Change takes energy. This is the basic problem at the root of civilization. It’s the reason we have become so dependent on fossil fuels and the reason we continue to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — despite knowing full well that it rapidly deteriorates our climate, with disastrous consequences.
But every crisis has its possible miracle cure. And the ultimate cure for our energy woes would be nuclear fusion, the same process that makes stars shine. Unlike nuclear fission — which splits big nuclei into smaller ones and is used in today’s nuclear power plants — fusion occurs when two small nuclei merge to become one larger one, releasing energy. Fusion doesn’t emit carbon dioxide. It can be fueled by hydrogen and other light elements; they are abundant on Earth and could last us billions of years.
The energy that fusion releases is phenomenal. Fusion doesn’t have the same possible dangers that make fission reactions so dreadful, and its radioactive waste is little and short-lived. It doesn’t lend itself to building nuclear weapons. What’s not to like? Ever since scientists have understood the natural laws behind nuclear fusion, they’ve tried to harness its power in a laboratory. In his new book the plasma physicist and science writer Arthur Turrell calls them “star builders,” the researchers and engineers who want to create a small star on Earth.