NUCLEAR FUSION ENERGY: Energy that could save our earth from all the changes world is facing
Coal is dirty, Nuclear is scary, Solar and Wind aren’t reliable, Hydro-thermal and Hydro-electric aren’t widely accessible, and we will eventually deplete our oil reserves. This is all a bit of hyperbole but the bottom line is that we don’t have a perfect energy source. Around the world, people are working on the nuclear fusion energy, which might be safe, efficient, reliable, a clean energy source that could save our planet. Again, this is a bit more hyperbole but it would be world-changing. So, how close are we to nuclear fusion energy?
This may come as a surprise to some, but fusion is not some futuristic, sci-fi idea, its happening. Nuclear Fusion energy exists every time we go out in the day and look at the sun; we see a big ball of burning Hydrogen gas. If we go out at night and look at the stars, those are also billions of burning plasma engines, fusion engines. We have already followed the stars for direction, but we need to learn to emulate them. The twinkle of a star and the heat from our Sun, are by-products of fusion. Fusion is a process of two light atoms, like Hydrogen, being forced together due to immense heat and pressure to form a heavier atom, like Helium releasing a huge amount of energy producing Heat and Light. Nuclear Fusion energy is the one that makes life possible on our planet. And many think that fusion will power our cities of the future.
We are burning things which have got to stop. We just literally set fire to things. That is really how we power the cities at the moment and is very inefficient, very dirty, and it’s not doing our atmosphere any good. Our atmosphere is one of the main reasons people are excited about fusion. Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear fusion doesn’t release toxins and polluting green-house gases like carbon dioxide. The by-product of fusion is Helium, an inert non-toxic gas. The fuel is made of two Hydrogen atoms that can be pulled from our abundant supply of seawater. Fusion does produce radioactive by-products, but the half-life of that waste is much shorter than in a fusion reactor. It is for all these reasons and more that Nuclear Fusion is viewed by many to be the cleanest, greenest, and most viable alternative to fossil fuels that we have. In fact, one of the biggest advantages touted by fusion supporters is that power plants might be able to plug right into our existing electrical grid, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to energy infrastructure.
Essentially, the basic premise of fusion is to take the Sun, a shining ball of Hydrogen in the sky, and to bring it to Earth and use the heat it produces to generate steam and to use that steam to turn a turbine. Now, of course, we can’t just grab a star and transport it to Earth, but we can replicate the conditions of a star. We currently have the technology to heat up Hydrogen atoms to well beyond the temperature of the Sun, to a point where fusion can occur. We have the technology to keep the superheated plasma in place long enough for fusion to happen. We know we can turn heat into electricity and currently have the infrastructure to put that electricity onto the grid.
In the world of fusion, Q represents the energy gain. ‘Q’ is the ration of fusion power produced to the power required to maintain the plasma in steady state. Basically, power plants of all kinds need electricity to produce electricity. This is only worthwhile if we can make more electricity than we consume and no one has done that yet. Although there have been many fusion reactions that do happen every year with more knowledge has been gained about how this works but that first step hasn’t happened yet. And that’s the goal for ITER, the largest scale fusion experiment on the planet that’s been in the works for decades. ITER represents a collaboration of around 30 nations on Earth to contribute to building a Tokamak, an apparatus for producing controlled fusion reactions in the hot plasma, and demonstrating an energy gain, a capital Q of ten.
This is exciting and science has already proven out that when it turns out in 2025, it will meet and exceed its goal. But ITER is experimenting only to demonstrate that fusion can produce a net energy gain. As big and expensive it is, will not power anyone’s home. If it’s successful, then a power station called DEMO will be built, aiming to put fusion electricity onto the grid somewhere between 2030 and 2050. So, one of the major issues with working in government projects is that they are notoriously bureaucratic. Government projects aren’t the only way to achieve fusion, private companies are also getting in on the world of fusion and they are not waiting around for ITER to prove successful. For instance, MIT recently along with its renowned researchers teamed up with a private company on a plan that they think could lead to an operational fusion power plant within the next 15 years. It is not the money that is the key to fusion success, its awareness. The more vocal the public is about wanting fusion power plants the more governments and investors might actually notice. The world that we would have fusion energy is clearly a future world.