Imagine if we could bring the power source that lights star down to earth? Not only would it provide us with limitless low carbon electricity, but it could also solve the energy crisis across the globe and modernise the entire power grid for millennia. Amidst the current environmental conditions and crisis, fusion energy has the promise to generate clean and green energy. It is no longer seen as science fiction, scientists and engineers are developing this technology for national grid systems. But what is fusion energy and, why is it revolutionary?
What Is Fusion Energy?
Fusion in simple words is a process that produces power that controls the universe. The process entails the release of “bursts of energy” when a fusion of light nuclei occurs to form a heavier nucleus.
Currently, we use nuclear Fission (in nuclear power stations) in which energy is released on the splitting apart of the nucleus to form smaller, lighter nuclei.
For us to produce fusion energy on earth, a combination of hydrogen gases (namely deuterium and tritium) are heated at high temperatures, higher than 100 million degree Celsius. The gas changes to form a plasma and, the nuclei combine to form a neutron and a helium nucleus. During this process, only a tiny fraction of the mass is used to convert into “fusion” energy. A plasma with millions of these reactions firing every second can generate a large amount of energy with very little fuel – ideal for our needs currently on the planet.
Why Invest in Fusion Energy?
The allure of fusion energy lies in its deliverance of endless energy with sparsity in emissions and negligible carbon footprint. With the increasing concern over climate change, the very limited and finite source of fossil fuels and our growing energy needs, this is a promise we can all get behind. Below are the benefits of fusion power and why it needs to be adapted and normalised for our current world:
- Zero Carbon Emissions: There are no CO2 or other harmful atmospheric emissions from the fusion process, which means that fusion doesn’t contribute to green house gas emissions or global warming.
- Copious Amount of Fuels: Deuterium and tritium are the sources that start a fusion reaction. Deuterium is readily extracted from water while tritium is procured from lithium. Lithium has ample supplies in the earth’s crust and seawater. Even if the whole world shifted to fusion power stations, these supplies would last for thousands of years.
- Less Radioactive Waste In Comparison To Fission Reactions: The fusion reaction in its self produces no radioactive by products. The reactor components eventually become radioactive depending on the level of activity of structural material. Research is ongoing to find suitable materials to lessen the decay time.
- Efficacy of Energy: One kg of fusion fuel produces energy equal to 10 million kilograms of fossil fuels. It is to say that a one Gigawatt fusion power station will require less than one ton of fuel in a single year!
- Reliable Power Source: There’s no running out of power once a fusion power plant is set up. These plants will be designed to produce and supply a continuous flow of electricity. Once established commercially, predicted costs are likely to be similar to current energy sources.
- Safety: With a fusion reactor, an accident of large scale is minimised. Why? Because the amount of fuel used in fusion devices is extremely small; equal to the “weight” of a postage stamp. In addition, there is no risk of a runaway reaction leading to a meltdown as the fusion process itself is harder to start and maintain its continuity.
Current Nuclear Fusion Projects Globally
The Breakthrough at TAE Technologies
TAE technologies use a novel method to produce a stable plasma at temperatures higher than 50 million degree Celsius. For perspective, that’s twice the temperature of the sun’s core. TAE industries and many others, such as General fusion and commonwealth fusion systems have been working endlessly to bring this sci-fi technology into the real world. TAEs hard work has paid off. They’ve achieved this milestone six years after their approved reactor design which was capable of sustaining plasma indefinitely. In simpler words, it means that once a fusion reaction is started, it will continue indefinitely.
The Culham Centre for Energy Fusion
Another way to control the boiling hot plasma is with the aid of powerful magnets. Currently, the most advanced device on earth for this is the “tokamak,” Russian for “ring shaped magnets.” The Culham Centre for Energy Fusion in the UK is currently developing fusion reactors on the tokamak principle. Under CCEF they have three fusion programs:
- JET: known as the Joint European Torus is one of the world’s largest and Europe’s flagship tokamak experiment. Operated by CCFE on behalf of European researchers globally through contracts between the UK’s atomic energy and the European Commission.
- MAST (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak Upgrade): this programme is an extension of the original MAST tokamak with new capabilities such as plasma stability and exhaust. This particular program also contributes to research on plasma physics, fusion technology and material and the international ITER project in France.
- STEP (Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production): Another UK based initiative. It is a power plant design activity with a focus on the compact “spherical tokamak” reactor concept. STEPS objective is to deliver electric power by 2040.
ITER is a Latin word for “the way.” It is an ambitious and multinational tokamak energy project in France. ITER aims to produce 500 MW of fusion power to demonstrate that fusion energy can be employed on a commercial scale.
Its main area of research is to develop and test out robust materials that can withstand the high temperatures expected in a fusion power plant.
After ITER, DEMO (short for demonstration) will be the EU’s prototype power station design with a goal to provide fusion energy on the grid by the year 2050, through industrial and commercial exploitation.
China, South Korea and Japan are other areas where power plant design programmes are being developed. These will lead the first generation of “commercial” fusion power stations.
Nuclear fusion energy is no longer a myth yet, it still faces challenges from critics of nuclear power. But with the advancement in research, most companies including EGB Engineering believe that implementation of a sustainable nuclear fusion power source with management solutions is what the planet needs right now.
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Image Credits: National Fusion Research Institute, Korea