News came Wednesday that German researchers—joined by German President Angela Merkel (herself a scientist)—have turned on an experiment at the Max Planck Institute along the path to nuclear fusion energy.
Fusion research has been ongoing for decades, and the scientists at Planck make it clear that this experiment won’t itself generate energy. They anticipate it will take decades before fusion research reaches that stage—if it ever does.
But this development repeats a lesson we should all keep in mind as we talk about energy for the future: Nobody can predict with any confidence what will be our main energy sources a century from now. While the costs, logistics, and construction times necessary to change energy infrastructure put boundaries on how fast an overhaul is likely, giving us some reason for confidence about predictions of overall energy mix stretching perhaps six or eight decades ahead, anything beyond that is increasingly speculative.
Who, in 1900, could have predicted that France—not handicapped by irrational environmentalist-inspired fears of nuclear fission energy–would be getting about 80% of its energy from nuclear fission by the 1970s? Who, in 1800, could have predicted that much of the industrialized world would be getting most of its energy from coal, natural gas, and oil by 1900?
A little humility is in order.
By the way, the temperature of the plasma developed in the fusion process (the same one that heats the Sun)? 100 million degrees Celsius.
Again, a little humility.
And as if to drive home my point that we can’t predict the energy technologies of the future, news came out just two days later that researchers at the University of Southern California (my alma mater) have figured out a low-temperature way to convert carbon dioxide into methanol, “a clean-burning fuel for internal combustion engines, a fuel for fuel cells and a raw material used to produce many petrochemical products.” The process is still too expensive to compete with gasoline, but it shows some promise.
“Of course it won’t compete with oil today, at around $30 per barrel,” lead researcher G.K. Surya Prakash said. “But right now we burn fossilized sunshine. We will run out of oil and gas, but the sun will be there for another five billion years. So we need to be better at taking advantage of it as a resource.”
Featured image from NASA, which provided this explanation: “What’s happened to our Sun? Nothing very unusual — it just threw a filament. Toward the middle of 2012, a long standing solar filament suddenly erupted into space producing an energetic Coronal Mass Ejection (CME). The filament had been held up for days by the Sun’s ever changing magnetic field and the timing of the eruption was unexpected. Watched closely by the Sun-orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory, the resulting explosion shot electrons and ions into the Solar System, some of which arrived at Earth three days later and impacted Earth’s magnetosphere, causing visible aurorae. Loops of plasma surrounding an active region can be seen above the erupting filament in the ultraviolet image. Over the past week the number of sunspots visible on the Sun unexpectedly dropped to zero, causing speculation that the Sun has now passed a very unusual solar maximum, the time in the Sun’s 11-year cycle when it is most active.”