For decades, scientists have been predicting that, one day, the same process that powers the sun will give us virtually unlimited cheap, clean electricity. Are they wrong?
A star is born. And, less than a second later, it dies. On a drab science park just outside the Oxfordshire village of Culham, some of the world’s leading physicists stare at a monitor to review a video of their wondrous, yet fleeting, creation.
“Not too bad. That was quite a clean one,” observes starmaker-in-chief Professor Steve Cowley. Just a few metres away from his control room, a “mini star” not much larger than a family car has just burned, momentarily bright, at temperatures approaching 23 million degrees centigrade inside a 70-tonne steel vessel.
Cowley sips his coffee. “OK, when do we go again?”
Last year, when asked to name the most pressing scientific challenge facing humanity, Professors Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox both gave the same answer: producing electricity from fusion energy. The prize, they said, is enormous: a near-limitless, pollution-free, cheap source of energy that would power human development for many centuries to come. Cox is so passionate about the urgent need for fusion power that he stated that it should be scientists such as Cowley who are revered in our culture – not footballers or pop stars – because they are “literally going to save the world”. It is a “moral duty” to commercialise this technology as fast as possible, he said. Without it, our species will be in “very deep trouble indeed” by the end of this century.