Barry McNamara  |  Published June 27, 2023

Life in 2100, Part II

Physics professor Chris Fasano discusses the future of nuclear fusion; biology professor Ken Cramer addresses floating cars.

NUCLEAR FUSION: Its development would be a game-changer, but could it be simplified so that Homer... NUCLEAR FUSION: Its development would be a game-changer, but could it be simplified so that Homer Simpson could run it?MONMOUTH, Ill. – On Dec. 5, scientists at the National Ignition Facility announced they had reached “a breakthrough in nuclear fusion” by producing a reaction with an energy gain.

(Read Part I here)

At this year’s American Physical Society meeting, Monmouth physics professor Chris Fasano said there was “considerable discussion about the manner in which the nuclear fusion announcement was made. It bothered me, and at the meeting, I learned it bothered a lot of other people, too. To call it a ‘breakthrough’ is misleading. ‘Milestone’ would’ve been better. Fusion is still a long way away. Put it this way, I wouldn’t be investing in any fusion companies right now. The energy used was a factor of 10 times larger than what was created. So it was a milestone, but you’re not getting energy out of this. It’s still a factor of 10 away. So there was a false sense of advancement, not that it wasn’t a great thing. But it’s not what people think it meant.”

Fasano acknowledged it will likely be a productive innovation in the future, but that future is likely much farther away than optimists believe.

“If you need a lot of electricity that’s reliable, there’s really only one choice. People don’t want to hear it, but it’s nuclear. We have to keep working on it. The stakes are high.” – Chris Fasano

“When I was a kid in the ’70s, 50 years ago, fusion was 10 years away,” he said. “When I was studying at Notre Dame in the ’80s, fusion was 10 years away. When I was pursuing my Ph.D. in the ’90s at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland, fusion was 10 years away. When I came to Monmouth College in 1998 … well, you see where I’m going with this. It’s a stunningly hard problem. When physicists and engineers say it’s a hard problem, you should pay attention to that. Can it happen? Yes. Will it happen? Eventually, yes. But there are a lot of steps. A prototype reactor would need to produce more energy that it uses, but we can’t even see a prototype. And then we’d have to have a working, usable power-generating system. These are both big steps.”

CHRIS FASANO: Monmouth physics professor says nuclear fusion has been 10 years away for most of h... CHRIS FASANO: Monmouth physics professor says nuclear fusion has been 10 years away for most of his lifetime.And then comes another real-world problem that would accompany the not-yet invented technology. A tongue-in-cheek simplification of that problem, said Fasano, is ‘You’d have to make something that Homer Simpson can run.’ The fusion reactors have to be something that can be run by normal people.”

What Fasano would invest in is nuclear energy, in general.

“If you say everybody has to have an electric car, that would double the electricity that would have to be generated,” he said. “But making that order doesn’t take into account the distribution of that electricity. If everybody had just one electric car, my block here in Monmouth, Illinois, couldn’t handle it. I don’t really see how that works. I’m not against it. Sure, Teslas are really cool cars. But I’m not sure how that scales. Solar and wind are niche markets. If you need a lot of electricity that’s reliable, there’s really only one choice. People don’t want to hear it, but it’s nuclear. We have to keep working on it. The stakes are high.”

Speaking of electric cars

Eleven years ago, biology professor Ken Cramer referenced the Nissan Leaf, which could go 60-70 miles on a charge.

“Today, the mileage range has grown to about 360, and it’s working its way up to 500,” said Cramer, who drives an EV when he’s not riding his bicycle to the office. “And you’re seeing more and more charging stations everywhere. There’s one in the Quad Cities and one in Peoria. There’s one in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. It used to be Iowa City was the closest in that direction, and Bloomington-Normal was the closest one going east. … All the major car manufacturers have EVs, and some have pledged to go completely electric.”

Picturing a day in the life in 2100, Michio Kaku wrote, “Your magnetic car takes off silently, floating on a cushion of magnetism created by the superconducting pavement.”

Could that really happen?

“That sounds like what high-speed rail is like in China,” said Cramer. “That takes a lot of infrastructure, and we aren’t investing in that in the U.S. right now.”

“Things are always slower than you’d thought they be. That’s the usual track. Or the way they turn out is not the way you thought.” – Chris Fasano

But it could happen. As Fasano said in his remarks, “Things are always slower than you’d thought they be. That’s the usual track. Or the way they turn out is not the way you thought.”

Three hundred years ago, in the 1720s, there were developments that would eventually lead, roughly 100 years later, to the founding of America’s first passenger and freight railway. And then, of course, rail travel took off from there. Perhaps the concept of cars floating on cushions of magnetism, being driven by your regular, average person, is not that far-fetched, after all.

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