Nuclear fusion is the ideal energy – it is carbon free, it is virtually limitless, and it creates no nuclear waste.
Too bad it doesn't exist yet.
Still, that isn't stopping people from trying. Earlier this year, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories showed off a laser system that can potentially squish atoms together with such high intensity that it could set off a fusion reaction. The lab hopes to demonstrate it in 2010 or 2011.
Although national labs likely have a greater chance of demonstrating this, startups are trying too. Tri-Alpha Energy in Southern California has raised VC funds. Canada's General Fusion has as well. General uses a technique called Magnetized Target Fusion (MTF) model. In this scenario, an electric current is generated in a conductive cavity containing lithium and a plasma. The electric current produces a magnetic field and the cavity is collapsed, which results in a massive temperature spike.
The lithium breaks down into helium and tritium. Tritium, an unstable form of hydrogen, is separated and then mixed with deuterium, another form of hydrogen. The two fuse and make helium, a reaction that releases energy that can be harvested. So in short, lithium, a fairly inexpensive and plentiful metal, gets converted to helium in a reaction that generates lots of power and leaves only a harmless gas as a byproduct. MTF has an advantage over other fusion techniques in that the plasma only has to stay at thermonuclear temperatures (150 million degrees Celsius) for a microsecond for a reaction to occur, according to the General Fusion's website and an article I wrote on them in 2008.
They also have a really cool picture of a dinosaur on the website.
Today, Technology Review has a little more on the technology. But one thing that is buried in the article is the whiff of a delay. Back in early 2008, investors said that the company would provide data to show that fusion could be reasonably feasible in three to four years, or two to three years from now.
The company, though, has had a little more trouble than anticipated in raising the funds and now expects to get a prototype plant going within five years, assuming the funds could be had.
So fusion technology appears to be another victim of the credit crunch.