In the upcoming documentary film Let There Be Light, about humankind’s groundbreaking strides towards the harnessing of the currently unavailable fusion energy, Canadian physicist Dr. Michel Laberge makes a very elementary and efficient synopsis of the fusion industry’s end goal: “The name of the game is to try and get more energy out than you put in.”

So simple. So…to the point.

But why is it that a straightforward statement like Laberge’s (whose Canadian company General Fusion is one of a handful of players featured in EyeSteelFilm‘s Let There Be Light) is usually one that manages to put up the biggest fight when it comes to its practical, real-world applications?

General Fusion‘s Dr. Michael Laberge. Every project working on fusion is being done in its own way, and for General Fusion that means sticking to a simple rule: If you can’t find it at Home Depot it doesn’t go in the machine.

It was during a conversation with a NASA official that Let There Be Light director Mila Aung-Thwin was gently reminded about, then berated for not paying more attention to, nuclear fusion as an obtainable source of future energy.

“I was really quite embarrassed in some ways that I’d not heard of basically the biggest scientific experiment that has been going on for, by that time, almost a decade already,” begins Aung-Thwin, who helmed the documentary along with co-director Van Royko. “And it wasn’t in the news. It wasn’t just me that hadn’t heard about it. It was kind of like, no one has really heard about this. It’s been publicized, but it’s never quite hit the mainstream before.”

The fuss about fusion

Fusion is a word that has a certain shade of funkiness to it, but it might be its closeness in sonic appearances to another nuclear-anchored reaction, fission, that has been one of many of this potential game-changer’s biggest hurdles. The majority of people who would benefit from fusion energy don’t know what it even is, how it’s made, or what the fuss is all about. At most they might know it has something to do with the nuclear world.

Even Aung-Thwin admits that attending a press function in 2013 crammed with a steady parade of scientists giving very dry and technical explanations of what exactly they did in the realm of fusion at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France while doing early research on the film had him seconding-guessing whether there was a story worth telling about the subject.

Dr. Mark Henderson onsite at ITER. Don’t let the France location stop you from keeping a curious eye on things-the #ITER folks tweet between breakthroughs (although sometimes they are in French).

It wasn’t until the final speaker of the conference stood before the crowd and spoke his peace on the urgency of cracking the secret of fusion production on a mass scale that things began to sink in for Aung-Thwin on just how important fusion energy not only could be, but will be, to the planet’s survival. That speaker, American physicist Mark Henderson, summed up what is at stake if humans keep leaning as heavily as they are on fossil fuels and ‘traditional’ nuclear energy:

“If we don’t crack fusion, we are doomed.”

Fission or fusion? What’s the difference?

Both fusion and fission are nuclear. Both use atoms to create energy. Where the two differ is in fission’s corner single larger atoms are being split into two smaller atoms to create heat energy, and on fusion’s side of the ring the same result is achieved by two smaller atoms being unified to form one larger one.

Fission, however, has the potential to get far messier. Think of what is happening in today’s nuclear reactors and you have a prime example of fission on the job, but the problem is sometimes the technology surrounding fission doesn’t work.

Fusion on the other hand, is what you find occurring naturally deep inside the Earth’s sun and the stars in our galaxy. In their cores, perpetually colliding atoms become fused together and in the process become lighter than their original parts. Thanks to the principles laid out in Einstein’s E=mc² formula that difference in mass is converted into energy.

Fission vs Fusion Energy

So what is it about fusion that has the agencies and scientists featured in Let There Be Light so excited while fission has kept the signboard industry afloat for decades? Fusion’s major upside is the power it generates has the potential to be a carbon-free source of energy that could keep going with a minimal environmental footprint. The downside is fusion is extremely hard to produce-on any scale.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of metal to be found at the ITER site.

On one of their many Let There Be Light return trips to ITER Aung-Thwin and Royko filmed the bottomless pit of complexities behind the construction of the facility’s tokamak reactor, currently a multi-million-piece puzzle-in-progress that isn’t expected to be online until at least 2025 but will reach temperatures of 270 million°F (150 million°C) when it is-ten times greater than the core of the sun. Even with 35 countries like China, the United States, Japan and Russia jointly backing its efforts (with a current price tag sitting around the $22 billion USD mark), ITER is still a massive ‘maybe it will, maybe it won’t’ project.

Blood, sweat, tears and science

ITER’s Tokamak reactor.

On the commitment to the cause being shown by the teams working on harnessing fusion, Aung-Thwin says, “These guys are going to work on fusion for the rest of their lives and they’re building a cathedral and they know it’s never going to be finished. Or it’ll be finished decades after they’ve retired perhaps. They’re thinking unlike anybody else in the world in some ways, they’re thinking maybe a century down the line-they’re trying to solve that kind of problem. I thought that was amazing.”

But for as large-scale and global as things are at ITER, viable attempts at fusion are also being made by smaller, private companies.

General Fusion. Smaller than ITER, but still mighty.

“I’d go to General Fusion and it was six guys around a table trying to figure it out and it was like, this is the flip side; you can actually try fusion on a smaller scale. And maybe these guys will pull it off.”

It was General Fusion’s workspace set-up and overall approach to fusion that gave Aung-Thwin flashbacks to Han Solo and Chewbacca working on the Millennium Falcon in early Star Wars days, although the team at General Fusion only wishes they could solve their fusion issues with a strategically placed fist pounded on a control console and a “Punch it, Chewie!”

Fusion’s future

The strategies being demonstrated by both General Fusion and at ITER at least gave Aung-Thwin hope for success on the fusion front.

“Both cases I thought were encouraging, but for different reasons because they were taking such different approaches to something,” he explains. “It was kind of like watching the early days of aviation. We know we can fly, we just don’t quite know how.”

For Aung-Thwin the hope is for a return trip in 10 years time to see how far things have progressed for the teams and concepts featured in Let There Be Light. He just hopes the rest of the planet has the diligence to see fusion through, admitting, “The public does not want to see the 99 times you fail. They want to see the results and they want to know when it’s going to happen.”

Patience, everyone. Patience.

If you are in the Toronto area during the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival between April 27 and May 7, look for screenings of @EyeSteelFilm‘s #LetThereBeLight here.

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Jay Moon

Jay Moon is a writer who has turned the wanderlust that found him backpacking around Canada and the U.S. as a young lad into a writing lust that has him embracing the opportunity to cover topics about anything (and everything) he can get his now middle-aged eyes, ears, and hands on.