When Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory created a positive energy fusion reaction, it turned the dream of limitless, clean energy from a theoretical problem to a practical challenge. Also, a West Virginia town is being revived by iron batteries.
Fusion power moves closer. No, really! We mean it
At the end of the 1985 hit movie Back to the Future, mad scientist Doc Brown returns from the future year of 2015 with a DeLorean time machine powered by a Mr. Fusion household reactor. He fuels the unit with a banana peel plucked from a trash can before flying off to his next adventure.
In 2023, we still don’t have time machines, flying cars or Mr. Fusion, but solar panels with a 25-year warranty may be the last source of power you need before a fusion reactor. (It will not be the size of a car, however.)
For decades, physicists have joked that commercial-scale fusion power is fifty years away, and it always will be. But
the announcement last month that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had created a net positive fusion reaction has finally made that timeline shorter.
The importance of the announcement cannot be overstated: For the first time in history, more energy was produced from a controlled fusion reaction than was required to start it. Once that technology is commercialized, it will transform the way we use energy worldwide. (1)
What is fusion?
Nuclear energy is produced when the fundamental structure of atoms is changed. There are two different methods: fission, which is splitting one atom into smaller atoms, and fusion, which combines two atoms to make one bigger atom or two different atoms.
In both cases, some of the mass in the original atoms is converted into pure energy. And this is where “e=mc2”, that famous equation from Einstein, comes in. In that equation, e stands for energy, m stands for mass, and c stands for the speed of light, which is a very big number. In this equation, we multiply that number by itself, which makes it huge. So a tiny bit of mass turns into a huge amount of energy.
We’ve been producing energy with fission for decades. Fission requires very big atoms, like uranium. The process gives off a lot of energy, but the resulting material is dangerously radioactive for thousands and thousands of years. After decades of producing this nuclear waste, the United States still has no plan to safely store it for the long term. And once a reaction is started, it can’t be stopped until all the fuel is spent. That can be dangerous if something disrupts the cooling cycle. When you hear about nuclear disasters like Chernobyl (2) or Fukushima, that’s what happened.
Fusion, on the other hand, uses special forms of hydrogen, called isotopes, that can be found in common seawater. In special conditions, the hydrogen atoms combine to make a helium atom and energy. There are other byproducts, but they don’t have any environmental impact. Fusion is very clean. In addition, fusion can only happen in very extreme conditions–the reaction happens at temperatures hotter than the heart of the sun. If you lower the temperature, the reaction stops.
But there’s always a “but”
So now the bad news—there’s a long way before this breakthrough proof of concept leads to fusion energy powering your home. The proof that the reaction can be created, contained and will produce more energy than it consumes is huge. But everything about the technology is inefficient, from isolating the isotopes to powering the laser that drives the reaction. For fusion to become the answer to humanity’s ever-growing energy needs, nearly every piece of the fusion generation process will need to be reengineered. Most experts expect the process to last decades.
If there’s one reason for optimism, it’s that the excitement of fusion energy is bound to draw big investments. The Biden administration has announced that it wants viable fusion in ten years.(4) Many in the field find that overly optimistic, but fusion’s reputation for being perpetually out of reach took a big hit with this announcement. Can it happen in twenty-five years? Great Scott! Anything is possible!
From iron smelting to iron batteries
Weirton, West Virginia is a steel town. Its first iron forge was opened around the time of the Revolutionary War, and the steel works at its heart employed as many as 10,000 at its peak in the early 20th century. That mill is largely closed now, operating as a finishing mill and employing less than ten percent of that number. (5)
But iron is making a very high-tech comeback in Weirton. On December 21, Form Energy announced that it is placing Form Factory One, its first commercial battery production facility, in the river town. Unlike the many plants announced recently, this one will make batteries based on iron, not lithium. (6)
Mateo Jaramillo left Tesla to found Form with a goal to find a solution for long-duration energy storage. He sought to base the technology on less costly, more plentiful materials than lithium and eventually settled on iron. The company’s successful prototypes have driven plentiful funding, and this factory is expected to employ 750 and roll its first batteries out in 2024. (7)
For more than a century, West Virginia has identified itself as coal country. Form’s technology might be positioning the company to lead in a whole new energy industry.
The Weekly Sunsong
Many that care about the environment have been hailing the election of new Brazilian president Luiz Inacia Lula da Silva, who made preserving the Amazon a centerpiece of his campaign. We’re here to celebrate him taking office on January 1, and since we’re talking about fusion, how about a gorgeous tune titled Fusion by Brazilian Bosa Nova royalty, Rosa Passos?
(1) DOE National Laboratory Makes History by Achieving Fusion Ignition
(2) Chernobyl Accident 1986, World Nuclear Association
(3) Fukushima Daiichi Accident FAQ, World Nuclear Association
(4) Understanding the Breakthrough in Nuclear Fusion Energy and the Challenges Ahead, Bloomberg, December 12, 2022
(5) What happened to Weirton?, West Virginia Public Radio, 2019
(6) Form Energy to build novel iron batteries in West Virginia steel town, Canary Media, December 22, 2022
(7) Form Energy to build long-duration battery plant in West Virginia, Reuters, December 22, 2022