Wednesday, September 13, 2017

CIFF ’17: Let There Be Light

There was a time when it seemed like the only people talking about fusion energy were the LaRouchers. Remember Fusion magazine? Despite their interest, many scientists still believe nuclear fusion (as opposed to conventional nuclear fission) is a realistic goal. A multi-national consortium has sunk billions of dollars and Euros into an experimental sun-like reactor, yet some grubby start-up might just scoop them with something smaller and weirder looking. The scientists, bureaucrats, and entrepreneurs working to solve the fusion problem explain their vision in Mila Aung-Thwin & Van Royko’s documentary, Let There Be Light (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Camden International Film Festival.

The ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is so huge, the construction team likens it to cathedrals that took generations to construct. It is a multinational, intergovernmental partnership of the U.S., EU, Japan, South Korea, China, India, and Russia, so it is likely to run past its deadlines and over budget. Nevertheless, many consider it our best chance to develop truly clean and sustainable energy for future generations.

To Michael Laberge of General Fusion, that is all very well, but anything that cost tens of billions to produce and lifetimes to construct will never become a practical energy source. The prototype his team is working on would be much more scalable. That’s him, standing in front of its jutting turbines. Yet, the slightly mad Eric Lerner and his storefront Focus Fusion might be the dark horse to watch. We will see him sell shares in the company to his landlord, which definitely should count as an accomplishment.

The upside of fusion is truly revolutionary, but if ITER fails, it could very well poison the well for fusion research for decades. These are high stakes, but Aung-Thwin and Royko are much more interested in the science. Yet, there is a real horse race going on, with no guarantee every rider will reach the finish line.

Still, the enthusiasm of the scientists is refreshingly engaging. To their credit, they are able to explain some big concepts in lucid layman’s terms. At one point, the American representative to ITER likens the project to the Apollo Moon landing effort, but there is no public face making fusion’s case in the media, unless you count this film.

Let There Be Light is an enjoyable work of popular science filmmaking, but it never makes the blindingly obvious point. In a world where the leading fossil fuel providers are countries like Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, wouldn’t it be nice to achieve a breakthrough in fusion power? Still, the film is generally optimistic, which is cool. Recommended for fans of real science docs, like Pandora’s Promise and Particle Fever, Let There Be Light screens this Friday afternoon (9/15) during the Camden International Film Festival.