Prometheus will return.
Roughly 500,000 years ago our forebears learned to use fire. That transformed humankind completely. We wouldn’t recognize those distant ancestors as human. Anthropologists call them Homo erectus. Although their bodies were much like our own, their heads were still ape-like, with a heavy muzzle and a brain that was typically less than half the size of ours. Fire changed them so dramatically, though, that to this day every human culture has a legend about it.
In our culture it is the legend of Prometheus.
Prometheus was a demigod, and he saw that the earliest humans were pitifully poor, weak creatures, starving and cold. So he stole fire from the gods and gave it to us. For this he was cruelly punished, because the gods feared that once we had fire we would become as strong and powerful as they.
And that’s what happened. With fire, we were able to keep at bay the beasts that attacked us. With fire, we learned to make better tools and utensils. With fire, we cooked our food — and as we spent less effort chewing raw food, our heavy muzzles became slimmer and our brain cases enlarged. We developed language. We became masters of all the beasts of the field. The gift of Prometheus allowed us to become fully human.
Today we are trembling on the brink of another Promethean event. Sometime in this century we will master fusion power.
Fusion is a form of nuclear power. It is the ultimate energy source. Fusion energy is what lights the stars. You might say fusion is God’s chosen energy system.
The form of nuclear power we use today is nuclear fission. By splitting apart the nuclei of heavy atoms such as uranium, energy is released. In nuclear fusion, nuclei of the lightest elements are fused together to form heavier nuclei — and release energy.
The most common form of nuclear fusion involves hydrogen, the simplest and lightest of all the elements. The hydrogen atom consists of a single proton, with a single electron orbiting around it. When four hydrogen nuclei — four protons — fuse together to form a nucleus of helium, 0.7 percent of their mass is converted into energy.
Einstein’s famous equation — E=mc2 shows that matter can be converted into energy. The helium nucleus is seven-tenths of 1 percent lighter than the original four hydrogen nuclei. That 0.7 percent is the energy that lights the sun and stars. It could become the answer to all our energy problems, when we learn to build nuclear-fusion power generators.
Scientists have been striving to make a controlled nuclear-fusion power system for more than half a century. They know how to make uncontrolled fusion systems: hydrogen bombs. But making a controlled power device is a lot more difficult.
Yet the day will come. In the United States, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California aims to use powerful laser beams to trigger nuclear fusion in a thumbnail-size pellet containing the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium.
In southern France, an international consortium is completing construction of ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, which is designed to produce more power output than the power necessary to make it run.
There is still a long way to go. But when we get nuclear fusion power, it will be as big a turning point in history as the taming of fire. The fuel for fusion will come from water, the isotope of hydrogen called deuterium, which makes up 0.014 percent of the hydrogen in the universe. For every thousand normal hydrogen atoms, there are fourteen atoms of this “heavy hydrogen.”
The fusion process is so powerful that an eight-ounce glass of water can yield as much energy as half a million barrels of petroleum. And that’s using only 0.014 percent of the hydrogen in the water!
The byproduct of fusion is helium. It’s not radioactive. You can give it to children to blow up balloons.
Fusion can give us virtually unlimited power and end forever our dependence on fossil fuels and even fission-based power plants. Fusion-propelled rockets can take us to the stars.
Prometheus will return.
Bova, a Naples resident, is the author of nearly 125 books, including “Able One,” his latest thriller. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com