Return with me now, Bloggers, to those thrilling days of yesteryear: 1997!
The place: Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory!
(Or it could’ve been 1996…I’m kinda doing this all from memory…)
The event: the first creation of a controlled fusion reaction!
Yeah, it really happened, no joke. Fifty years and some unknown tens of billions of government dollars after Nagasaki, the dream of the world came true!
Unfortunately, it was just a little too late. One week later (and by the way I saw this on TV with my own eyes), the U.S. Congress cancelled all funding for the program, on the grounds that it wasn’t the kind of fusion they were looking for. We’d had that flurry of excitement over the cold fusion scam, you see; and cold fusion is really a lot more attractive than hot fusion, which is what this non-scam breakthrough was…they did it with lasers, of course…God bless lasers, what the hell would we do without them!…so that was the end of that.
Boo! Hiss! Cat-call!
...Anyway I always wondered what happened to all those researchers, at the top of their game, who had their funding yanked away because they succeeded too well…
My current best guess is that they’re living in France.
Because the European Union recently concluded an open-tender process to see which country would win the distinction of running its big new fusion research laboratory, and if I recall correctly, France won.
Now if you’re like me, you hear something like that, and just one thing springs to your mind: zeppelins. Because the byproduct of nuclear fusion is helium, and right now helium is freakin’ expensive…but if helium was cheap, you could do all kinds of things with it, couldn’t you? God only knows what kind of cool-ass zeppelins we could cook up using 21st century materials…faster than ships! Cheaper than planes! The implications for air freight alone simply boggle the mind. One foresees a chain of zeppelin routes playing ring-around-the-Pole, embarkation points at St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Reykjavik, Iqaluit, Inuvik, Nome, Yakutsk, and Ulan Bator (because, you see, New York to Paris would be a much longer trip over open ocean)…vast herds of reindeer and caribou roaming beneath your comfortable chair as the waiter brings more champagne…ahhhh, gentility. And, new trade routes. Money for the North.
On the other hand, maybe not. Up in the space shuttle (and, presumably, in those areas of the International Space Station not entirely given over to governmental myopia and foot-dragging), for the past few years scientists have been exploiting the virtues of microgravity to better study those magical molecular factories called Photosystem 1 and Photosystem 2…the twin engines of photosynthesis, one cracking carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbon, the other cracking water into oxygen and hydrogen. At this point, if we want fusion, it almost seems we’d better hope for slower breakthroughs…because if we could synthesize P2 (think I’ve got that right), then can one not also foresee a day when you can go down to the Home Depot and pick up a couple cans of fairly-expensive paint, and take it back to your place to slather all over your discarded swimming pool or old bathtub, from there to wring hydrogen out of rainwater? Fuel? Just plain falls outta the sky, man, and what’s this “grid” thing you keep talking about? Everybody makes their own power, haven’t you heard?
And on the other other hand…no, that isn’t the answer either, really. Because there’s still something like seven hundred million times the amount of energy used by the whole human race raining down each day on this planet from the sun, driving our entire ecosystem along. That’s a lot of power. From light. Since the Seventies it’s been fashionable to pooh-pooh solar power as pie-in-the-sky, but really, come on, come on, COME ON…how hard could it be? The ancient Egyptians built the pyramids with only the inclined plane and beer, for God’s sake, and the pyramids weren’t even good for anything but looking at! So, show me the man who says solar is silly, and I’ll show you a sheltered plutocrat with a fossilized brain, and no faith in human ingenuity. In the Seventies, the average person could maybe run a couple of 100-watt bulbs with a roof full of solar panels. By the late Nineties, people in England and California were selling a winter’s worth of washing-machine power back up to the grid over the summer months. You are here; we’re all here. It’s going to happen. In our lifetimes. Guaranteed.
Utopian enough for you yet? Well, it won’t be a real utopia until I get my hands on those sweet, sweet zeppelin tickets…but homebrew hydro will go a long way in that direction, I think. Because, look up at the header of my humble blog here for a second: that’s where I come from, and where I hope to be back at some day. But right now, it looks like it’s going to cost me a whale-sized load of money that I don’t have (though hopefully I can substitute some ingenuity for it), that really hardly anyone has. When I was born, a life outdoors was easy to find and cheap to trade for; now, you have to go a lot farther, work a lot harder, and pay a lot more, if you want to get your hands on it. It becomes a long shot.
But, put a power revolution of the type I describe above in a person’s hands, and those odds change. Power generation = quality of life, that’s the simple equation: what you put in on one end determines what you get out at the other, whether it’s firewood or fusion. Mind you, in The Fortunate Lands (as J.K. Galbraith called them), we don’t really see this, because we don’t have to: a smooth-flowing power supply is the backdrop of our lives, it’s the very air we breathe. We’re so surrounded by light-sources (for example) that we forget that after the sun goes down it usually takes one light-source to perform one activity: if one light is all you’ve got, you can find your bed; if you’ve got two you can also cook your food; if you’ve got a third you can reclaim some time, as by a flywheel, that you can spend on doing other things. Reading, perhaps. It’s not nothing. It’s everything.
Not that you were saying it wasn’t, I understand that. Pardon me, I’m ranting. It’s just that I can almost taste it, you see…
And I hope I do get to taste it.
But I may not.
Because, at least politically speaking, North America doesn’t seem interested in that sort of thing anymore. Yes: we’re “Old” North America, because for all our politicians’ talk, we’re not really interested in alternative fuels or new technologies. Europe is. And therefore Europe will, in all likelihood, lead the way.
So go East, young man! And grow up with the technology.