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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fusion or Illusion

Some Like It Hot....

This week, Living on Earth looks at the promise of fusion energy.It's easy to see why physicists say fusion is the energy source of the future. The fuel for fusion is virtually unlimited.

The Levitating Diapole Experiment at MIT is designed to achieve fusion, or the energy of the stars, on Earth. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

It's a form of hydrogen that's available by the oceans-full, and when the nuclei are forced together, or fused, they produce enormous amounts of energy that's practically pollution-free.

It may sound too good to be true, but physicists say while the technical challenges are enormous, it is possible. Over the past sixty years, scientists have been developing larger and larger devices in their labs that will mimic the way fusion energy is produced in stars. And recently, the international science community announced the construction of the largest fusion device ever conceived and predict it will demonstrate that fusion really is the "energy source of the future." But critics say the twelve billion dollar experiment will never be economically viable and quip, fusion is indeed the energy source of the future and always will be.


Cold Fusion: A Heated History

March 23, 1989 is the beginning of what’s been called "the greatest controversy in basic science in the 20th century." That’s the day two scientists at the University of Utah told reporters at a news conference that they had created fusion in a test tube at room temperatures.

Professor Peter Hagelstein of MIT draws a diagram illustrating cold fusion theory. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

Skeptics immediately denounced the discovery saying it violated the fundamental laws of physics. A scientific panel convened by the Department of Energy concluded so-called "cold fusion" was not a nuclear reaction and did not produce excess energy. For most scientists, cold fusion was dead and buried.

But over the last sixteen years later a small group of scientists have continued to investigate the phenomenon, and say not only is cold fusion is alive, real, and reproducible, it will soon provide unlimited, and virtually pollution-free energy.


Pebble Bed Technology – Nuclear promise or peril?

Nuclear power held great promise when it came online in the 1960s and 70s. Utilities promised nuclear plants would produce electricity that was clean and cheap, and reduce dependence on foreign oil.

The kernel laboratory of the experimental pebble bed modular reactor. (Photo courtesy of Pelindaba Labs)

But technical problems, high costs, and a change of public opinion turned the tides against nuclear power and during the last two decades, the nuclear industry was a boondoggle.

But today, nuclear power may be experiencing a comeback. High oil and gas prices and the threat of global warming have forced many to give nuclear energy a second chance. Living on Earth travels to South Africa to take a look at pebble bed reactors--small-scale, affordable, high temperature plants. Scientists there say this technology will bring nuclear energy that’s safe to the developing world and other nations.


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