Cheap power for us (or our descendants)

Contributing WriterFebruary 22, 2014 

We may be drawing closer to correcting a cartoon I saw years ago in which one scientist said to another scientist, “I was going to invent an acid so powerful it would dissolve anything, but then somebody asked me what I would keep it in.”

Today, science has devised ways of containing a blob of fantastically hot plasma using lasers or powerful magnets. Scientists are working on how to play with nuclear fire. They do so with an eye toward a cheap, unlimited source of electrical energy that is virtually without nuclear waste.

So I sit here remembering that day in August 1945 when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. I was 8 years old. The newspaper said a device that killed thousands at a time involved a technology that was also capable of peaceful uses. My mother read the paper with me noting that the new science could also produce electricity without wood, coal or gas-fired generation, even without water power.

The story said we would soon be able to produce enough power for an entire city with the energy contained in one kernel of wheat. That has proved to be a clever exaggeration. However, nuclear power has worked for years now, though it does have the scary side effects of nuclear waste, not to mention the occasional malfunctioning reactors that threaten parts of the population.

That was a concern mentioned one day in my high school science class. The teacher told us scientists had begun work on finding a better, cleaner way of producing electricity. He said it was called “fusion” The original development of nuclear power involved “fission,” splitting atoms. Fusion involves cramming atoms together.

But there was a catch, the teacher said. The estimate was that it would take 50 years to invent such a thing.

It has been 64 years since he told us that.

And it may never be possible. On the other hand, late last year, scientists experienced a small breakthrough. Virtually nobody is saying for certain that fusion will eventually work, but several scientific somebodies are suddenly encouraged.

Previously, in 1989, it looked for a moment like a fusion breakthrough had occurred. A pair of scientists announced they had discovered cold fusion, a potential means of producing fusion without the usual incredibly high heat.

While that was being sorted out, a calamity occurred. My mother was struck down by a stroke that left her blind and nearly immobile. In the year before that happened, she had twice asked that, if such a thing occurred, my brother, sister and I would not keep her plugged into some kind of hopeless and horrible living death.

She seemed at times to be hearing us. So we talked to her, reporting that all her grandchildren were doing well. For good measure, to let her feel free to leave her suffering behind, I mentioned that a new scientific breakthrough had occurred and it looked like the poor would no longer suffer from high power bills.

She always worried about the poor. She knew cheap electricity would reduce the cost of life in general, lowering the price of pumping irrigation water to food crops and heating homes. I thought cold fusion would make her feel confident we could go on without her.

Maybe it did, even if not accurate. And maybe one day, fusion actually will lighten the burdens of the struggling peoples of the world.

Meanwhile, the recent encouraging new advance toward reliable fusion reminds me of that high school teacher from long ago whose hopes for humanity’s electrical needs still dangle before us, even as we pull the plug along the way on dreamers, teachers and moms.

Bill Hall can be contacted at wilberth@cableone.net or at 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501

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