- "I am a big proponent of harness the power of fusion - from 93 million miles away. Fusion is done by our sun really, really well and for free. Here on Earth in reactors, not so much."
- –Joe Romm
Historical Context Edit
In contrast to nuclear fission – where energy is generated by the division of a nucleus – nuclear fusion occurs when two or more atomic nuclei slam together hard enough to fuse, which also releases photons in quantity. Fusion reactions power the stars of the universe, giving off lots of light and heat.
During WW2, research to create a fission bomb subsumed research into nuclear fusion. But in 1946 AD a patent was awarded to two British researchers for a prototype fusion reactor based on the Z-pinch concept, whereby a magnetic field could be generated to contain plasma (akin to that in a star). Commencing the following year, two teams in Britain began a series of ever larger experiments to generate electricity via fusion; another Brit, James Tuck, working at Los Alamos in the United States, built a series of fusion reactors leading to the largest, known derisively as the “Perhapsatron.” As it turned out, the name was apt, for experiments revealed instabilities in all these designs such that fusion was never reached.
Instead, it was left to the weapons engineers to create the first man-made fusion reaction – Ivy Mike, the first thermonuclear bomb tested in 1952 at Enewetak atoll. Two years later Castle Bravo was exploded at Bikini Atoll, with a yield of 15 megatons. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was building and testing its own thermonuclear arsenal. But these were all uncontrolled fusion reactions.
In many small steps – and some dead ends – the state of fusion research slowly advanced through the 1950s to the 1990s. Finally, in 1991, scientists at the Joint European Torus in England achieved the first controlled release of fusion power. This was followed, as expected, by lots of scientific papers on ways to improve the process, making any such reactor smaller and more affordable and more controllable. Despite debate and contending claims, in 2014 Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works” lab announced development of a high-beta fusion reactor and plans to build a 100-megawatt prototype by 2017, ready for regular operation in 2022.