Population projections can be downright scary at times when one thinks of the shear number of people that will inhabit the earth in the not-so-distant future. At current birth rates and death rates, in about twenty years there could be 8 billion people. By the end of this century that number rises to around 12 billion. In order to maintain anything close to our current standard of living, new energy sources are absolutely essential, as we will likely exhaust oil and gas supplies by that time. One of the energy sources that may theoretically be an ideal energy source is fusion power.
Fusion is the process that keeps stars burning and allows hydrogen bombs to make conventional fission bombs look like firecrackers. Deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen, can actually fuse their nuclei together during a collision if temperatures are hot enough (but we are talking millions of degrees). During this process a small percentage of the mass converts diretly into energy according to Einstein's relationship E = mc^2. A goal of plasma physicists is to create sustainable fusion reactions in a reactor, and use the tremendous heat to run turbines for power production. Benefits include the lack of production of greenhouse gases and long-lived nuclear waste.
Research into this proces has been active for a number of years, but the large-scale funding for the basic research has never truly materialized. However, the largest international collaborative effort ever in fusion researc has materialized, and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is scheduled to be built and commissioned in France by 2016. Nations with over half the world's population (including China, India, numerous European nations, and the U.S.) are involved in the funding for this multi-billion dollar venture.
It is encouraging to finally see a serious research effort in this field. The engineering challenges are as great as anything ever undertaken, but the future quality of life on our planet will be determined by our energy production capabilities and environmental health. Just imagine a plant that can produce some some 7 billion kilowatt hours of energy in a year with only 100 kilograms of deuterium and 3 tonnes of lithium, compared to a conventional power plant that needs 3 million tonnes of coal or as to generate the same amount of energy, with large quantities of pollution on top of that. Now, we just have to figure out how to make it work. Click here for a good summary article of ITER and the fusion movement; kudos to physicsweb.org.