It existed for just five seconds — but it was enough to power a home for an entire day.
It was a result of nuclear fusion, taking place last February in Culham, England, a village of barely 500 people not far from the University of Oxford. A machine there called a tokamak created heat measuring upward of 270 million degrees Fahrenheit — 10 times hotter than the core of the sun — and used a series of high-powered magnets to contain it.
It produced 59 megajoules of energy, but like many experiments before it, it used more energy than it ultimately yielded.
All of that changed on Dec. 6, when U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm revealed that scientists working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California had accomplished what no others had done before: created a fusion reaction that resulted in a net energy gain.
All of this might not seem substantial, but the breakthrough is extraordinary. Especially in a world where new, clean-energy sources are crucial for breaking our dependence on fossil fuels, which is rapidly destroying our environment.
Fusion would be just that: clean energy. When we hear about anything nuclear, we think either weapons, or dangerous — and highly wasteful — ways of generating power. Today’s nuclear power plants depend on a process that harnesses energy from splitting the atom, a highly radioactive process that just isn’t sustainable long-term.
But fusion is different. Instead of splitting atoms, scientists smash them together. Unlike fission, we wouldn’t need uranium. Instead, fusion depends on isotopes of hydrogen like deuterium and tritium — both naturally available in seawater.
Of the two, tritium is radioactive. But the amount of fuel needed to create fusion is so small that very little waste is generated. Even better, fusion doesn’t produce carbon dioxide — the primary contributor to our planet’s so-called greenhouse effect — meaning that instituting technology like this could be the very means needed to reduce global warming.
Yet as much as all of this is being hailed as a breakthrough, don’t start planning for your fusion-powered car or home anytime soon. We are still years, if not decades, away from putting fusion to practical use. The Culham experiment lasted only five seconds, because that’s how long the magnets could withstand the heat. The Livermore experiments had better results, but it’s still only the beginning. Creating something that can become a regular part of our lives still requires far more research and development.
And the Earth might not have that long. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have to move out society to a “net-zero” carbon emission system in a little more than 25 years. To even have a shot at reversing the climate change damage, we need to cut our current greenhouse emissions in half before this decade ends.
Fusion might not be here yet, but alternative energy sources are — like wind and solar. Our focus on electric vehicles is also a significant step, but not if we have to use coal or other fossil fuels to generate the electricity to power them in the first place.
New York enacted the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in 2019, requiring 70 percent of electricity consumed in the state to come from renewable sources by 2030, with the hope of being completely carbon-neutral by 2040.
It’s one of the most aggressive laws in the country, and one that PSEG Long Island — through the Long Island Power Authority — has been working around the clock to achieve. A number of projects are also well underway, including wind farms planned for 15 miles or so off the coast of Long Island.
Projects like that are certainly not without controversy. Fishermen fear that the wind farms will disrupt their livelihood and affect natural habitats. Closer to home, some Island Park residents have challenged plans of the Norwegian energy company Equinor to build a substation for wind energy in their neighborhood, rather than up the road a bit at the E.F. Barrett Power Station.
Achieving our renewable-energy goals will take a lot of work, as well as give and take, from both sides. And no matter what, we can’t lose focus on the end goal: To leave a beautiful planet for our children and grandchildren. The same beautiful planet we enjoy now.
But it will only stay beautiful if we make changes now. Otherwise, by the time we can turn five seconds of fusion power into something sustainable, there might not be a planet left to benefit from it.