July 11, 2011
Fusion Energy? We Have it Now in Abundance
George M. Woodwell
An interesting essay in today’s NYT speculates on the possibility of abundant energy from fusion in about twenty years. The author, Stewart C. Prager, a physicist at Princeton, is optimistic that we shall be able to boil water, make steam, and run generators to make electricity using the extreme heat of nuclear fusion continuously without the problems of pollution we now contend with.
The topic is fascinating. A fusion reaction with temperatures approaching those of the sun, suspended in space on earth and used to boil water to feed a steam engine!
It does seem to me to be an awkward way to boil water when I can use the sun directly now without going through all that fuss. In fact I do it regularly these days without even wanting to. My hot water solar panels keep a reservoir of about 2500 gallons of hot water available for domestic hot water and for heating the house when heat is needed. These days in summer the panels produce more hot water than I need and I limit the temperature in the tank to a maximum of 160 degrees F. That means that I arrange for the system to shut down when the tank is hot enough and no water is circulated through the panels which heat up in the sun to far above the boiling point of water. If, by mistake or because the hot water in the tank is used and the temperature drops and water is circulated through the hot panels, I make steam, which in modest quantities is not a problem in this system. But the capacity for making steam is real year around. I do not take advantage of it beyond heating my house with the hot water at 100-160 degrees. If I wanted steam I would set up different panels designed to take the higher pressures and temperatures, but it would be simple enough to boil water that way and make electricity using the fusion heat of the sun directly.
But then, I do know about solar panels which produce electricity using, not the heat of the sun, but a broad spectrum of the radiation from solar fusion to make electricity directly. And then there are wind turbines, also driven by solar energy and making enough electricity that our power company is reluctant to allow more to enter the grid. Why should we want to rebuild the sun on earth to boil water?
I assume that we want more energy at our finger tips, available all the time to drive our industrial economy. But our industrial economy is already too big: it is used to expand the human influence, capture more natural resources to build more industrial resources. The effect is a systematic impoverishment of the human habitat, the destruction of those essential resources required for life, air , water, land, climatic stability, and the global biotic resources essential for all life. Do we need that energy? Not in my view of the world. Not at all. In fact, it would, if abundantly available assure the human demise along with much of the rest of life on the planet.
Far better to stick to our real potential at the moment: shifting our reliance immediately from the fossil fuels that are poisoning the earth to direct reliance on the fusion energy already available to us in abundance and celebrating and protecting all the life of the earth in a concerted effort to preserve the human potential so clearly at hazard at the moment.