In A Piece of the Sun, journalist Daniel Clery reveals the remarkable untold story behind sixty years of scientific research into nuclear fusion. Although scientists have been working towards a fusion solution now for over six decades, and have made large advances in the field, there is still work to be done. A Piece of the Sun gives readers a fascinating account of the history behind fusion, and Daniel Clery joins us today on the Winged Elephant to discuss the research and inspiration behind his new book.
OP: What inspired you to write a book on the topic of nuclear fusion?
DC: I was writing a lot of articles about fusion for the magazine I work for, Science, and I kept hearing all these great stories about the history of fusion, all the ups and downs and twists of fate. I noticed that there were no popular science books about fusion so I just wanted to tell this great story in a way that anyone could understand.
OP: How far into the future do you think we’ll have to wait before nuclear fusion becomes safe enough for widespread use as a primary energy source?
DC: Safety isn't what's holding fusion back, it's the fact that it's really hard to get a fusion reaction started. Just like you need to heat up a piece of wood or coal with a match to get it burning, the same is true for fusion. But with fusion the fuel is a gas and you have to heat it to more than 100 million degrees celsius. At that temperature, the gas will melt anything it touches. So to get fusion to work you have to find a way to heat the gas to this huge temperature, keep it away from the walls of its container so it won't melt it, and hold it there long enough for the reactions to get going. Scientists are getting there, but it'll be another couple of decades at least before we have a prototype fusion power station.
OP: What would fusion as a source of energy mean for the average consumer?
DC: Probably not a lot. Once we get fusion power stations working properly, they can just slot into the existing electricity grid like any large coal-fired or nuclear power station. But, assuming that we also perfect the electric car, the thing consumers might notice is the demise of the oil and coal industries. Fusion fuel is plentiful and easy to get, so people will no longer need to dig for coal or drill for oil. There will be no more oil spills, fuel shortages, hikes in the price of crude, or wars fought to get access to oil fields. Fusion also creates no greenhouse gases and no long-lived nuclear waste.
OP: What recent progress has been made to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor? Do you think it will be finished by the expected deadline in 2020?
DC: ITER is in full-scale construction now. Buildings are going up at the site in Cadarache, France, and components are starting to arrive there from factories around the globe. It is, however, an immensely complicated machine to build and much of it is cutting-edge technology. I'm told by ITER's managers that some components are slipping behind timetable so there is a possibility that the scheduled completion in November 2020 could slip by a year or two.
OP: The book is filled with fascinating stories from the frontlines of energy research. Which of these was the biggest breakthrough for fusion?