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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Nuclear Fusion: reinventing the wheel?

13 April 2021

Fantastic news... the first commercially operating fusion reactor is due to be commissioned before the end of the decade.

According to this story, TAE Technologies is planning to have commercial-scale reactors operating by 2030.

Are we all excited by this news?

Will the investors who have so far thrown 880 million US dollars at this venture be rubbing their hands with glee and browsing the latest supercar catalogs in anticipation of their good fortune?

Well, if history is any indicator, I think not.

Fusion generators, the holy grail of nuclear power, have been "a decade away" for more than half a century and to date, those promises of boundless clean energy have remained unfulfilled.

With this latest announcement, one can't help but wonder whether investors are being "fed a line" in order to secure even more funding for a fusion project that is fine in concept but, if it's anything like all the other fusion reactors, has always turned out to be flawed in implementation.

The reality is that creating sustained over-unity fusion here on the surface of planet earth is hard; really really hard.

In fact, I'm having a bit of trouble seeing this story and the claims made by TAE as anything other than aspirational. Take this for example:

"The company isn’t generating energy yet, and won’t for the foreseeable future. The next goal for the company, according to Binderbauer, is to develop the technology to the point where it can create the conditions necessary for making energy from a fusion reaction."

Excuse me? What happened to the "commercialisation within 10 years" claims made earlier in the article?

And this quote from Addison Fisher (TAE board director) also rings alarm bells:

"TAE is providing the miracles the 21st century needs"

To be honest, we don't want/need miracles, we just need good solid engineering backed by irrefutable science. Those are the things to invest in and the things that deliver tangible results -- not miracles!

Will this pan out? Will we see a quick transition from fossil fuels and fission reactors to this new fusion technology over the next 20 years?

Well that's pretty unlikely. However, fusion-based energy is already responsible for almost 80% of New Zealand's electricity generation -- so why would we need this new fusion technology anyway?

Did you even realise that the vast majority of our energy needs are met by a single fusion reactor that has been running for over 4 billion years?

I am, of course, talking about the sun. The vast majority of energy we use here in New Zealand has its origins in the nuclear fusion furnace that is the sun. Whether you're talking hydro, wind, solar or even gas/oil, every joule of energy from those sources originally came from the sun itself.

It would seem that investing countless billions of dollars to reproduce the sun here on planet earth is a bit of a waste of time and effort. Surely we're far better advised to simply create better ways to harnes the fusion reactor that already powers the planet?

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