Fusion will power this millennium, or maybe not

March 07, 2002|BY TIM ROWLAND

It's been a big week for science, what with discussions of interstellar space travel and our once-a-decade fusion tease.

Fusion, as you may remember if you were paying attention in 1989, is the energy-producing process of joining a couple of simple atoms like hydrogen.

It's never been successfully done this side of the sun, but it's a big deal because this is ostensibly the process that would allow us to heat our homes and drive our cars on a tank of ordinary tap water.

Of course, if it does get that far, I would hope Exxon Mobil and Dick Cheney will be there with their checkbooks to buy up the technology and put it on the shelf, because there's something about the smell of gasoline I really like.


Scientists, according to The Washington Post, may (or may not) have created fusion "in a device the size of two coffee cups stacked one atop the other."

And this is the engine of the future? I don't know how well this is going to go over. We tough, manly men like to hoist the hoods of our trucks and gaze with satisfaction at a 7.3-liter V8 Powerstroke TurboDiesel engine generating 275 horsepower at 2,800 rpm and 520 ft.-lbs. of torque at 1,600 rpm.

It's hard to see some guy in a lined, flannel shirt lifting a mammoth slab of sheetmetal and staring down into the engine bay at a couple of teacups sitting there. "Yessir, Gus, it gets 12 miles to the lump."

Advertising will sound a little weird: "Chevy Trucks: Like a Demitasse."

What I don't get - well, there's a lot I don't get, but tops on the list is how scientists can not know whether they have achieved fusion or not. It's being debated as we speak by "scientists divided into two camps" over whether this is actually the scientific breakthrough of the millennium, or just some overhyped Sanka.

Now if you or I do something, we generally know whether we have done it or not. For example, if I cut down a tree, I do not have to sit and look at it for a few days to determine whether I have actually cut it down or not. I do not have to assemble a gathering of my friends and neighbors to stand in a big circle, rub their hands over their chins and argue over whether the tree is actually still standing or not.

But this is different - and sometimes scientists feel very strongly both ways - that the tree has been cut down and at the same time it hasn't. A physicist at the University of Washington said he was "very excited" about the experiment's success, but went on to say "the researchers might be deluded by Mother Nature, whose principal object in life is to make fools of scientists."

Mother Nature doesn't have to try too powerful hard, it would seem.

Fusion is sort of an atomic cousin of fission, which we all know from those "How to Build a Thermonuclear Device" Web sites you see on the Internet. But because it joins tiny atoms instead of breaking down heavy atoms, it is "potentially safer," the Post reports.

Potentially? That sounds sort of iffy. The good news is that the car gets 957,542 miles on a pint of mineral water. The bad news is if you get into a fender-bender, you could wipe out Detroit.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. You may phone him at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or e-mail him at

The Herald-Mail Articles