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The world sorely needs an efficient, infinite and clean source of energy right now as climate change continues to be the biggest threat to our survival. That’s why private industries and governments around the globe are turning to nuclear fusion power, and it may be closer to being reality than you think.
Fusion is the process of fusing atoms together at high pressures and temperatures to create energy. It’s a process that is already happening inside stars.
And scientists have been trying to emulate the process in order to create the energy source of the future that can power the globe at low cost without the pollutants that sources of energy such as oil and coal pump out on a daily basis.
Several start-up companies, including Tokamak Energy in the United Kingdom, which is named for the Russian device of the same name that is primarily used to generate fusion energy (kinda similar to Tony Stark’s arc reactor technology in the Marvel universe), are currently in the process of trying to bring fusion energy to the world. It’s just taking time.
“Tokamak reactors are the best performing fusion device that scientists have come up with so far,” Tokamak Energy physicist Melanie Windridge explained. “The reaction chamber is a torus shape, a bit like a ring doughnut, though ST40 is squashed up like an apple. The world’s biggest fusion reactor, ITER, being built in France, is a tokamak machine, but we want to use advanced superconducting magnets to bring the size down.”
ITER, which stands for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, is funded and run by a team of 35 nations including the United States in an effort to make fusion power a reality and bring it to the masses. The reactor will be ready for use by 2025 and is aiming to produce usable fusion power by the 2030s that would be used in conjunction with other clean energy sources.
“When we prove that fusion is a viable energy source, it will eventually replace burning fossil fuels, which are non-renewable and non-sustainable,” ITER Director-General Bernard Bigot told the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in September. “Our mission is to provide a new option which is safe, sustainable and economically competitive. Fusion will be complementary with wind, solar and other renewable energies.”
Windridge says that while scientists have “already achieved fusion,” they haven’t discovered how to get more energy out of the reaction than they put in. That’s “quite important if you want to make a power station,” she observed.
Indeed, generating the heat produced by stars and containing it will require significant advances in technology, but Director of IAEA Division of Physical and Chemical Sciences Meera Venkatesh points out that it’s worth it.
“The realization of fusion power reactors would be a landmark achievement, taking nuclear science and technology to a higher level,” she said.
“To do it, we first have to create the conditions that are found inside of stars,” Windridge explained.
“In fact, even hotter than that, because we want to use a slightly different reaction that won’t take millions of years to get going. 100 million °C is the threshold we’re looking to reach, to get fusion going. We may even operate at 150 million °C or more. Then, of course, you need to contain that plasma, that hot fusion fuel. Magnetic fields are used for that. This year, we hit 15 million °C…That temperature milestone was really good news – that’s hotter than the sun.”
Current predictions are that these fusion reactors will be producing viable energy sometime in the 2050s, but Tokamak Energy executive vice chair David Kingham warns that it needs to be done even sooner before it’s too late to stop or reverse climate change.
“We need fusion energy to be deployable at a scale of tens of gigawatts at many power plants in the 2030s to tackle carbon emissions,” he told Chemical & Engineering News.
Commonwealth Fusion Systems CEO Bob Muumgard agrees.
“The aspiration is to have a working power plant in time to combat climate change,” he told The Guardian. “We think we have the science, speed, and scale to put carbon-free fusion power on the grid in 15 years.”
And that’s if the reactors can generate more energy than is needed to produce the reaction, which has been the most difficult part.
Many scientists point out that reactors just are not yet advanced enough to generate and contain the heat produced by a reaction, not to mention the problem of how to extract the energy being generated. “While such systems can make a low level of fusion reactions, obtaining more energy out than what you’re putting in is hopeless for pretty fundamental reasons,” Oak Ridge National Laboratory physicist Donald Spong told Live Science.
University of Michigan physicist John Foster agrees — but says it’s “not impossible,” just “tricky” to achieve.
C&En News points out that “the only human-made fusion reactions that release more energy than they consume are hydrogen bombs, in all their frightful variations.”
But fusion power is far safer than a hydrogen bomb.
“This is a really good thing about fusion energy,” Windridge says. “It’s inherently safe, because there’s so little plasma in the machine at any one time. If you lose control of it, there’s not enough fuel there for a big explosion or anything catastrophic. It would simply cool very quickly, though that can put strain on the machine structure.”
In short, the machine might get damaged, but no one has to worry about being vaporized.
That’s why fusion power companies and researchers are turning to the latest in magnetic and superconductor technology to contain and harness the heat being generated.
“Fusion has been undervalued by governments. It’s long-term. It’s speculative. But the upside is huge,“ Commonwealth Fusion Systems co-founder Martin Greenwald notes. “We think fusion is too important for just one try.”
There’s still a long way to go, but Windridge is optimistic because of what humans have accomplished in the science arena before.
“Humans have done incredible things – we’ve flown to the moon, for goodness sake. It just takes money, people and time. But the politics takes its toll. ITER, for example, has been hugely delayed because it turned into a big political thing. It’s a worldwide collaboration, which means it’s bureaucratic, really slow and inefficient. Before the delays and inefficiencies with ITER led the costs to spiral, one country could have built it for less than it costs to run the Olympics. Now, everyone’s quite happy for one country to run the Olympics, but apparently nobody wants one country to solve the world’s energy problem.”
The question is if a private company manages to succeed, how much money will people have to pay for this never-ending energy resource to power their homes, especially if that one company has a monopoly.
After all, an infinite clean energy source is only as useful as it is available. People are not going to pay vast sums of money when coal and oil are still much cheaper. It’s kinda like solar power. The technology is available for homes, but it costs tens of thousands of dollars for a system to be installed and a person has to wait a few years to pay for itself with all the renewable free energy from the sun it would generate. Even Greenwald admits that “there’s trillions of dollars to be made.”
It kinda sounds like private companies are more interested in developing fusion power to hold the world hostage for profit than it is about seriously combating climate change and saving the world.
Because if we are going to stop climate change, this technology needs to be implemented for everyone as soon as possible instead of waiting for people to buy energy they can’t afford. Of course, if the energy is infinite, offering it at a cheap price that everyone can afford should not be a problem. But, as we all know, greed can derail progress and that’s why we need to hope that whoever cracks the fusion power code is someone who cares more about the planet and humanity than they do about vast wealth.
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