A Quest for the Energy Grail

Fusion Could Solve Our Energy Needs...But Will We Develop It?

by Robert Sanders

One of the great unfulfilled promises of the 20th century is controlled fusion and the dream of safe, cheap, unlimited power.

Touted by environmentalists and scientists alike as the ultimate clean alternative to coal, oil and nuclear fission, controlled fusion has been difficult to achieve. Scientific problems, combined with the ups and downs of federal funding made it seem at times as if we wouldn't even see practical fusion power in the 21st century.

Today, though, the goal is in sight-if only society has the will to push for its development, says theoretical physicist T. Kenneth Fowler, a professor in the graduate school and for 17 years director of fusion research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

"I'd have to say that fusion is now feasible," Fowler says. "That's not to say that there are no scientific issues, but the interesting science now is trying to make fusion behave, to make it more simple and a better mousetrap.
"The greatest obstacle today is perceived need, one of the most complex issues."

As evidence, he notes the successes scored in Europe and the United States in the early 1990s that produced fusion energy-though for a brief second, and totaling far less energy than that required to initiate the reaction. Following on these successes, two new experimental fusion devices are being built to reach the holy grail, the point at which controlled fusion produces more energy than it consumes.

In his new book "The Fusion Quest" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), Fowler details the scientific, technical and political roadblocks that have impeded progress toward a viable fusion reactor since work began a half century ago. His position at LLNL put him in the center of developments in the field, providing insight into personalities and politics.

Fowler's book gently guides the reader through the intricacies of plasma physics, the branch of physics that deals with gases so hot that every atom is ionized.

He delves also into economic and environmental aspects of fusion and concludes that while the cost would be about the same, safety and environmental costs would be much improved.

"With global warming, how we make energy may become the real problem in the future," he says.

The one imponderable is the will of the public.



Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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