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Fusion Energy: Important Things You Need to Know

by | Jun 27, 2022 | Sustainability




The fundamental currency of our universe is energy, as it lights our homes, grows our food, and powers our devices. We generate power from many sources such as burning fossil fuels, nuclear energy, wind, water, or sunlight. Our appetite for energy is enormous. Our huge consumption has helped us fuel our astonishing growth but at a cost.

All our major power generators are also the main contributor to our environmental degradation. Our energy generation methods have downsides as fossil fuels produce highly toxic pollutants, nuclear’s byproduct is radioactive nuclear waste, hydroelectric damages its surrounding, the wind does not produce enough power, and sunlight is unreliable.

More than 80% of the world’s energy consumption come from fossil fuel. Our reliance on fossil fuels is a hindrance to our growth and the well-being of citizens. We are faced with irreversible climate change unless we reduce emissions to net-zero. If we don’t find a non-fossil fuel form of energy capable of sustaining our needs, we’ve got to figure out how to deal with a warmer earth.

Scientists have been trying for decades to create an unlimited source of energy. And yet from all our sources, the sun seems to have virtually limitless free energy. Every second the sun emits a vast amount of energy capable of powering millions of houses. In fact, the earth intercepts 173 thousand terawatts of solar energy continually.

The amount of solar radiation the earth intercepts is capable of producing a thousand times more power than what the earth uses. However, large acres of land is needed for the installation of solar power, the sun is unreliable because it depends on weather conditions and there are not enough batteries to store solar energy.

Imagine if there is an alternative way to harness solar energy and power the entire world with its unlimited electricity. The sun shines because of nuclear fusion. Fusion is a thermonuclear process which means it is incredibly hot. With the extreme temperature, the atoms are stripped from their electrons creating a plasma where nuclei and electrons bounce around freely.

At the sun’s core reside a self-sustaining energy production from atomic nuclei smashing together at a very high speed. This creates a stable source of power that can be seen spreading across our entire solar system. This is where the idea of building a sun on earth comes from.

This atomic power has potential beyond what you can imagine. It has the potential to reproduce the power of the sun. It can practically generate an infinite amount of energy with no pollutant byproducts. Nuclear fusion does not produce carbon emissions or long-term radioactive waste, unlike the current fossil fuel energy production and nuclear technology.

The dream of an earthly energy source as clean and efficient as the reactions of the sun has lived in the minds of researchers for decades and is becoming a reality. So what is the potential of fusion power?

What is fusion power?

The technology for fusion power has been around for a while but the perfect conditions are still missing. It is a process where hydrogen atoms must be heated to about one hundred million degrees Celsius to form a fusion reaction. The reaction is seven to ten times hotter than the core of the sun.

To create this reaction, scientists need to generate high pressures similar to those in the sun. The problem is that high pressures on Earth are not enough to achieve fission power. To achieve fusion reactions scientists are fusing together light nuclei to bring very high temperatures and very high pressures to create an ionized gas plasma that is over hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius.

The plasma is about 150 million degrees centigrade which is ten times hotter than the heart of the sun. The idea of fusion power has intrigued scientists for nearly 100 years. The nuclear reactors that exist today are powered by fission which is atoms splitting apart. Fusion connects atoms rather than separating them. But a fusion reaction occurs when atoms fuse together.

Atom fusing together could generate four times more energy than fission and about 4 million times more than burning coal without producing any greenhouse gases or long-term radioactive waste. Basically, it would be a huge game-changer for the energy industry. The process in the sun is possible because of massive gravitational forces.

Scientists at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for plasma physics turned on an experimental reactor and produced hydrogen plasma in a device called the stein 7x stellarator. The stellarator is made to hold plasma formed by smashing hydrogen atoms together and blasting them with microwaves until the matter reaches temperatures of 100 million degrees.

At this temperature, the nuclei of the atoms fuse to form helium. The entire process generates energy and reflects what occurs at the sun’s core. However, in a lab, it is not so easy to create these conditions. Scientists have tried using magnetic confinement devices and lasers, but those have failed due to different obstacles. However, the newly developed electromagnet has overcome this problem.

inside iter tokamak fusion reactor
Image courtesy of Nature.com

Type of fusion reaction

On earth, it’s not feasible to use brute force methods to create fusion. To build a reactor that generates energy from fusion, scientists have invented two methods of making plasmas hot enough to fuse. The first type of reactor uses a magnetic field that squeezes plasma in a doughnut-shaped chamber where the reactions take place.

To generate atomic fusing power, a small amount of fusion fuel is heated to temperatures ten times higher than the center of the Sun. During this process, the fuel undergoes fusion in a small cylinder. Because of the extreme temperature, magnetic confinement is essential. Many types of machines are used to maintain the magnetic confinement of plasma.

One of these designs uses a torus-shaped chamber containing a powerful electrical current. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in France, for example, uses superconducting electromagnets cooled with liquid helium to within a few degrees of absolute zero. Creating some of the biggest temperature gradients in the known universe.

ITER is a multinational effort to build a Tokamak reactor. This device will use magnetic fields to confine a massive volume of heated plasma. The heated plasma will reach temperatures of 150 million degrees. The bubble will act as a “containment field” for the plasma fusion process.

As with any experiment, the success of fusion depends on how much energy it can produce. The ITER reactor was designed for just this purpose and it’s still under construction. The second type is called “Inertial confinement” which uses pulses from super-powered lasers to heat the surface of a pellet of fuel, imploding it to briefly make the fuel hot and dense enough to fuse.

Inertial confinement fusion works by using powerful lasers that are primed and shot through a closed system. They are then amplified and focused on a small target. In this case, the target is a pellet of deuterium-tritium atoms about 10mg in mass. The lasers will compress the deuterium-tritium atoms and thereby produce power.

In addition to releasing energy, the inertial confinement fusion reactor would need to generate tritium which is a fast-decaying radioelement of hydrogen. In addition to deuterium, the DT reaction would also create tritium, which is uncommon.

If this reactor can be successfully constructed, it would be a great step forward for mankind. The ITER project will have a huge impact on the field of science and technology. The ITER nuclear fusion reactor is one of the world’s largest projects. It is the most expensive and promising of all fusion projects.

To make fusion work, huge teams of engineers and scientists are collaborating internationally on the ITER project. The international team consists of scientists and engineers from 35 countries, with an initial budget of $10 billion. Although this process will not feed our electricity grids for the coming decades, it has already paved the way for fusion power research.

While there are a number of challenges with fusion power, the ITER facility will be the largest of its kind. The walls of the reactor are huge graphite magnets that keep the plasma contained in the heart of the machine, hydrogen atoms smash together at high speed, releasing a huge amount of energy in the form of plasma.

ITER will be able to produce a plasma temperature of 150 million degrees Celsius. Assuming the project is completed on schedule, it should be able to produce 500 megawatts of fusion energy for every 50 megawatts of input heating power.

Why fusion power is important?

While the concept of fusion energy is futuristic and somewhat sci-fi-like, it has many benefits. For one thing, atomic fusing plants can operate around the clock and don’t produce emissions or long-lived radioisotopes. The process of fusing creates heavier atoms with no long-lived radioactive waste, making it a greener and safer source of electricity.

In terms of carbon-free electricity, fusion power is the most promising alternative to coal. It also produces combined thermal energy. And if successful, it could be a viable option for producing energy for the world. Furthermore, the fusion reaction is non-lethal, with no risk of wide-scale releases of energy.

Additionally, fusion power does not involve radiation, so even the worst accident would be much lower than in Fukushima or Chernobyl. Furthermore, fusion fuel is inert, so it can be released without causing harm to the environment. Also, the reactor parts should last for 40 to 50 years and be safe to recycle. And the parts of the reactor can be reused as metal and are thus safe to be disposed of.

The simplest fusion reaction would use lithium and deuterium. A kilogram of lithium, for example, can generate the same amount of energy as 300 liters of gasoline. In the long run, this technology is highly cost-effective because it can replace coal and gas in existing power plants.

In addition, it can be used in many different applications, such as solar power, wind power and hydrogen-based fusion energy. Scientists argue that it can replace existing energy generators like coal, gas and nuclear alongside renewable energy. Renewable energy has often been proven to be unreliable.

The atoms in a fusion reactor are incredibly hot and the power produced by it is tremendous. Because the reactions are highly efficient, they have the potential as a source of energy. As a renewable energy, atomic fusing reaction can provide abundant power while generating zero or very low waste.

Hence, fusion power can be used as an alternative to renewable energy. This can also help to significantly lessen our carbon footprint. Although the concept is still a long way off, the physics behind this approach is becoming increasingly important. But the technology still has a long way to go before it can become commercially viable and it may also never be.

Unlike fossil fuel power plants, fusion reactions produce zero waste and virtually unlimited fuel. The process has an immense potential to produce clean energy but there are still many challenges to overcome. The most critical hurdle is sustaining high-gain burning plasma.

The process of creating a high-gain burning plasma requires high-gain energy and is not cost-effective if it causes uncontrollable instabilities. Further, the fuel has to be highly pure and reliable. It also requires a steady plasma current that is sufficiently large to generate power. As a result, it is imperative to establish the economic viability of fusion power.

A successful ITER reactor will produce 10 times as much power as it consumes. However, the cost of building ITER is high. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the total bill at $25 billion. The project will take another decade before the reactor can be ready for commercial use. However, experts believe that the technology is worth the huge cash investment.

If we can learn to control it, nuclear fusion could change life as we know it. But that’s a big if. The reactor is expected to reach a temperature up to 10 times hotter than the sun. On the sun we have a temperature of only 15 million degrees but in the heart of the reactor, it’s 150 million degrees.

If we get there, it will make our energy demand more efficient. A single glass of seawater could be used to produce as much power as burning a barrel of oil with no waste as byproducts. This is because the reactor would use hydrogen or helium as fuel and sea water is loaded with hydrogen.

But even if it works, it might be too expensive to ever build. And the main drawback is that it is an unproven technology and a billion-dollar gamble project which is still at the trial stage. Money that might have been better spent on other proven clean energy. But if the gamble pays off, it will provide unlimited clean energy for everyone. so it is worth the risk.

And over the past years, scientists have gotten a lot closer. After the proof of principle exists, rapid industrialization can start and the possible effect takes over. This is one of the greatest technological challenges humanity has ever faced. And if we get it right, it holds out the potential for producing almost unlimited supplies of energy until we find something better.