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Is unlimited energy possible?

Is this the future? Is it even practical?

“It’s a matter of how powerful the future is,” said Kevin Folta, CEO of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “If we had an unlimited fuel supply, we could basically run the world and have infinite energy. But it would require some kind of miracle. It’s not just the math that’s hard to do. It’s the practicalities and practical difficulties – where people could build these systems.”

In fact, Folta says he has not heard of any project in the field that successfully built a system that could provide unlimited power without using nuclear or fossil fuel (and there are plenty of skeptics in the field who question this).

But if an unlimited fuel supply is not feasible today, it’s also not going to be the case tomorrow, as Folta explained during two days of talks in New York this month with his counterparts at both Harvard University and Rice University – the only public institutions working on the issue of unlimited future.

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For starters, fuel efficiency will have to drop even further, he said – something that, in the case of the future, will require massive investment in advanced research into more efficient machines and greater innovation by scientists and engineers.

“We’re also working on how to reduce the amount of power you use by a factor of a million and get that to a level below 1% of your yearly energy consumption,” he said in an email.

“I don’t see how that will happen in the next fifty years.”

One of the biggest challenges is getting the cost of nuclear power down to reasonable levels, according to Folta. The existing technology is based around nuclear waste – radioactive materials left over from the production of nuclear reactors – and that isn’t going away, even as researchers work on techniques that can be used to eliminate the waste.

Another issue: It’s hard to envision how anyone is going to build a system that can efficiently process that much fuel, he noted in the email – something that was the main argument made in the 2011 push for building a fusion plant off the coast of Southern California.

“I don’t see how anyone is going to build a system that can efficiently process that much fuel, or even if they can do it,” Folta said.

Some in the field have suggested that the best course of action may be to develop the technology of a fusion reactor, which would make it possible to harness the immense