Back to the Future is one of my favorite movies and probably the reason why I am in the energy business. All thanks to Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor.
When I think of the movie, my mind immediately goes to Mr. Fusion more so than the actual storyline, the DeLorean time machine or Marty’s weird interactions with his young mom. From the first time I saw the movie, I thought Mr. Fusion was the coolest thing ever; even though it appears only at the end of part I. Then and during all part II, Mr. Fusion was the power source of the DeLorean time machine, converting household waste to power by using nuclear fusion.
Nuclear fusion is the merging of small atoms into larger ones to release energy; but this type of nuclear energy is still under development. We still have to wait close to a decade to have a fusion reactor come online; not to mention that the size of the fusion reactors under construction are massive, weighing over 5000 tons. Not practical to power a car.
Using waste like banana peels, beer or a beer can as fuel may seem improbable; however according to Egemen Kolemen, a specialist in the control of fusion plasmas at Princeton University, it theoretically could work. Nuclear fusion uses light elements -like deuterium and tritium- for the reaction; and a banana, beer and beer can consist mostly of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and aluminum -which are light elements. So, in theory it is possible. We just need to figure out the engineering problems that come with using different nuclei, the size of the reactor to make it as small as in the movie and other technicalities.
I was a kid when I first saw Back to the Future, so I did not give much thought to the name of Mr. Fusion. I did not know what nuclear fusion was. I did not understand or think about Mr. Fusion again until I visited a landfill with a methane recovery system when I was in undergrad. The people giving us the tour through the facility explained how the waste produces gases which they processed and used to power certain equipment. It clicked in my brain right then and there that Mr. Fusion made more sense as a biogas generator than a nuclear reactor. After all, a biogas generator uses waste which was what Dr. Brown used in the movie. It also clicked that I should get involved in the energy industry; but that is another story.
Biogas is a type of biofuel generated from the decomposition of organic waste in an anaerobic environment. When the waste breaks down it releases a blend of gases, mainly methane and carbon dioxide. Biogas helps deal with the global waste disposal problem and also reduces reliance on fossil fuels.
NASA’s scientists worked on their own version of Mr. Fusion a few years ago; a reactor that turns trash into gas. The Trash to Gas Reactor is a miniature version of a waste incinerator that can generate electricity or fuel similarly to the ones we have on Earth. The goal of the reactor is to help deal with the waste disposal challenge in space and reuse the trash to produce methane, or even oxygen or water. And like in the movie, you can throw different things in it, like food, food wrappers, pieces of fabric, tape, and other things. However, it probably will not be useful or able to power a car.
But the Trash to Gas Reactor is not the only one. German scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental – Energy and Safety Technology developed a “Biobattery” that will happily eat everything from sewage sludge to lawn clipping and leftovers to convert into electricity, heat and fuels.
Maybe Mr. Fusion is not here yet to power our cars or time machines, but any type of device that can turn trash into fuel is still pretty cool.
Forbes, NASA, Gizmodo, Universe Today, Homebiogas