It didn’t take us long to master the destructive force of fusion, but taming it for more constructive applications, such as electricity production, has been harder than anyone imagined back in the day when a popular slogan was “online by ’79.” Right, maybe in 2079 with any luck. We know of two scientifically feasible ways to get more energy out of fusion than it’s necessary to put in to ignite the fuel materials; magnetic fusion, as in ITER, or inertial confinement fusion (ICF) as at the National Ignition Facility (NIF). The problem with both approaches is not the science, but the engineering challenge of building reactors capable of generating electricity anywhere near as cheaply as the alternatives. At the moment, the chances that we will be able to do so any time in the foreseeable future seem remote.
If anyone around today lives to see the dawn of the era of fusion energy, it will probably be because some exceptionally clever researcher has hoodwinked Mother Nature and discovered how to finesse his way past the Coulomb barrier that usually keeps atomic nuclei too far apart to come within the range of the fusion-enabling strong force. Several promising candidates are already in the field, and one of them, Tri-Alpha Energy, has apparently managed to attract $50 million in private research funding. The company hasn’t revealed the nature of its approach, but it is apparently inspired by the work of Prof. Norman Rostoker of UC Irvine. One can get a broad hint from this paper co-authored by Rostoker and Tri-Alpha entitled, “Colliding Beam Fusion Reactors.” Rostoker is an emeritus professor who has been publishing papers since the 50’s, some co-authored with fusion superstars such as Nicholas Krall and Marshall Rosenbluth. Octogenarian physicists don’t often pull off such miracles, but you never know.
If he or someone else ever does manage to pull the fusion rabbit out of the hat, it would potentially put an end to our worries about energy for a very long time. It could also enable pure fusion weapons. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that it doesn’t.