Behind the headlines: Will the nuclear fusion breakthrough save the planet?
Curtis Berlinguette, clean-energy researcher and program co-director of the Bio-Inspired Solar Energy program at CIFAR, shares his insights on the nuclear fusion proof of principle and what it means for the future of clean energy research
The U.S. recently announced a major research breakthrough: scientists at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California had successfully replicated the energy that powers the sun and stars, on Earth.
Harnessing nuclear fusion could provide the planet with limitless clean energy, and would be a significant step in fighting climate change. But how long will it take for a proof of principle to turn into a world-changing technology?
CIFAR spoke with Curtis Berlinguette, program co-director of CIFAR’s Bio-Inspired Solar Energy program, to learn more about the science breakthrough and what it means for his research, and the future of the planet.
CIFAR: You were among the authors of a 2019 paper, “Revisiting the cold case of cold fusion.” Achieving cold fusion, a type of nuclear fusion, was still elusive and surrounded in skepticism. In the paper you contend there remains much interesting science to be done in this space.
Now that there is a proof of principle: What’s your take on the breakthrough and what it means for scientists in your field?
Curtis Berlinguette: The LLNL announcement was a result of decades of significant investment into basic science and engineering. The breakthrough they reported is definitely an exciting advance for the field. What makes me the most excited is that this will help attract even more people and resources into the field. We need more people looking for alternative pathways to bring fusion energy into reality.
CIFAR: Why is achieving nuclear fusion so difficult? And what would it take to scale it up?
Curtis Berlinguette: To achieve the ion energies needed to make fusion reactions occur at relevant rates requires high temperatures and complex engineering. It’s going to take a massive interdisciplinary effort to take the incremental progress into the next phase.
CIFAR: An obvious question when “nuclear” comes up — how safe is it?
Curtis Berlinguette: This is what makes nuclear fusion so important to powering our planet — fusion reactions create massive amounts of energy upon bringing together light atoms that form light, non-toxic molecules. That means there is no waste, as opposed to nuclear fission.
CIFAR: In your expert opinion, how far away are we from proof of principle to making an actual difference in fighting climate change?
Curtis Berlinguette: This announcement is an important experimental validation, and will help draw even more creative talent to scale this technology.
Nuclear fusion is the only technology that I can currently imagine that would provide a scalable and clean source of energy that could power our entire society. But we still have plenty of work.
CIFAR is a registered charitable organization supported by the governments of Canada, Alberta and Quebec, as well as foundations, individuals, corporations and Canadian and international partner organizations.