, February 07, 2023

Fusion breakthrough down to convergence

  •   4 min reads
Fusion breakthrough down to convergence

As scientists in Oxford take us one step close to fusion, and Chinese scientists develop an artificial sun, an important reason why the breakthroughs are occurring is all but forgotten: convergence.

Roughly 1.8 billion years ago the first complex life form sprung into existence, and it was thanks to convergence. Somehow, we don't know how, it might have been a fluke, one single cell organism got inside another, and the result was the first eukaryotes, cells that have a nucleus enclosed within a nuclear envelope. This event is known as singular endosymbiosis. And it changed the world, you, me, your pet dog, ants in your back garden, flowers down the park, trees and every living organism which is not a single cell, owes its existence to this first great convergence.

And convergence is the underestimated force that underpins progress — that is why the printing press was such an important creation in the story of innovation; it made it easier to bring together different ideas.

Now scientists from the UK Atomic Energy Authority's Joint European Torus (JET) facility in Oxford reckon they have cracked the most elusive challenge in technology— creating energy via a process that combines two or more atomic nuclei, or nuclear fusion.  As these nuclei converge, the result is a massive amount of energy. Of course, nuclear fusion is not new; there is already an extremely well-known and important nuclear fusion reactor called the sun.

But up to now, creating a nuclear fusion reactor that has the potential for practical applications here on Earth has proven tough.

Nuclear fusion, goes the cliché, is always 20 years away.

Except for this time, maybe it really is 20 years away, 20-years away from being fully scaled, that is.

The scientists at Oxford are not unique in developing breakthroughs in the field of fusion. Recently, scientists from China's Heifei city in Anhui Province developed a so-called artificial sun. The artificial sun — which by the way, isn't really a sun at all — is called the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST). And EAST created a nuclear reaction at 70 million degrees Celsius (158 million degrees Fahrenheit) for more than 17 minutes.

The Oxford breakthrough entailed the creation of 59 megajoules of sustained fusion.

The development comes courtesy of ITER, a fusion research mega-project supported by seven members – China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the USA.

Dr Bernard Bigot, Director-General of ITER — a larger version of JET, said: "A sustained pulse of deuterium-tritium fusion at this power level – nearly industrial-scale – delivers a resounding confirmation to all of those involved in the global fusion quest."

But why, why now? Why are we hearing so much about fusion of late?


This is where convergence enters the story.

Last year, Clay Dumas — a former Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor at the White House under Obama and now a Partner at Lowercarbon Capital, Tweeted "I don't blame anyone for being sceptical, (about fusion) but a few things worth calling out: 1) wide variety in approaches from teams with diverse technical backgrounds, 2) cheap compute + new computational methods have led to major advances in plasma modelling, 3) materials science advances."

That is what we mean by convergence. When different technologies, often advancing exponentially, and when people with quite different academic backgrounds and indeed cultural backgrounds, come together.

In the case of fusion, it seems convergence takes the form of:

  • Different teams working on different approaches
  • Advances in computer power and computational methods
  • Advances in super materials.

We could add to that list the Internet for facilitating communication between experts worldwide.

When different technologies— such as computers advancing exponentially, super materials, etcetera — come together, the resulting convergence can often be spectacular.

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Last September, Clay Dumas also Tweeted, "The most underrated climate tech is fusion. I keep hearing ", it's decades off, won't be as cheap as solar, we just don't need it." It's closer than you think. And when it arrives, limitless, CO2-free, around-the-clock power will be a step function improvement for civilization."

And back to Oxford, Ian Chapman, CEO of the Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), said: "We're building the knowledge and developing the new technology required to deliver a low carbon, sustainable source of baseload energy that helps protect the planet for future generations. Our world needs fusion energy."

Nuclear fusion is an example of a technology that could create abundance, made possible by convergence in other technologies.

It illustrates why those who say the pace of innovation is slowing are wrong — but the reality is nuanced, of course, advances in one area create opportunities in other areas, as the initial advances past the tipping point.

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