Nuclear Fusion: The Future of Energy… kinda

Madhav Malhotra
6 min readAug 16, 2019

As soon as I learned about electricity, I loved science.

It would be my favourite subject in school (although I was also one of *those* people who actually liked math). On Youtube, I would be watching TED talks instead of Minecraft.

And then one day, I heard about this invention that blew my mind 🤯… It was a TED talk by Michel Laberge, talking about his company’s newest Nuclear Fusion Reactor. Apparently, he wanted to build a mini-sun (right here on this planet) to make clean energy!

Of course, as a kid, it was pretty impressive to be the only one on the block who could pronounce ‘Nuclear Fusion Reactor’ 😎. So off I went, trying to learn more about them.

Little did I know, that fascination I found would stay with me for several years after (just like it had, for professional physicists *decades* earlier…)

Buckle your Seatbelts… RAD Dosage of Science Straight Ahead

(get it? RAD? Because nuclear RADiation… :-)

So yeah. Physicists are special kinds of people, with even special-er equations to describe their work.

“Consider the following:” (Bill Nye Reference — Level 9000)

All that has something to do with nuclear physics (which has something to do with producing sun-like energy), but I don’t really know what.

So instead, let’s describe it with magnets (because magnets are SUPER cool!)

Imagine, you have your two, average, horseshoe-shaped magnets. Y’know… magnets.

And with that sparkling curiosity, you tried to push them together. As we all know, those magnets don’t like being near each other very much.

Just like heartstruck teenagers, magnets have so much drama they could do an entire franchise of Mean Girls.

Well, if those magnets got realllllyyyyyy small… like unimaginably small…. like atomically unimaginably small, they would be like those atom things that physicists are so used to. And those atom things are what need to be pushed together for nuclear fusion.

See, nuclear fusion is all about pushing atoms together until they touch (or ‘fusing’ them, to be snazzy ;-). But just like melodramatic, Mean-Girl magnets, the atoms don’t want to go near each other. And that gives physicists a headache.

So to get over that, now imagine getting into a rage fit and throwing the two magnets at each other so hard that they do touch. That’s what physicists do with those tiny atoms (because all physicists are raging beasts at heart 🤬… and you can tell them I said that)

In real life, physicists build these giant-complex-futuristic-expensive-boom-smashers to throw the atoms at each other (and yes, that *is* the technical term 🤔). Some of them are shaped like crazy helices and are several times larger than your house, with names like ‘Wendelstein 7-X.’ Y’know… cause’ physicists vent out their rage very productively.

To put it concisely:
Boom Smashers + Rage Fit + Throwing Atoms Together = Nuclear Fusion

So that’s how nuclear fusion works… And that’s how it’s been working for the past 40 years… And that’s a problem.

Fusion’s like One of Those Never-Ending Shakesperean Plays

Remember that agony of reading page after page of non-sensical English in high school? Just waiting to somehow reach the end?

Yeah, that’s what physicists have been doing… *FOR 40 YEARS* (no wonder they’re so angry…).

Nuclear fusion is like that never-ending Shakesperean play. For generations spanning from the 60s to mine, science nerds have seen nuclear fusion as this technology of the future that’s going to change the world!

And yet, that future that has always been 10 years away has always been… well, 10 years away. Nuclear Fusion’s been a dream for so long, but we still haven’t reached Act V (and who knows whether it’ll be a tragedy or a comedy???)

See, even though I explained nuclear fusion simply, there’s a lot more to it (not that it’s obvious or anything… 😉).

As I mentioned earlier, nuclear fusion has something to do with the inside of the sun. In fact, the sun’s the most efficient nuclear-fuser we know of! It gives us more energy every day than we could ever use.

Every hour, the sun nuclear-fuses so hard, it could hulk-smash puny human production for a year.

With all it’s hotness and massiveness, the sun nuclear-fuses all day long! But we humans aren’t very good at recreating the sun… (go figure!)

That’s why even though it’s been possible to fuse those tiny atoms since *several* decades ago, it’s not practical. Namely, it’s always taken us more energy to fuse atoms than we get back.

More specifically, the sun has one superpower that we don’t: it’s immense gravity. Here on Earth, we have 28x less gravity to hulk-smash tiny atoms with.

As a result, we have to make do with REALLY hot temperatures… like 10x-the-sun hot… like 100 *million* °C hot 😰. (This hotness basically controls how fast we can throw atoms at each other.) And of course, it takes a lot of energy to get atoms this hot (too much, in fact).

That’s an issue when you’re trying to y’know, get god-like levels of clean sun-energy for human use.

And that’s why fusion’s always been over the horizon… (get it? Cause’ it’s from the sun! :-)

An Eensy, Teensy, Weensy Spark of Hope (and yes, I am Dr. Suess)

So after all this, you might be wondering why I still think nuclear fusion is so cool (or hot, depending on how you see it :-). If it’s an energy source that doesn’t produce energy, what’s the point?

As it turns out, we’ve been recently getting closer than ever to fusion. (And it’s not like those times before!)

This is basically the Moore’s Law of Fusion:

Amount of energy produced by fusion over time.

As you can see, the amount of energy produced by fusion followed exponential growth (in red) until 2000. Then… interest kinda faded.

But in the past 10 years, something special happened. Fusion went from the raging physicists’ crazy experiment to a commercial product.

Recently, we’ve seen companies like TAE Energy, Commonwealth Fusion, and of course GeneralFusion (Michel Laberge’s company from that TED talk) start a number of new approaches to finally making fusion a reality (no more doughnuts, let’s go pipes/spheres/whatever-you-call-Commonwealth’s-design-shape!)

And these new players in the fusion industry have been attracting some big money. Everyone from Jeff Bezos to Paul Allen to Bill. Freaking. Gates has been putting millions into this new technology (*especially* Bill Gates).

It seems like Fusion really is almost a reality, with big promises from the commercial sector to have viable nuclear reactors (sorry… boomsmashers 😁) by the early 2020s. (That may sound like a long time, but it’s *decades* ahead of all the raging physicist researchers).

All things considered:

  • Nuclear Fusion’s cool like magnets (or hot like magnets?)
  • The sun’s been hard to plagiarise for over 40 years and counting (bratty since 1963!)
  • Recently, rich uncle Gates and *richer* uncle Bezos have been helping companies accelerate their progress.
  • I seem to be hating on physicists, but they’re one of my favourite types of people (no really :-).

Before you go:

Hey, I’m currently sitting on a crowded train with a goal of writing at least better than the average monkey. If you liked this article, then please feel free to:

  • connect on Linkedin
  • check out some other work on my website (100% non-shady :-)
  • subscribe to my newsletter (because I’m really extra)

So I can reaffirm my existential, anthropoid, intellectual crisis ;-)