December 15, 2022 | View this edition in your browser.
 Welcome to What Could Go Right?, where we’re on scientific breakthrough alert. After reading the below, we’re curious to hear your opinion: should we be spending more or less money on the kind of long-term R&D required by such projects as nuclear fusion power? 

Nuclear fusion breakthrough!
On Tuesday researchers from the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California confirmed that for the first time, they have produced a fusion reaction that resulted in a net energy gain, a major breakthrough in the pursuit of nuclear fusion power.

When we talk about nuclear power, we’re usually talking about nuclear fission, which splits atoms to create energy. You’ll recognize the radioactive waste it produces as the usual subject of controversy when it comes to discussions around nuclear. The other type of nuclear power is nuclear fusion, which combines atoms to create energy. Nuclear fusion is how the sun powers itself, and humans have been trying to make it happen here on our planet since the 1950s. As many outlets have explained this week, producing energy using nuclear fusion is a tantalizing possibility because it has virtually no waste and no carbon footprint.

So far, the various laboratories around the world going after nuclear fusion haven’t managed to produce more energy than used to create the reaction—until now. This is what is meant as “net energy gain,” and the fact that a team has accomplished it is a significant development, even if the amount of gain was small—enough to boil 15–20 kettles of water.  

We’re still a long ways away from the dream of using nuclear fusion power, though. The term “net energy gain” is correct but can also be misleading. What “net energy gain” is referring to in this instance is what scientists call “Q plasma,” meaning that more energy came out of the plasma than came in. In the case of the Livermore laboratory in particular, which uses a nuclear fusion method that involves shooting lasers at pellets of hydrogen plasma, more energy came out of the pellets/plasma than was put in by the lasers. 

But that “Q plasma” doesn’t account for the system-wide energy use; in other words, how much energy is required to fire the lasers, and, if you’re talking about eventually using nuclear fusion energy for electricity generation, the loss of energy that occurs when the produced heat from the fusion reaction gets converted into electric power. That Q is called “Q total,” and that’s the really big one when it comes to nuclear fusion as a realistic power source. German theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder has a clear, 10-minute YouTube video here explaining the two Qs.

In the work by the Livermore laboratory, when it came to Q total, they were far off the mark, using much more energy overall than was created by the fusion reaction. That’s why, though this news is definitely a breakthrough, we’re still quite a ways off from commercial viability when it comes to nuclear fusion power. Another way to think about it is as the difference between scientific versus engineering viability, as Dennis Whyte, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at MIT, told The Washington Post. We’ve got scientific viability now for the first time. It’s unclear how long it will take to get to engineering viability. 

For more, The Washington Post has a solid overall explainer here, and The Atlantic spells out just how far we are from engineering viability here. If you’re pressed for time or hitting paywalls, try this short Twitter thread here, although we found the longer articles more easily understandable. 

Still, as The Atlantic piece argues and as we are wont to do at The Progress Network (TPN), we can choose to feel excited about the possibilities of nuclear fusion power while being sober-minded about the timeline. We don’t know if nuclear fusion power will happen soon, if ever. Such long-term science seems tough to cheer on when we have so many immediate problems at hand. But a society that goes after daring, seemingly impossible things is necessary for the kind of eventual progress we laud all the time here in this newsletter. As TPN Member James Pethokoukis (hilariously) wrote in the Faster, Please! newsletter, “Let’s light this nuclear fusion candle!”

Before we go
Speaking of what science and engineering can accomplish, the 2022 roundups continue. Here’s The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson on the breakthroughs of the year, most of which we covered in this newsletter. And here are the best engineering feats from Popular Science. One follow-up on the pig-to-human heart transplant that Thompson mentions in his list and that happened at the top of 2022: scientists are getting closer to identifying what went wrong. The patient died two months following the heart transplant, potentially due to a common pig virus in the heart that was missed in a pre-surgery screening. MIT Technology Review has the story.

It's time to exit the school of thought that says that governments, corporations, and humans generally are doing nothing when it comes to the climate. Reporter for Inside Climate News Dan Gearino wrote, “This has been the most eventful year in my decade-plus of covering energy.” Check out his roundup from an “extraordinary year of action and progress at the federal, state and local levels” here. By the way, we spoke to TPN Member Bina Venkataraman about American climate action for the last episode of the What Could Go Right? podcast season. We’ll be back in early 2023 for Season 4.

College freshman—and small-town mayor. Congratulations to 18-year-old Jaylen Smith, the youngest Black mayor in US history, who beat out his opponent by 79 votes to become the next mayor of Earle, Arkansas.

Electric bikes: their silent motors may mean you get mowed down on the street corner. But they also allow park rangers in Mozambique to sneak up on poachers undetected. Before, the loud petrol motors were a dead giveaway that the rangers were approaching, and the poachers would flee. We absolutely adore this article on the Swedish e-bikes that have changed the game when it comes to stopping poaching in 127 parks across Africa.

Below in the links section, heat- and drought-resistant wheat, psychedelic therapy as a workplace perk, a "vagina on a chip," and more.

—Emma Varvaloucas

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Most people in the US aren't worried about Covid heading into the 2022 holidays, according to a new Axios–Ipsos poll. Overall, 86 percent of Americans say we're in a better place on Covid than we were a year ago, while half say they've returned to pre-Covid routines.
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Misinformation, climate momentum, and negative headlines | S3 E12
This week on the What Could Go Right? podcast: Is there a shift in momentum around the climate crisis? Will we ever hit our environmental goals? How has gatekeeping and bias informed our news? Plus, we talk with Editor-at-Large for The Boston Globe and former Senior Advisor for Climate Change Innovation in the Obama White House, Bina Venkataraman. | Listen to the episode
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Department of Ideas 
(A staff recommendation guaranteed to give your brain some food for thought.)

The Twitter Files and the sinister label of "misinformation"Hold That Thought

Why we picked it: The release of the "Twitter Files" makes the social media company's suppression of accounts and information public knowledge. This transparency moves us forward, and it should discourage us from labeling as "misinformation" what is merely disagreement and plain old discussion. —Brian Leli
Until next Thursday, BREAKING: Turns out kids today have been spoiled for over 100 years already. 

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