From Science Fiction to Reality: The Nuclear Fusion Breakthrough

No longer just a plot-line in a movie, fusion is getting ready to take center stage as our premiere energy source.

Giana Kusterer, Editorial Board

The multi-billion dollar National Ignition Facility has used 192 laser beams to create net energy from a tiny pellet of nuclear fuel. This breakthrough is garnering such attention because it implies promises that we could use fusion to run the world as an energy resource. (Photograph courtesy Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Nuclear Fusion: The process by which two light atomic nuclei combine to form a single heavier one, while releasing massive amounts of energy. Now this is the technical term. Sounds ‘sciency,’ right? Well it is, but what it really means to people in the world is a limitless supply of clean, sustainable, and safe energy.

This scientific process of nuclear fusion has wiggled its way into the Science Fiction realm of movies dating back to 1985, which many haven’t realized. Ever since Back To the Future and its debut with the Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor, the idea of embedding movies with the process of nuclear fusion has become prominent in many of the classic films known today in the entertainment industry. A fan favorite, you might remember, Spider-Man 2, starring Tobey Maguire, includes a scene where the antagonist of the story, Doctor Octavius, creates a fusion reactor with an artificial sun at the center. Later in the film, the machine gets out of control, and eventually transforms Doctor Octavius into the infamous villain Doc Ock. Another iconic character in relation to fusion is from the CW’s Arrowverse, Firestorm. Firestorm is the combination of two different people, Ronnie Raymond and Martin Stein, who have the ability to rearrange molecular structures of any material into different forms of itself and transmute those compositions. One of the more well known superheroes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tony Stark, even incorporates the scientific aspect of fusion into his inventions as well in his heart-sized arc reactor to generate power to his iron suit, and more so keep him alive throughout his films. Even if sci-fi movies don’t embed the idea of nuclear fusion visually, it has been at least mentioned or implied in parts of the many films. Star Wars and Star Trek are great examples in the industry that give subtle hints to the reaction of atomic nuclei by speaking briefly on fusion generators/reactors or even fusion reactor subsystems. As of now, over thousands of the most major Hollywood productions have used the idea of fusion, as well as many television shows and animated films. These films have, overtime, helped people become familiar and more comfortable with the idea of fusion, especially since the nuclear fusion breakthrough that occurred on December 5, 2022.

Right before last year ended, Science Fiction was turned into science reality. On December 13, it was announced to the public that the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California has successfully conducted the first controlled fusion experiment in history. Why is this so important? Well, this has been in the works for around 50 years. To think that movies, originally derived from comic books from the early 1900s, out of all inspirations were the ones to help piece together this scientific milestone has a surprising element to it. Ever since the 1930s, physicists like Hans Bethe were the first to discover the subject of nuclear fusion, and specifically that it was a natural resource from the sun. The crazier part is how nuclear physics wasn’t even his main interest at the time. Bethe originally studied atomic physics and collision theory, which predicts the rates of chemical reactions. His ability to explore different forms of science is incredible. Aside from his contribution to nuclear physics and atomic physics, the man of many talents has also studied and researched astrophysics, quantum electrodynamics, and solid-state physics. His major accomplishments even awarded him with a Nobel Prize in no other than Physics for his tremendous theory of stellar nucleosynthesis. Bethe’s amazing discovery led the way for researchers and for their work in looking for ways to start or even manage the reactions of nuclear fusion.

Eventually, in the near future, people all around the world will be able to enjoy the achievement of the limitless supply of energy, a clear need since the 1930s, and possibly before that, all thanks to Hans Bethe. The domino effect that this will commence in includes reducing climate change, then tackling fossil fuels, and even limiting the amount of greenhouse gases being produced. However, this isn’t even half of it. We will be able to start saving money, as the operating costs are low yet have an increase in proficiency. Due to this, humans can now take advantage of a process that powers stars to finally produce that type of energy on Earth, specifically clean energy. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California hasn’t stopped at their extraordinary breakthrough of replicating the fusion that powers the sun. Scientists have been left in a hassle for more answers to the many questions being formed both prior and after this evolutionary breakthrough.

Questions still being formulated revolve around the economic impact and if this could be in any way dangerous if an accident were to occur. If all goes well, it could be in the next year where we see our planet shifting with its problems, like pollution and radio-active waste being produced by nuclear power plants, and finally seeing change in the world’s environmental issues due to this scientific achievement.