Finally, Fusion Power Is About to Become a Reality
Long considered a joke, or a pipe dream, fusion is suddenly making enormous leaps
The idea first lit up Dennis Whyte when he was in high school, in the remote reaches of Saskatchewan, Canada, in the 1980s. He wrote a term paper on how scientists were trying to harness fusion (the physical effect that fuels the stars) in wondrously efficient power plants on Earth. This is the ultimate clean-energy dream. It would provide massive amounts of clean electricity, with no greenhouse gases or air pollution. It would do it on a constant basis, unlike solar and wind. Whatever waste it created would be easily manageable, unlike today’s nuclear power plants. And fuel would be limitless. One of the main ingredients needed for fusion is abundant in water. Just one little gram of hydrogen fuel for a fusion reactor would provide as much power as 10 tons of coal.
Whyte got an A on that paper, but his physics teacher also wrote: “It’s too complicated.” That comment, Whyte says with a hearty laugh, “was sort of a harbinger of things to come.”
Indeed, over the next few decades, as Whyte mastered the finicky physics that fusion power would require and became a professor at MIT, the concept seemingly got no closer to becoming reality. It’s not that the science was shaky: It’s that reliably bottling up miniature stars inside complex machines on Earth demands otherworldly amounts of patience, not to mention billions and billions of dollars. Researchers like Whyte knew all too well the sardonic joke about their work: fusion is the energy source of the future, and it always will be.
That line took on an especially bitter edge one day in 2012, when the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would eliminate funding for MIT’s experimental fusion reactor. Whyte was angry about the suddenness of the news. “It was absolutely absurd — you can put that in your article — fucking absurd that happened with a program that was acknowledged to be excellent.” But above all, he was dismayed. Global warming was bearing down year after year, yet this idea that could save civilization was losing what little momentum it had.