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A Nuclear Fusion Feat
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A Nuclear Fusion Feat

Scientists make a breakthrough in their efforts to harness nuclear fusion energy.

Happy Wednesday! Former Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News yesterday the positive response to his new memoir has been a “great source of encouragement” as he weighs a 2024 presidential run.

If you leave one nice note about TMD in the comments, we, too, will think long and hard about mounting a bid for the White House.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Tuesday the Consumer Price Index rose just 0.1 percent from October to November, while increasing at an annual rate of 7.1 percent—a noticeable decrease from last month’s year-over-year rate of 7.7 percent, and the lowest such measure since last December. Declining energy, travel, and meat costs contributed to the slowing, while the price of some food and household items continued to escalate. The Federal Reserve is set to announce its next round of interest hikes later today, and yesterday’s inflation data likely solidified the central bank’s plan to implement a 50-basis-point increase rather than a 75-basis-point one. Stocks climbed on the news.
  • The Justice Department announced Tuesday a federal grand jury had indicted FTX founder and CEO Sam Bankman-Fried on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit commodities fraud, conspiracy to commit securities fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and conspiracy to defraud the Federal Election Commission and commit campaign finance violations. Attorney General Merrick Garland alleged Bankman-Fried had misappropriated customers’ deposits to his cryptocurrency platform, using their funds to pay off the debts of a sister and make illegal political contributions. Bankman-Fried was detained in the Bahamas this week, and denied bail prior to his likely extradition to the United States early next year. 
  • Chinese authorities sent 18 nuclear-capable military jets into Taiwan’s air defense zone, the island’s authorities said Tuesday, a record-setting show of Chinese military force in the buffer airspace.

Shooting for the Stars: Researchers Make a Fusion Breakthrough

U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm announces a major scientific breakthrough in the field of nuclear fusion. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY / AFP)

In the wee hours of December 5, scientists at a government lab in California fired a whole lot of laser beams at a very small target and hit the ultimate bullseye: fusion ignition. The self-sustaining, energy-gaining fusion reaction is a major step forward in the quest to turn fusion into a clean, plentiful energy source.

This has made for a lot of happy researchers. “The pursuit of fusion ignition in the laboratory is one of the most significant scientific challenges ever tackled by humanity,” lab director Kim Budil said at a press conference Tuesday announcing the success. “Achieving it is a triumph of science, engineering, and most of all, people.”

Scientists have been pursuing the dream of commercial fusion for decades, drawn by the promise of harnessing the power that fuels stars to run the world on energy made from cheap, abundant, and non-polluting hydrogen. Cost-effective, reliable carbon-free energy could hugely reduce the threat of climate change, while achieving the promise of energy that’s “too cheap to meter” could improve the lives of more than 10 percent of the world’s population still without power and unleash economic growth and innovation.

Last week’s experiment brought researchers closer to that dream. The magic happened about an hour outside San Francisco at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), which was founded in the 1950s to advance nuclear weapons but has expanded its operations to biosecurity and nonproliferation, among other projects. In a building the size of three football fields, scientists aimed the world’s most energetic laser—made up of 192 beams—at a tiny cylinder poised on the end of a pointy arm. Inside that cylinder, the lasers’ energy transformed into X-rays and pressured a BB-sized diamond capsule 100 times smoother than a mirror. Under enormous pressure and heat—the fuel pellet last week topped 100 million °C, or 10 times the temperature of the sun’s core—the hydrogen isotopes inside the pellet got hitched via fusion, triggering a vanishingly brief but energy-gaining fusion process.

That energy gain is what makes this a breakthrough. Scientists had previously lit the fusion match—to much fanfare each time—but they played a little fast and loose on what had actually been accomplished, as Charles Seife noted this week. Livermore, for example, announced in 2014 it had achieved net energy gain. “This was nothing more than an accounting trick,” Seife—a science journalist and author of Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking—wrote. “Instead of comparing the fusion energy produced with the energy of the incoming laser beams, NIF scientists had compared it with the small fraction of the laser-beam energy that struck the target chamber, got converted into X-rays that shined onto the target, and was eventually absorbed by the fuel—which is to say, roughly 1 percent of the total. Fiddling with the denominator turned a 99 percent failure into a 100 percent victory.”

This month’s announcement requires some similar caveating. The LLNL’s latest experiment reportedly met the scientific definition of ignition, as the laser beams sent 2.05 megajoules of energy and neutrons produced by the fusion reaction returned 3.15 megajoules, enough to boil a couple gallons of water. But that calculation does not account for the hundreds of megajoules of energy required to power the laser beams in the first place. Still, experts viewed the development as a major step forward. “In all the previous experiments, you always had to put more energy in,” Karl Krushelnick, a professor in the University of Michigan’s Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences department, told The Dispatch. “This demonstrates this could actually be a real source of energy if we can harness it and do the engineering to make the reactor work.”

That’s a big if. Scientists may have cleared a major physics hurdle, but fiendishly difficult engineering problems remain before fusion is a plausible—let alone cost-effective—power source. Scientists will need to achieve much higher energy return levels, which means more powerful and efficient lasers and ones capable of firing thousands of shots per day instead of just one. Smoother, stronger, and cheaper fuel pellets will also improve the process. Plus, physicists and engineers will need to build efficient ways to capture the resulting energy and transfer it to electrical grids—and all these systems must be simple and resilient enough that maintenance costs don’t overwhelm commercial profits.

This fusion breakthrough took decades, and—despite Biden administration platitudes about functioning reactors “within ten years”—conquering remaining challenges will likely take decades more. “Not six decades, I don’t think, not five decades,” Budil, the lab director, predicted. “[But] there are very significant hurdles, not just in the science but in the technology. This is one igniting capsule one time.”

Achieving these goals will take money. Livermore alone gets nearly $2.8 billion a year from the Department of Energy, and officials used Tuesday’s announcement to make the case for continued funding. “This success would not be possible without the strong support for foundational research by the U.S. government and by the sustained investment in our national laboratories,” said Jill Hruby, a DOE undersecretary for nuclear security. Thirty-five nations, including the U.S., have also collaborated to fund a lab in France working on a different method of achieving fusion which relies on burning plasma. In 2020, Congress ordered the DOE to start working on a pilot plant capable of bringing the U.S. grid 50 megawatts of power, and in September the DOE opened applications for an initial $50 million round of funding to plan the facility. And according to the Fusion Industry Association, global private fusion development funding surpassed $4.7 billion in 2022, a 139 percent increase from what the association recorded in 2021.

“The year after Kitty Hawk, airlines weren’t moving people around the world,” Krushelnick said, comparing the fusion development to the Wright brothers’ first flight. “But it proved to people that you could make a heavier-than-air contraption that worked.”

Worth Your Time

  • For City Journal, Steven Malanga reports on the hundreds of billions of dollars left over from pandemic-era stimulus—and how state and local governments are struggling to find ways to spend the money. “The federal money has turned pols into the proverbial kids in the candy shop,” he writes. “They’re using it to restart parades, fund street performers, upgrade high school weight rooms and sports fields, and build bike paths, golf courses, pickleball courts, and other ‘essential’ infrastructure. Billions of dollars are going to illegal aliens. Cities are testing efforts to give low-income residents guaranteed money that supporters say will end poverty. Municipalities are moving to construct their own broadband networks, in competition with the private sector. It’s all part of a program whipped up so quickly that it included billions of dollars for municipal governments that don’t even exist. To many local officials, ARPA’s allocations seem like free money. But it comes at a cost to the United States.”
  • The college football world lost a legend this week when Mike Leach—the former head coach of Texas Tech, Washington State, and Mississippi State—died on Monday at the age of 61. The internet was filled yesterday with testimonials to his kindness, humor, and generosity—Steve Greenberg’s in the Chicago Sun-Times and Rodger Sherman’s for The Ringer—but the obituary from The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman (who helped write Leach’s memoir) may take the cake. “He loved meeting people,” Feldman remembers. “I think being this complete outsider who had never played college football but had navigated an unconventional path into coaching was so validating for him. Leach was the most accessible coach in the history of football. You could give Mike’s cell number to anyone, and if they texted him, they’d probably end up in a rambling yet profound conversation. One day when I was in Lubbock working on the book, I was watching practice and noticed a shorter guy in his 50s standing next to Leach as he ran his offense. I asked a Tech staffer if the guy was a Red Raiders booster. ‘Nah, I think that’s a homeless guy who was standing near the building and Mike brought him out to practice and has been talking to him the whole time.’ That was Leach.”
  • In a riveting piece for the Financial Times, Helen Warrell brings readers behind the scenes—for the first time—on life as a British female MI6 spy. “Kathy began in a desk job working on Iranian weapons systems, but progressed to roles running agents around the world,” she writes. “That meant being away from her long-term partner, who remained in the UK. The life she describes is exciting: travelling, learning languages, ‘getting under the skin’ of new people and cultures. The work even more so. She recounts the days before biometrics, of making her way unnoticed from one country to another, often on foot, and changing disguises en route. Her favourite wig was a red Farrah Fawcett-style 1970s mane. Occasionally, she would wander around with £50,000 in her handbag, presumably to pay agents, but she does not elaborate. ‘It’s a really peculiar job,’ she says.” Check out the full report for details on the obstacles these women had to overcome to reach their perch, and why female spies are often best-equipped for the job.

Presented Without Comment

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Toeing the Company Line

  • Why can Congress only fund the government through a convoluted and inefficient omnibus process? Are Beltway outlets ignoring Kevin McCarthy’s speakership math problem? And most importantly: Why is the only decoration in Haley’s home a framed Star Wars: The Phantom Menace poster? Steve, Declan, and Haley discussed all this and more on last night’s edition of Dispatch Live (🔒). Members who missed the conversation can catch a rerun—either video or audio-only—by clicking here.
  • Haley’s latest Uphill unpacks the many, many ways House Republicans will be able to make Kevin McCarthy—or whoever ends up winning the speaker’s gavel—squirm in the next Congress. “A campaign against rules brought forward by GOP leaders could secure the policy or procedural priorities any handful of members desire,” she writes. “Such a campaign could also be enough to take down party leaders in an extreme scenario, according to members. A speaker who can’t even effectively set the House’s agenda would have clearly lost the ability to lead—and would face tremendous pressure to step down.”
  • In this week’s edition of The Sweep (🔒), Sarah explains Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s decision to ditch the Democratic Party before turning to Ronna McDaniel’s bid to remain atop the Republican National Committee. “[She’s] going to get reelected as RNC chair,” Sarah asserts. “Easily.”
  • In his Tuesday French Press (🔒), David explains why he’s becoming more and more libertarian with each passing day. “If Americans (especially highly partisan Americans) are in the grips of ignorance and animosity, is this the time to be increasing the role of government in American life?” he asks. “I’d argue the opposite.”
  • Illinois Policy Institute President Matt Paprocki joins Jonah on today’s episode of The Remnant today for a special, Chicago-centric conversation. Do conservatives have any chance of advancing their policy priorities in deep-blue Illinois? When it comes to an ailing city like Chicago, what should those policy priorities even be?
  • On the site today, Audrey breaks down Senate Republicans’ new strategy going into 2024, Kevin ponders the significance of “Marshall law” and other grammatical slip-ups by public figures, and Scott Winship looks at claims—particularly among the populist right—that men today are less “marriageable” than ever before. 

Let Us Know

On a scale from one to ten, how big a deal do you consider the latest nuclear fusion developments? Do you expect to see fusion-powered power plants in your lifetime?

Clarification, December 14, 2022: This newsletter was updated with additional context on the amount of energy required to power the laser beams in the fusion experiment.

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.