Nuclear Fusion and our Future

The content below is from Episode 141 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast


  • This week I recommend you watch new Holiday movies.
    • My wife Shannon LOVES to rewatch old holiday classics like White Christmas (her favorite), Elf, Christmas Vacation, and a bunch of other holiday movies she and everyone else have all seen a hundred times over.
      • And I understand. I have my own Holiday tradition where I watch the South Park Christmas Sing-a-Long special every year.
    • But they are making NEW Holiday movies all the time that I think you should try.
    • I have 3 good ones for you:
  • Klaus
    • Klaus is an animated movie on Netflix. The Animation style gorgeous and took A LOT of time and effort to pull off. Better yet, the story is something completely new and original about the origins of Santa and the Christmas tradition as a whole.
    • This is my favorite new Christmas movie.
    • Plot: After proving himself to be the worst student at the academy, a postman is sent to a frozen town in the North where he discovers a reclusive toymaker named Klaus.
  • A Christmas Story Christmas
    • Sequels are rarely ever worth the effort and especially so when the original is regarded as an American classic. But this movie surprised me.
    • The first 5 minutes had me thinking I was going to hate this movie, but I was quickly convinced it was worth giving it a shot. By the end I was very happy I watched it. It has just the right amount of corniness and charm.
    • I love the original movie, but my one friend who hates the first movie (A Christmas Story) said he enjoyed this sequel much more.
    • Plot: Ralphie returns to give his kids a magical Christmas like the one he had as a child. Long-awaited follow-up to holiday classic A Christmas Story starring Peter Billingsley.
  • Spirited
    • After watching A Christmas Story Christmas I called my dad to tell him how much I enjoyed it and how he should watch it as well instead of just re-watching old classics. He got all excited and told me to watch Spirited with Will Farrel and Ryan Reynolds.
    • It is on Apple TV and really made me smile the entire way through.
    • Plot: A musical version of Charles Dickens’ story of a miserly misanthrope who’s taken on a magical journey.
  • I realize there aren’t any other holiday movies on this list besides Christmas movies and well, that’s because the people I’m surrounded by are mostly Christian and that’s what they like the most.
    • But if you are looking for a good Jewish movie I suggest 8 Crazy Nights by Adam Sandler. It isn’t super new (came out in 2002), but it is hilarious.
    • Plot: Davey Stone (Adam Sandler), a 33-year old party animal, finds himself in trouble with the law after his wild ways go too far. In keeping with the holiday spirit, the judge gives Davey one last chance at redemption — spend the holiday performing community service as the assistant referee for the youth basketball league or go to jail. Davey thinks he’s gotten off easy until he meets Whitey Duvall, the eccentric, elf-like head referee.


  • Last week scientists made a breakthrough…
    • Within the last month or so, the US National Ignition Facility in California conducted a nuclear fusion experiment where they pumped a bunch of energy into 192 giant lasers, shot those lasers at a tiny pellet of fuel, and the result was more energy coming out of the pellet than there was energy going into the pellet. This is a landmark achievement that is called ignition or energy gain.
      • That pellet of fuel reached 3m degrees Celcius (hotter than the surface of the sun).
      • The Guardian, Ian Sample breaks down the experiment thusly:
        • “”To achieve the reactions, researchers fire up to 192 giant lasers into a centimetre-long gold cylinder called a hohlraum. The intense energy heats the container to more than 3m degrees celcius – hotter than the surface of the sun – and bathes a peppercorn-sized fuel pellet inside in X-rays.
        • The X-rays strip the surface off the pellet and trigger a rocket-like implosion, driving temperatures and pressures to extremes only seen inside stars, giant planets and nuclear detonations. The implosion reaches speeds of 400km per second and causes the deuterium and tritium to fuse.
        • Each fusing pair of hydrogen nuclei produces a lighter helium nucleus, and a burst of energy according to Einstein’s equation E=mc2. Deuterium is easily extracted from seawater, while tritium can be made from lithium which is found in the Earth’s crust.
        • In the latest experiment, researchers pumped in 2.05 megajoules of laser energy and got about 3.15MJ out – a roughly 50% gain and a sign that fusion reactions in the pellet were driving further fusion reactions. “The energy production took less time than it takes light to travel one inch,” said Dr Marvin Adams, at the NNSA.””
  • What is Nuclear Fusion?
    • From the International Atomic Energy Agency:
      • Nuclear fusion is the process by which two light atomic nuclei combine to form a single heavier one while releasing massive amounts of energy.
      • Fusion reactions take place in a state of matter called plasma — a hot, charged gas made of positive ions and free-moving electrons with unique properties distinct from solids, liquids or gases.
      • The sun, along with all other stars, is powered by this reaction. To fuse in our sun, nuclei need to collide with each other at extremely high temperatures, around ten million degrees Celsius. The high temperature provides them with enough energy to overcome their mutual electrical repulsion. Once the nuclei come within a very close range of each other, the attractive nuclear force between them will outweigh the electrical repulsion and allow them to fuse. For this to happen, the nuclei must be confined within a small space to increase the chances of collision. In the sun, the extreme pressure produced by its immense gravity creates the conditions for fusion.
  • Fusion VS Fission
    • From’s Office of Nuclear Energy:
      • Fission
      • Fission occurs when a neutron slams into a larger atom, forcing it to excite and split into two smaller atoms—also known as fission products. Additional neutrons are also released that can initiate a chain reaction.
      • When each atom splits, a tremendous amount of energy is released.
      • Uranium and plutonium are most commonly used for fission reactions in nuclear power reactors because they are easy to initiate and control.
      • The energy released by fission in these reactors heats water into steam. The steam is used to spin a turbine to produce carbon-free electricity.
      • Fusion
      • Fusion occurs when two atoms slam together to form a heavier atom, like when two hydrogen atoms fuse to form one helium atom.
      • This is the same process that powers the sun and creates huge amounts of energy—several times greater than fission. It also doesn’t produce highly radioactive fission products.
      • Fusion reactions are being studied by scientists, but are difficult to sustain for long periods of time because of the tremendous amount of pressure and temperature needed to join the nuclei together.
  • Why it’s a big deal:
    • International Atomic Energy Agency:
      • Why are the scientists studying fusion energy?
      • Ever since the theory of nuclear fusion was understood in the 1930s, scientists — and increasingly also engineers — have been on a quest to recreate and harness it. That is because if nuclear fusion can be replicated on earth at an industrial scale, it could provide virtually limitless clean, safe, and affordable energy to meet the world’s demand.
      • Fusion could generate four times more energy per kilogram of fuel than fission (used in nuclear power plants) and nearly four million times more energy than burning oil or coal.
      • Most of the fusion reactor concepts under development will use a mixture of deuterium and tritium — hydrogen atoms that contain extra neutrons. In theory, with just a few grams of these reactants, it is possible to produce a terajoule of energy, which is approximately the energy one person in a developed country needs over sixty years.
      • Fusion fuel is plentiful and easily accessible: deuterium can be extracted inexpensively from seawater, and tritium can potentially be produced from the reaction of fusion generated neutrons with naturally abundant lithium. These fuel supplies would last for millions of years. Future fusion reactors are also intrinsically safe and are not expected to produce high activity or long-lived nuclear waste. Furthermore, as the fusion process is difficult to start and maintain, there is no risk of a runaway reaction and meltdown; fusion can only occur under strict operational conditions, outside of which (in the case of an accident or system failure, for example), the plasma will naturally terminate, lose its energy very quickly and extinguish before any sustained damage is done to the reactor.
      • Importantly, nuclear fusion — just like fission — does not emit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, so it could be a long-term source of low-carbon electricity from the second half of this century onwards.
  • Since press releases claimed this as a huge breakthrough in clean energy, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding the experiment and the potential it promises. BUT this tech is VERY far away from being made into a viable power plant that creates clean energy for a large population (AKA we still have lots of work to do). There is a rush to get this thing ready to be used on massive scales to solve the climate crisis, but there is doubt it would work out that way.
    • I am skeptical that oil company lobbyists would allow that to happen as it would severely uncut their profits.
    • Plus, the calculation that said they got roughly a 50% gain in energy is a tad bit misleading. It was 2.05 MJ that reached the pellet and 3.15 MJ that came out. The pellet of fuel did release more energy than the lasers put in, but they left out the part about 300 megajoules needed to power up the lasers in the first place.
    • Those lasers can be shot about once a day right now. For a power plant to be productive they would need to be fired 10 times a second…
    • The thing the lasers were targetting (fuel pellet and all the tubes and stuff that was holding it) cost tens of thousands of dollars for this Breakthrough experiment, but for a viable power plant, they would need to cost just cents on the dollar.
    • And then there is the engineering problem of “ok so the pellet gave off more energy, but it gave off that energy in the form of heat… how the heck do we take that heat and make it electricity for people to use???”
    • It will take a buttload of money, decades of research, lots of smart people from all different aspects of STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math), and the absence of greed on a societal scale to make this thing work.
    • Justin Wark, a professor of physics at the University of Oxford and the director of the Oxford Centre for High Energy Density Science said that asking how long it could take to overcome the challenges was like asking the Wright brothers how long it would take to build a plane to cross the Atlantic just after their maiden flight. “I understand that everyone wants to think of this as being the great solution to the energy crisis. It is not, and whoever says it is with any certainty is misleading.
      • “It is highly unlikely that fusion will impact on a timescale sufficiently short to impact our current climate change crisis, so there must be no let up on our efforts in that regard.
      • “The latest results also show that the basic science works – the laws of physics do not prevent us from achieving the goal – the problems are technical and economic.”
    • Nonetheless, this experiment did prove we humans can harness the power of the stars right down here on Earth.
      • And all those problems, all those hurdles I just mentioned are solvable… and they are hiring bright young minds to help them solve them right now.
Watch is video (under 2 minutes long) where Marv Adams brilliantly explains what National Nuclear Security Administration accomplished and finishes with “and we’re hiring!”