'Let There Be Light': Film Review | SXSW 2017

Courtesy of EyeSteelFilm
Vividly depicts the challenges ahead.

A futuristic energy source that could indefinitely supply the world’s power requirements provides the backdrop for this absorbing documentary.

Once confined to the realm of science fiction, fusion energy emerged as a research priority in experimental physics during the postwar era and ever since then, nuclear scientists have been chasing this potential power source that’s generated by the same process that fuels the sun and other stars. Progress has been frustratingly slow, as Mila Aung-Thwin and Van Royko’s feature documentary ably demonstrates, but public awareness regarding the world’s increasing energy demands and escalating carbon emissions signals that Let There Be Light should eventually shine brightly beyond the festival circuit.

If fusion power generators were achievable, they could provide an almost limitless source of energy with far less radioactive pollution than traditional nuclear reactors. Fusion research currently focuses on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a multinational mega-project under development in southern France. Jointly led by the U.S., the EU, China, Japan, India, South Korea and Russia, ITER construction began in 2007 and gradually ran well over budget and years behind schedule as a result of numerous technical challenges and bureaucratic entanglements.

The reactor design, known as a “tokamak,” seeks to extract energy from a magnetically charged cloud of super-hot hydrogen gas, but the challenge for researchers is to create more power than the prodigious amounts required to run the device. In the case of ITER, the immediate goal is to complete construction of the three-story-high structure on schedule. The first fusion experiments aren’t even expected to begin until at least 2020, with ongoing power production anticipated for 2027. American physicist Mark Henderson expects to be retired by the time that ITER comes online, but remains an enthusiastic booster for the project while working onsite at the French facility.

Various other public and private initiatives aren’t getting much closer to completion either, including General Fusion, a Canadian experimental reactor under the supervision of the visionary (or eccentric) Michel Laberge. In Germany, the Max Planck Institute has constructed a generator using an alternative to the tokamak design called a stellarator, which has managed to spark some minor fusion events lasting brief fractions of a second.

A storage facility in New Jersey houses Eric Lerner’s DIY Lawrenceville Plasma Physics operation, distinguished by its improvised components and outdated laboratory devices. Looking a bit like Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown from Back to the Future, Lerner is an enthusiastic advocate for alternative fusion technologies, but his experiments haven’t gained much traction on a shoestring budget.

The film profiles only a few select fusion projects, although a variety of ambitious initiatives are underway around the world. However, as ITER struggles to reach the operational stage even with extensive multinational funding and government support, the prospects for fusion energy generation still appear exceedingly speculative.

On top of that, the recent upending of U.S. energy and environmental policies demonstrates that the fossil-fuel industry isn’t prepared to be replaced, except perhaps on its own terms. Despite this unpredictable dynamic, determined researchers are competing and cooperating in an unprecedented race to develop a relatively sustainable energy source that could perhaps forestall the worst impacts of climate change and save humans from choking the planet in a haze of smog and carbon dioxide. 

Aung-Thwin and Royko recognize the potential for fusion to revolutionize both technology and society, but remain firmly focused on the realities of the elusive technology. Their footage shot at the ITER site clearly reveals the staggering enormity of both the construction task and the bureaucratic intricacies required to keep the project on track. The independent experiments and their idiosyncratic proponents inject a degree of unpredictability that’s appropriately characteristic of the fusion quest since its inception, as well as some dry situational humor. Lively animation sequences substitute for the usual collection of dusty archival materials, giving the film an attractive added visual dimension.

Production company: EyeSteelFilm
Directors: Mila Aung-Thwin, Van Royko
Screenwriter: Mila Aung-Thwin
Producers: Bob Moore, Mila Aung-Thwin
Executive producer: Daniel Cross
Director of photography: Van Royko
Editors: Mila Aung-Thwin, Gilda Pourjabar
Music: Trevor Anderson
Venue: South by Southwest (Documentary Feature Competition)
Sales: Submarine Entertainment

84 minutes

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