Will Fusion Energy Power The Future?
Fusion Energy: The Next Power Revolution?
Fusion refers to a form of energy generation. It’s sometimes known as nuclear fusion, and it’s the opposite of nuclear fission (which powers nuclear reactors). Fusion energy holds a great deal of promise for humanity.
While nuclear fission produces energy by splitting an atom, fusion reactors fuse two light atoms into an heavier one. This release huge amounts of energy. Fusion energy is what powers the sun and other stars. Essentially, stars are actually huge fusion reactors.
Fusion Energy: How It Works
Despite what you learned in high school science classes, there are actually four fundamental types of matter. In addition to solids, liquids, and gases, there is also plasma. But, since plasma doesn’t occur naturally on Earth, we don’t often consider it. Plasma is a special electrically-charged, or ionized, gas. Plasma behaves differently than other types of matter, although the mechanics can be hard to understand.
For our purposes, it’s enough to know that plasma only occurs at low pressures and high temperatures. Usually, it’s created through the use of electromagnetic fields.
Fusion energy is created when special forms of hydrogen, know as deuterium and tritium, are heated to enormously hot temperatures. The only way to contain the plasma so far as we know is to use magnetic fields. Unfortunately, scientists are struggling to create a reactor that works. Current versions can’t hold the plasma for an extended period of time at sufficient temperature and size.
Which leads us to…
Fusion Energy: The Challenges
Fusion energy is the type of technology that is still faced with certain engineering barrier, much like the space elevator.
Currently, every type of fusion reactor design ends up having a negative energy balance. In short, this means that the reactor takes more energy to run then it produces.
This is because fusion plasma doesn’t like to be contained. We have to contain them at high pressures and temperatures over long enough period of time to actually generate energy. Otherwise the massive amount of energy spent making the plasma doesn’t get earned back.
Stars, like the sun, are able to contain plasma with their massive gravity. That’s why massive plasma flares on the surface of the sun end up being subsumed back into the sun. Germany recently brought online it’s Wendelstein X-7 Stellarator. This is expected to run for up to 30 minutes at a time, which would blow the current record of 102 seconds away. But the device in Germany was never intended to be net-positive on energy. Rather, it was meant to show proof of concept of fusion energy.
So faced with all these challenges, why do we still pursue fusion?
Fusion Energy: Applications
Because in many ways, fusion would be an almost perfect source of energy. The fuel itself, which is mostly deuterium, is found abundantly in Earth’s ocean. One out of every 6,500 hydrogen atoms in the ocean is deuterium. While that may not seem like a lot, there are literally trillions upon trillions of these atoms in the ocean. Furthermore, fusion produced so much more energy than other sources that not much would be needed to generate massive amounts of power.
And even though fusion energy isn’t technically renewable, it has many of its benefits. It emits no air pollution or greenhouse gas and much less radiation than fission. Unlike other renewable sources, it’s not dependent on weather or location either. Because of this it won’t suffer from either diseconomies of scale or power interruption.
And since solar energy isn’t available in interstellar space, fusion is a possible enabling technology for space-faring.
Building the Fusion Energy Reactor
The most promising solution to the problems facing fusion energy is the tokamak. Tokamak originally comes from a complicated Russian acronym, so sticking with tokamak is fine. The word is pretty awesome on its own. Essentially, the tokamak is a device that harnesses a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma in a torus. A torus is a fancy geometry term for a donut. You can see a torus in the picture above.
Tokamak technology is what is being used in ITER, discussed below.
However, recently a group of scientists say they think they’ve found a different solution. They designed a bizarre spherical reactor that could theoretically achieve net-positive nuclear fusion. This could be the key to commercially available fusion energy.
Their reactor would use hydrogen and boron instead. It also leverages lasers to “heat up the core to 200 times hotter than the center of the Sun.” The team that released the study believes it could be built sooner than any current design. In fact ,they think that pending any unexpected engineering issues, such a reactor could be built within a decade. It also pointed out that their process would produce no radioactive waste at all.
Is Fusion the Future?
That remains to be decided. Like the space elevator, we have some significant technological hurdles. But given the possibilities, it’s likely that scientists and governments will keep trying.
While the laser project discussed above is interesting, it’s still mostly conceptual.
ITER, or the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, is the largest current nuclear fission project. It’s an international engineering megaproject. When it’s completed, it will be the world’s first fully functioning fusion reactor. It’s being supported by more than thirty-five nations including the USA, China, India, Japan and Russia. Construction began in earnest in 2008 in France.
Currently, the facility plans to complete construction by 2021. It will then aim to achieve plasma by 2025 and be operational by 2035.
Interestingly, scientists and governments are already planning the next generation project. DEMO, or DEMOnstratio Power Station, will build upon the ITER experimental fusion reactor. It will be the link between ITER and true commercially available fusion power. The hope is that the DEMO system will be operational before 2050.
Like other ambitious project – such as the Human Genome Project – the process will become cheaper and more efficient as time goes on. Because technology is designed, improved, and refined during the experimental stage, each subsequent experiment is easier.
Clean, cheap, plentiful energy could take human civilization to the next stage. It might even be one of the final steps before we can become a spacefaring species.
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