By Bill Maher
Few people noticed, but Lockheed Martin recently announced a breakthrough that could save the world. Within 10 years, they claim, they will make a fusion reactor that fits on the back of a truck.
First, the good news: They don’t appear to be kidding about this. Stinging from recent defense cuts, Lockheed – like a lot of defense contractors – has seriously increased its investments in the energy field. These companies spending real cash on wind, solar, and tidal power is encouraging. They might not be beating all their swords into ploughshares, but they’re beating at least a few of them into stock shares.
Fusion is sort of the holy grail of the energy industry. If harnessed, it could produce an unbelievable amount of energy (pound for pound, three to four times more than nuclear fission) while producing zero radiation. That’s the beauty of it – because we’re combining atoms rather than splitting them, it’s a completely clean process.
But it’s also a hot process, and that’s the problem. In order to fuse, the materials need to be superheated to a tidy 200 million degrees or so. In order to maintain that temperature you have to work hard to contain that ultra-hot plasma. That’s doable, believe it or not. Lockheed claims to be developing a system where magnets push back at the plasma wherever it’s surging. Again, this is plausible in theory, but the idea that it could be done in such a small, even portable device has a lot of scientists feeling skeptical.
Whether Lockheed will save our entire planet’s future by 2025 remains to be seen. But fusion is not science fiction – it’s possible, and Lockheed’s team is far from the only group working on it. At the very least it’s a welcome reminder that our energy problems are not necessarily permanent. There are no physical laws that dictate that energy has to be scarce, expensive or dirty. It’s just that we’re still relatively primitive, in that most of our energy is produced employing the not-so-advanced scientific concept known as “burning shit.” It’s likely that real, clean energy is the next arthroscopic surgery – something that takes over the field so smoothly and so quickly that we have a hard time believing just how messy and painful it used to be.