Today, a trip to Mars will take about seven months and 300 million miles (480 million kilometers), according to NASA.
How about cutting that trip down to 7 weeks or even 7 days? It’s now literally possible, though not with immediate effect.
We first have to master fusion, which scientists were finally successful in demonstrating this December, in a lab nonetheless, using a process called inertial confinement fusion that involves bombarding a tiny pellet of hydrogen plasma with the world’s biggest laser.
Fusion, at last
Scientists in California studying fusion energy at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recently declared they had reached the major milestone of reproducing the sun’s power in what is the first fusion reaction in a laboratory environment.
The key was to produce more energy than it took to start the reaction. Physicists and scientists have since the 1950s sought to harness the fusion reaction that powers the sun but has failed to duplicate the nuclear reaction that allows our sun (and all stars) to shine when it continuously combines hydrogen atoms into helium, producing sunlight.
If that can be done, on an industrial scale, the technology could provide an unlimited source of clean, green energy, free of radioactive waste.
Up till now, similar trials in the past used up more energy than fusion reactions generated.
However, it may take decades before fusion is made commercially accessible on a large and practical scale to help, as a first goal, limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.
Fusion among clean energy investments
According to US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, private sector investment and fusion research reached $3 billion in 2021 alone and said that it falls within US President Joe Biden’s aims to achieve commercial fusion within a decade.
The US Energy Department made a $50 million investment last September for a PPP to begin work toward fusion-pilot plant designs.
Through the Inflation Reduction Act, the US administration is investing nearly $370 billion into new subsidies for low-carbon energy looking to slash emissions using next-generation clean tech.
The fusion reaction produced about 2.5 megajoules of energy, which was about 120 percent of the 2.1 megajoules of energy in the lasers.
“If this is confirmed, we are witnessing a moment of history,” said Dr. Arthur Turrell, a plasma physicist whose book The Star Builders charts the effort to achieve fusion power.
The $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility where the test was conducted came the closest in the world to net energy gain last year when it produced 1.37 megajoules from a fusion reaction, which was about 70 percent of the energy in the lasers on that occasion.
US congressman Don Beyer, chair of the fusion energy caucus, described fusion technology as having “the potential to lift more citizens of the world out of poverty than anything since the invention of fire.”
In the 12 months to the end of June, fusion companies raised $2.83 billion in investment with the promise to deliver fusion power in the 2030s, according to the Fusion Industry Association, bringing total private sector investment to date to almost $4.9 billion.
UK rocket company Pulsar Fusion has been awarded funding from the UK Space Agency to help it develop “integrated nuclear fission-based power systems for electric propulsion”.
Pulsar Fusion’s main mission goal is to build hyper-speed rocket technology.
Pulsar Fusion said, “while nuclear fusion may be the answer to the energy crisis it is also the answer to in-orbit satellite management, in addition to deep space exploration. [Pulsar] believes the only way the human race can ever leave the solar system in a lifetime is with fusion propulsion.”
Advances in that technology can now help the company achieve its ultimate goal.