2009 : WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?

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Director, External Affairs, Science Museum Group; Co-author, Supercooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed
STAR POWER

Now this idea really will change everything, ending the energy crisis and curbing climate change at a stroke. I am confident in what I say because a lot of clever people have said it again and again—and again—for more than half a century. Since the heady, optimistic days when scientists first dreamt of taming the power of the Sun, fusion energy has remained tantalisingly out of reach.

It will take us between 20 and 50 years to build a fusion power plant. That is what glinty-eyed scientists announced at the height of the Cold War. Their modern equivalents are still saying it. And I am going to say it once again because it really could—and will—make a difference.

Fusion power could be a source of energy that would have a greater impact on humankind than landing the first man on the Moon. The reason is, as one former UK Government chief scientist liked to put it, that the lithium from one laptop battery and deuterium from a bath of water would generate enough energy to power a single citizen for 30 years. And, overall, fusion reactors would create fewer radioactive waste problems than their fission sisters.

The skeptics have always sneered that the proponents of fusion power are out of touch with reality. As the old joke goes, fusion is the power of the future—and it always will be. But this is one energy bet that must pay off, given the failure of the Kyoto Protocol.

There are good reasons to be hopeful. In Cadarache, France, construction is under way of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter means "the way" in Latin, though cynics carp that it can also mean "journey", and a bloody long one too). This project will mark a milestone in fusion development and there are other solid bets that are being placed, notably using high-power lasers to kick-start the fusion process.

Greens will complain that the money would be better spent on renewables but if this unfashionable gamble pays off the entire planet will be the winner. Imagine the patent squabbles when engineers finally figure out how to make fusion economic. Think of the seismic implications for energy research and alleviating poverty in the developing world. Consider the massive implications for holding back climate change. We are about to catch up with the receding horizon of fusion expectations.