Steve Cowley at TEDGlobal 2009: Running notes on Session 9


Running notes from Session 9 at TEDGlobal 2009

When will we get fusion energy? We’ve known about fusion for a long time, but harnessing it as an energy source has been elusive. Steve Cowley is concerned about the rate at which we’re using up resources on Earth. And the realm of energy today is dominated by finite resources. “I’m the only one who enjoys it when Mr. Putin turns off the gas, because my budget goes up.”

But in the future, we won’t make energy from resources. We’ll make it from knowledge. In the future, the base load energy drivers will be fission, solar energy … and fusion. Solar is difficult, but being worked on. Many new nuclear reactors are being built right now in the UK and in China.

But fusion is clean, safe … and virtually inexhaustable. But there’s a catch: It’s extremely hard to do. We’ve been trying to do it for 50 years. (Note: Cowley researches “hot” fusion, not its discredited room-temperature counterpart.)

How nuclear energy works: Small elements want to join together to make bigger elements. In stars, for example, hydrogen joins to create helium, and then helium atoms fuse, and so on. But it has to happen under high heat and pressure. We are looking for an easier way to create fusion energy by colliding lithium and tritium in the right configuration. Lithium, which is in sea water, would last for 30 million years as fusion fuel — unlike the other energy sources which may run out shortly. The price of fusion would be the same price as current energy creation sources.

To create fusion energy, you must hold gas at 150 million degrees. People say “fusion is always 30 years away.” But it’s already been done. The JET fusion experiment got 16 megawatts of power in 1997, and the same device will break records when it’s fired up in the next years. But that’s not in the form of usable electricity yet. His estimate says that we’ll have real electric power from fusion in 2030.

His final statement: We need to push that date forward as quickly as possible.

Photo: Steve Cowley at TEDGlobal 2009, Session 9: “Revealing energy,” July 23, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson