“But we already have a fusion reactor, it’s called the Sun”

Posted by Rezwan Razani on Mar 14, 2013 at 08:45 AM
What do you think about this? Let us know in the comments below!

When exploring the idea of fusion, many people invoke the sun, not as inspiration, but as a reason to dismiss the earthly fusion program.


Variants of this phenomenon include Joe Romm who says:

I am a big proponent of harnessing the power of fusion - from 93 million miles away.

Sensible.  And yet… let’s visualize.

Basking in Sunlight

Imagine two people, standing on a hill. 

One is a solar energy proponent, the other a fusion proponent. 

Both bask in the sunlight, but they dream of different things.

The solar energy proponent is content to bask in the ample, but diffuse, light of the sun, soaking up second hand fusion.

The fusion proponent is not content and wants to figure out a way to do what the sun does.  Only better.  To scale.

The solar proponent counters that this is unnecessary, wasteful and impossible.

Arguments ensue about the diffuse quality of renewables vs. the likelihood of fusion to ever get working.  Things get trollish.

Meanwhile, a coal proponent starts jamming dynamite into the hill to scalp it for coal, which he claims will be clean.

Over yonder, a natural gas proponent commences fracking.

I suspect that when all the facts and figures are added up, the conclusion our protagonists come to will be: that we need to pursue a broad and diversified strategy towards energy security; that we are not in a position yet to close off our options.  We need to go forward, full tilt.  The planet, peace and prosperity are at stake.

But this moment in the sun isn’t a simple cost benefit about the pursuit energy.

It gets deeper

Underneath the very sensible and logical energy argument, Fusion proponents are driven by something deeper: by the call of the sun, the theft of fire from the gods, the theft of star power from the universe. 

This is a primal, mythic drive that comes from a profound place of wonder and a need to know how the universe works and what we, as human beings, are capable of within it.

Can we do what stars do?

If we can’t, what does that make us?

If we can, what will that make us?

And what are we, if we don’t even try?

It gets more efficient

Some folks don’t have much confidence in mankind’s ability to solve the fusion challenge.  They also imply that earthly fusion is hopelessly inefficient.  As Romm says in the NYT article, “Fusion is done by our sun really, really well and for free.  Here on Earth in reactors…not so much.”

In fact, the sun isn’t doing it that well.  It’s actually glaringly inefficient.

True, human-made fusion reactors don’t, at present, compare favorably with the sun.  However, once we crack fusion, even our most inefficient, bulky designs will be more efficient than the sun.  Technically, they will be billions of times more efficient.

This is because the sun, that huge fusion reactor in the sky, uses all that mass and power just to TWINKLE.


This “Basking in Sunlight” essay first appeared within the “Mankind is on the Verge of Fusion” post, which gets into some of the other points made by Romm in the New York Times.  Enjoy!

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