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Will We Ever See a Real Mr. Fusion?

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A rendering of the DeLorean time machine from "Back to the Future," with the gull-wing doors raised and the Mr. Fusion unit visible at the back.
Image: Terabass via WordPress

Ah, “Back to the Future II,” the film that promised us self-lacing shoes, hoverboards, flying cars, dehydrated pizza, and the abolition of lawyers — all by the year 2015! While some of those predictions have come true to a degree — Nike did begin a line of self-lacing shoes, but they started at $720 — but there’s one cool piece of tech that’s still noticeably absent from our everyday lives: Mr. Fusion.

So, I decided to look into the matter to see if Mr. Fusion could be a reality.

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What is Mr. Fusion?

If you’re not familiar with “Back to the Future II,” Mr. Fusion probably sounds like a culinary lifestyle brand founded by a business mogul with a “boys only” mentality.

In reality, it’s the DeLorean time machine’s second power source, which converts everyday garbage into fuel. It replaced plutonium (probably a good call) as the way to generate enough energy to power the Flux Capacitor — the thing that made time travel possible in all three movies.

Could we ever see a real Mr. Fusion?

While the promise of a power source that can be fueled by old nasty banana peels and Biff’s leftover beer sounds appealing on a number of levels, it also sounds incredibly far-fetched. So, I did some internet sleuthing to see if it was even remotely feasible.

Surprisingly, the answer may actually be yes.

Writing for Forbes, former contributor Carmen Drahl conducted a fascinating interview with Egeman Kolemen, at the time a specialist on controlling fusion plasmas at Princeton University. Although I suspect he gets questions about pop culture pseudoscience all the time, his explanation of Mr. Fusion’s probable function and potential existence was impressively optimistic.

He states that most of the nuclear reactors we’re familiar with create power by splitting atoms, a process known as fission. Fusion reactors, on the other hand, “combine small nuclei to make energy.” He even said, “Soon enough, we hope to move from fission to fusion technology just as Back to the Future II predicted.”

Kolemen also implied that using garbage to fuel a fusion reactor isn’t as insane as it sounds. He stated, “We use isotopes of the element hydrogen (known as deuterium and tritium) in current fusion reactors. There is enough heavy hydrogen fuel in sea water, H2O, to fuel the world’s energy needs for billions of years.” Plus, since “fusing elements lighter than iron releases nuclear energy,” it’s possible that “a machine like Mr. Fusion could physically make energy by fusing banana or beer which mostly consists of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. (It would even work for a beer can made of aluminum!).”

When asked if it was possible to contain the process to something as small as Mr. Fusion — roughly the size of a Mr. Coffee, get it? — Kolemen said, “This is an active research topic!” Even better, the nature of fusion means that a breakdown wouldn’t result in another Chernobyl. “If the “engine” malfunctions,” he said, “the fusion process would stop immediately. So no explosion is possible.”

While any technology resembling Mr. Fusion would have to overcome obstacles too complicated for my feeble mind to condense into a coherent sentence, it’s pretty cool to know that it’s possible. In theory, at least.

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