Michio Kaku
Professor of Theoretical Physics, CUNY

Fusion Really Is 20 Years Away

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Scientists always say that fusion is 20 years away, but this time the physicist says it’s for real.

Michio Kaku

Michio Kaku is a futurist, popularizer of science, and theoretical physicist, as well as a bestselling author and the host of two radio programs. He is the co-founder of string field theory (a branch of string theory), and continues Einstein’s search to unite the four fundamental forces of nature into one unified theory. He holds the Henry Semat Chair and Professorship in theoretical physics and a joint appointment at City College of New York and the Graduate Center of C.U.N.Y. He is also a visiting professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and is a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

Kaku launched his Big Think blog, "Dr. Kaku's Universe," in March 2010.


Question: What is the future of how we produce our energy supply? (Submitted by Kaloian Pavlov)

Michio Kaku:  Kaloian, let’s take a look at a timeframe for the future.  Right now there is going to be an energy mix, a battle between different kinds of energy sources that will go on for 10 to 15 years.  Right now, we’re going to have an energy mix because no one white knight can save modern society from the needs of oil and coal.  Let’s face it.  Pound for pound, oil and coal contain more energy in a convenient form than almost any other energy source.  Now I love solar, but I’m a physicist and I know that solar is not quite ready for primetime yet.  However, the cost of solar goes down every year.  Solar is being mass produced.  Solar is being given tax credits and jumpstarts by governments, so we see the cost of solar going down.  I suspect that in about 10 years or so—no one knows precisely when—the rising cost of fossil fuels will intersect with the falling costs of renewable technology, and when these two curves cross that will be a sea change.  At that point it will be economical... economical to go solar.  However, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. 

Now beyond that timeframe when we’re talking now about 2030, 2040 then fusion becomes an option at that point. Fusion is the power of the sun, the possibility of using ordinary seawater to create unlimited amounts of energy due to thermonuclear reactions on the Planet Earth.  Now some people are cynical about that.  They say "Hey, give me a break.  We’ve been there.  We’ve heard the claims.  Every 20 years they say that fusion is 20 years from now.  20 years come, and we’re still no closer to fusion."  There is a difference.  This time we physicists think that we have the technical problems licked.  In California we have the largest laser fusion facility at Livermore National Laboratories, and in France in the year 2019 we expect to get the ITER fusion reactor operational. So it’s projected that by 2030, 2040, by mid-century fusion becomes a viable option. And none too soon, because with the greenhouse effect we begin to realize that the beginning of the century could be quite dangerous.  We’re going to be putting large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  However, by 10, 15 years solar becomes just as competitive as fossil fuels in the marketplace and beyond that fusion kicks in. And fusion is clean.

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