A Piece of the Sun

A Piece of the Sun: The Quest for Fusion Energy (2014) by Daniel Clery is a history of research into fusion power. Fusion power has long promised effectively infinite power. However research into using controlled fusion as a power source has failed to deliver a working generator. Fusion research has been going on since the 1940s so it’s taken at least seventy  years. In contrast fission power went from first trials to a power source in about thirteen years. This has led to many jokes about fusion along the lines of how fusion is the power of the future and always will be. The book looks at the various attempts, describes what went wrong and what led to the next steps and goes through the myriad of organisations that have been created to try and create working fusion power. It’s a surprisingly interesting story.
Fusion experiments started with scientists compressing plasmas to a huge density and thus attempting to cause fusion.  Initially this was done by running currents through a plasma in a magnetic field which causing the plasma to compress. The idea was that compressing the plasma sufficiently would cause fusion to happen. The problem was then how to contain the plasma. Containing the plasma so that it was sufficiently compressed and compressed for long enough then became the problem. Initially straight tubes with magnetic mirrors on each side were explored, then tori, then tokomaks. Experiments in the UK, US, Soviet Union, the EU and Japan then built bigger and bigger machines that continue to get closer to sufficiently high temperatures and pressures to cause fusion to happen. But each step has proved harder and harder and promises of progress have been broken again and again.

The book also looks at the idea of laser fusion, that is fusion causes by compressing a target with powerful lasers. Just as magnetic confinement has proved more difficult than thought on repeated occasions so has laser driven fusion.

There has been progress toward fusion, tokomaks and laser fusion have gone tantalisingly close to showing that machines that produce commercial power are possible but no machine has quite gone all the way. The book concludes by looking at the various current attempts, the Z-pinch, ITER and NIF and discussing the new developments in lasers and materials that could lead to fusion power.

The book jumps around between the various experimental groups and techniques in a way that sometimes leaves the reader a little lost as to which decade they are in but the narrative built by following each group helps overall.

The book provides an interesting overview of the technology that will hopefully one day yield a clean vast amount of power.

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