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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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You are not going to believe this!

14 March 2018

Good things take time, or at least that's what we're told.

I have a pile of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines from as far back as the 1940s and from around the late 1950s, these magazines started promising us a fantastic future where energy was all but free.

We would have nuclear-powered cars, planes, boats, houses... in fact the entire world would be powered by the forces of the humble atom.

Of course we all know that nuclear fission does provide quite a bit of the energy used in some countries such as the USA and Britain; and there are a handful of nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers out their on the oceans but the promise of ubiquitous nuclear energy seems to remain unfulfilled.

Ah... but then there's fusion, the clean, green form of nuclear energy that everyone loves. Fusion is the answer to all our prayers... except it doesn't work yet.

This tiny fact hasn't stopped science and the media from promising us a future powered by cheap, small fusion reactors for decades.

Indeed, ever since the 1960s, scientists have been predicting that nuclear fusion is "less than 10 years away".

Sadly, for over five decades, they've been dead-wrong.

Despite the investment of countless billions of dollars in research, not one single fusion reactor has proven itself capable of sustained over-unity power production.

They've tried magnetic containment reactors, inertial-containment reactors and all sorts of other stuff -- but to no avail. In fact, they still get giddy with excitement if they can maintain a plasma for more than one solitary second.

However, this doesn't stop the science community from continuing to promise us that, which to date, has proven impossible: a practical fusion reactor within a decade or so.

And now, here's the bit you won't believe, scientists at MIT in the USA have yet again made this bold pronouncement:

Carbon-free fusion power could be on the grid in 15 years.

Are you kidding me?

Do you really think we're that stupid?

Based on what I've read (and I've read as much as I can find) over the decades, we're not really any closer to sustained over-unity fusion power today than we were several decades ago.

The containment issue is a huge, and for the time being, insurmountable one.

We just have no way of manipulating a sufficiently powerful magnetic field at the rate and resolution needed to adequately control the tricky plasma stream that fission creates and there appears to be no technology on the horizon to address this issue. Without containment the fire goes out long before it can perform any useful work.

The inertial containment systems, which generally operate by using an extremely intense laser to "shock" a tiny glass bead filled with a hydrogen isotope into fusing work just fine in "one off" reactions -- but to turn this into a generation system will require a reliable way of triggering a continuous stream of these isotope beads in a way that can operate for days, weeks, months or years on end. Again, no technology presently exists to allow this.

To draw an analogy between fusion energy and thermal energy, we are presently just like the early man who discovered fire. We know its properties and we might even know how to make it by rubbing a couple of sticks together -- but we're a hell of a long way from building an oil-fired steam-turbine power station.

Call me a cynic, but this latest press release from MIT would appear to be related to the fact that they're now in bed with a private energy company (Eni) and will be looking for investor capital. It's easier to sell a dream than the sad reality of fusion research I guess.

What are your thoughts on this dear reader?

Eventually, the "fusion power within a decade or so" promise has to come true... so will we see our first practical fusion power generation hooked up to the grid by 2033?

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