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Yesterday’s Future Today

A column detailing both the surprising prescience and laughable misses of science fiction throughout history.

“Watts” Coming

By Nate Posey

According to the International Energy Statistics database, the world consumed a whopping 505 quadrillionBtu’s of energy in 2008, and global demand is still climbing swiftly. While policy experts have proposed numerous solutions to the impending generational crisis involving increased drilling for oil and natural gas, the steady expansion of wind and solar, and the development of smarter grids for greater efficiency, those ideas are all pretty boring. In serious times such as this, we must be willing to look to the truly innovative solutions– the fictional ones.

Doc Ock: maybe not the one we want running 
our fusion power plants (screenshot of Spiderman
2, 2004).
Since the 1950’s, nuclear fusion has been the golden standard of fictional energy generation. It was to fusion that the Wachowskis turned in an attempt to gloss over the incomprehensible plot point of machines using human bodies as an energy source  in The Matrix, fusion that drove Otto Octavius to trade Spiderman for Harry Osborn’s bizarre, baseball-sized chunk of tritium in Raimi’s Spiderman II. With an inexhaustible fuel source and virtually none of the environmental risks of nuclear fission, fusion is the veritable Holy Grail of renewable energy. Ever since the development of the hydrogen bomb, the tantalizing possibility of cheap, limitless energy has loomed just around the bend. Thanks to recent developments in computing and high-energy plasma physics, this possibility may be–  er, well, even closer around the bend. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the world’s largest Tokamak reactor and the result of a tremendous multinational collaboration, holds promise as the first fusion experiment designed to produce a net gain in useable energy. The reactor uses massive superconducting coils to generate a magnetic field capable of confining its 150 million degree Celsius deuterium-tritium plasma, the first of its kind. Slated to initiate its first plasma burn in 2020, ITER is currently under construction in Cadarache, France.
Even if the ITER initiative succeeds, however, the road to full-scale production of commercially viable fusion energy may be a long one, indeed– endless, perhaps. In Isaac Asimov’s Robot series, the human race largely bypasses nuclear fusion in favor of orbiting solar relay stations, massive platforms that capture direct solar radiation (without atmospheric interference) and transmit the energy earth-side in the form of highly concentrated beams. In Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation, the galactic capital of the distant future fills the bulk of its energy needs through a sophisticated system of deep-earth heat sinks. While neither of these methods seems to be a likely successor to fossil fuels in the next century, the nature of political, economic, and ecological forces makes long-term predictions of our energy dependence nearly impossible. Fusion technology may well be the dream of today, but it might pale in comparison to the reality of tomorrow. So who knows? I personally can’t wait to start paying utility bills to use an artificial sun, but then again I might have said the same thing in 1998 about seeing Star Wars in 3D…


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