If you were anywhere near being an adult in 1989, you probably remember the media sensation surrounding “cold fusion.”
That was the year two respected scientists, Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann, reported an experiment to fuse deuterium (heavy hydrogen) ions had produced excess heat and nuclear reaction byproducts at room temperature.
All the excitement, of course, was about the possibility of a virtually limitless supply of cheap and environmentally-friendly energy.
The promise of fusion, in which two lighter atoms combine into a heavier one releasing vast amounts of energy, is compelling. It is what drives the power of the sun.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. If hydrogen atoms could be fused at room temperature as the experiment seemed to indicate, it would basically amount to abundant energy for all from virtually nothing.
Of course, it turned out to be too good to be true.
Nobody to date has been able to replicate the result and it has been tried again as recently as 2019 in secret experiments conducted by, oddly enough, Google.
Research into “hot fusion” has been ongoing, though.
Traditionally, fusion experiments require vastly more energy input than what is produced.
But just last week, some promising news came out of the UK’s Jet Laboratory. Experiments there produced 59 megajoules of energy over five seconds (11 megawatts of power) more than doubling what the lab achieved in similar tests back in 1997.
That is still a long way from breaking even on input energy versus output, but the scientists who produced the result, are confident that scaling up can be achieved with a goal of producing 10 times the amount of energy consumed in the process.
The latest Jet results are also proving ground for a new reactor being built in France, that could achieve the break-even goal.
From there, though, to commercialization is a long road. Even with accelerating advances in technology, fusion as a real source of viable energy for consumers, is likely many decades away.
In other words, it will not help us in the short-term to deal with the challenges associated with climate change.
Still, it is exciting that human ingenuity has brought us this one step closer to harnessing the power of the stars.