamond capsules, plus the expense in buildings, equipment and personnel of the National Ignition for 25 years, plus the aforementioned 3,5 billion dollars in experiments. It may be the most expensive 0,5 megajoule in the history of science. Successive advances will reduce the costs of the process, but we are still a long way from a miraculous energy source that can compete favorably with fossil fuel.
Future improvements will undoubtedly also reduce the period of a quarter of a century to obtain the energy equivalent to a pound of dynamite. But it won't happen overnight. Kimberly S. Budil, the director of the Lawrence Livermore, speculates during the subsequent press conference that this will take “Probably decades (…). Not six decades, I don't think so. Nor five decades, which is what was said before. I think we are ahead of the game, and probably with concerted effort and investment, a few decades of research into the underlying technologies could put us in a position to build a power plant.”
Not five decades before the construction of the first floor, but not less. Half a century is the period foreseen by the most authoritative sources before the progressive depletion of fossil fuel makes its exploitation uneconomical. By then, alternative sources of energy must be articulated to replace it. Let us ask ourselves where the power will come from for the mining, refining and transport of lithium, the manufacture of deuterium and tritium and the immense plants and equipment required to harness them. You got it right: fossil fuel.
Additional questions remain in the air, including how to store energy that, according to the news, is produced in the explosive form of "neutron flux." Dynamite or the atomic bomb are splendid sources of energy, until now usable only for their destructive function. Intermittent sunlight, wind power, and even hydropower require complex electrical transmission and storage systems by the time the source weakens. While 3l fossil fuel is itself a reservoir of stored energy. It can be stored almost indefinitely until it needs to be released. This peculiarity will perhaps make its use essential until the moment of its exhaustion, scheduled for some five decades from now.
Does fusion mean the parallel uselessness of hydrocarbons? James Buckminister Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome, said that burning them as fuel is equivalent to incinerating bills for heating, since their true use is in the chemical industry of fertilizers, plastics, insecticides, medicines and countless other uses. Perhaps the development of alternative energy sources will free up fossil fuels for their legitimate, lasting and rational use.