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The Best Thing Ever? Well... Maybe The Best Thing Since Jesus

Nuclear Fusion

Do you like the photo above of Scam Bankman-Greed in jail? Just forget that for a moment. Also forget that DeSantis is beating Trump— by a lot— for the 2024 GOP nomination. Forget that the House Republicans are in total disarray in their quest to elect a speaker. Forget that the government is unfunded and that most congressional Republicans want it to collapse and go bankrupt. Forget, for a moment, Russia’s vicious war against Ukraine and the famine in Somalia. Forget it all… for the three minutes it will take you to read this post, the implications of which are, literally, earth shattering.

Yesterday the NY Times reported that scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory had the breakthrough they were looking for: “reproducing the power of the sun in a laboratory.” Once it’s deployed, it will be “an energy source devoid of the pollution and greenhouse gases caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the dangerous long-lived radioactive waste created by current nuclear power plants, which use the splitting of uranium to produce energy.” This morning, also reporting for The Times, likened the achievement to a chapter from science fiction.

Writing for Nature, Jeff Tollefson and Elizabeth Gibney summed up what just happened like this: “Researchers at the US National Ignition Facility created a reaction that made more energy than they put in.” On December 5, the scientists created “a nuclear reaction that generates more energy than it consumes.” presented it as an (uncharacteristically) cheerful message. “Gloom,” they wrote this morning, “comes from the things we deem as unsustainable, or the stuff we ignore at our peril. Hope often comes out of the blue. We are not rose-tinted-glasses types, but we have to acknowledge that the breakthrough in nuclear fusion is a very big deal. If we ever get on top of climate change, it will not be due to CO2 targets, COP conferences, or Extinction Rebellion. It will be due to technologies that have yet to be invented.

The most promising of them all is nuclear fusion. Yesterday the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California reported the biggest breakthrough in nuclear fusion research yet. They managed to get more energy out than the laser they used to kick-start the reaction put in. This tells us that the science is working. The rest is engineering. The path ahead is still long. But there is a path.
It is unsurprising that the most optimistic news of our times is not from politics or economics, but science. The western world is scraping the barrel with policies designed to improve the lives of people. In most western countries, politics is reduced to an exercise of redistribution of income. The biggest social changes we have experienced in the last century are from scientific and technical innovation. The biggest was, arguably, that of the transistor in 1947, followed by the integrated circuit in 1960.
Nuclear fusion is possibly of even a bigger scale. It constitutes a cheap supply of unlimited energy. Its development would constitute the single biggest step forward in our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission. There is no space for the likes of Vladimir Putin in a world powered by nuclear fusion. It may take a long time until this technology is ready for deployment, but the scientific breakthrough will have many immediate effects.
We think of it in terms of one important function of finance: to intermediate between the future and the present. The realistic prospect of nuclear fusion will focus our currently confused approach to climate change on the stuff that is needed, like scientific research and development. It will give rise to new areas of research in neighbouring disciplines. For example, this technology requires a lot precision engineering, the part where Europe may come in. And it is telling us that it is perfectly fine to use technologies that offer temporary solutions, like nuclear power. We need to get through the transition period. But we don’t need to solve the problem with existing, inferior technologies.

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