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Moving Closer to Carbon-Free Energy – A Nuclear Fusion Update

The inside of a nuclear reactor is hot

According to leading scientists, by 2050, carbon emissions was essentially come to a halt if we wish to avoid devastating climate change. Unfortunately, efforts to date have failed to achieve many of the carbon-reduction goals needed. This has led many to pursue alternative solutions, including those related to new energy sources. One of those potential solutions involves nuclear fusion, which refers to the enormous energy emitted when two atoms combine. And based on recent achievements, the future of nuclear fusion as a potential non-carbon energy source is quite promising.

(Read what Bold Business previously wrote about nuclear fusion here!)

Scientific teams in different locations are attempting to demonstrate the viability of this carbon-free energy solution. The future of nuclear fusion, however, requires that certain milestones be achieved. One of these milestones involves sustaining prolonged atomic fusion that might lead to continuous energy sources. In December of this year, a step in this direction was accomplished as scientists sustained the process for a total of five seconds. That may not sound like much, but considering the extreme temperatures involved, this is noteworthy. Plus, the experiment generated more than double the amount of energy previously recorded using nuclear fusion. With this in mind, the following offers a nuclear fusion update and its potential for the decades to come.

“Five seconds doesn’t sound like much, but if you can burn it for five seconds, presumably you could keep it stable and keep it burning for many minutes, hours, or days, which is what you are going to need for a proper fusion power plant. It’s the proof of that concept that they have achieved.” – Dr. Mark Wenman, Imperial College London

Recent Achievements in Nuclear Fusion

The recent experiments involving nuclear fusion took place in Oxfordshire at the end of this past year. A donut-shaped machine called the Joint European Torus was used to heat highly ionized gases to 150 million degrees Celsius. That’s right… 150 million degrees, which is 10 times hotter than the sun’s center. In the process, atomic nuclei of 2 hydrogen isotopes fused, emitting 59 Mega-Joules of heat. By comparison, this would be comparable to the energy released by detonating roughly 30 pounds of TNT. And it’s more than double the amount of energy ever released through a nuclear fusion process.

The achievement of this nuclear fusion update is not just impressive in terms of the magnitude of energy created. It’s also noteworthy for the time the fusion reaction as sustained. Prior attempts have been unsuccessful in attaining ongoing atomic reactions, which made many wonder about the future of nuclear fusion. But the magnets inside the machine were able to perpetuate the nuclear fusion process for 5 seconds. If the magnets had been more powerful, the reaction could have been sustained even longer. Thus, for many enthusiasts, the experiment demonstrated the future of nuclear fusion as a viable energy source.

“Our experiment showed for the first time that it’s possible to have a sustained fusion process using exactly the same fuel mix planned for future fusion power plants.” – Tony Donné, CEO of EUROfusion

Understanding Nuclear Fusion

The reason so many are excited about the future of nuclear fusion involves its energy potential. One kilogram of nuclear fusion material produces 10 million times more energy than a kilogram of coal, gas, or oil. Likewise, compared to nuclear fission used by existing nuclear power plants, nuclear fusion produces four times the energy. It also doesn’t pose the safety risks current nuclear power plants have in terms of radioactive waste. In fact, nuclear fusion is quite safe and produces almost no waste, which makes it a great climate change solution. Up until now, the future of nuclear fusion was only in question because of the inability to sustain a fusion reaction. This now seems to have changed.

An extreme closeup of some atomic stuff
A sustainable nuclear fusion reaction is almost within our grasp–what next?

The nuclear fusion update involving the Oxfordshire experiment mimics the energy process of the sun. Two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, a recombined under extreme heat to form helium and a neutron. In the process, massive amounts of energy are released. In terms of deuterium, it is quite available and can be readily obtained from sea water. Tritium is a little more difficult to acquire. However, scientists believe they can use the high-energy neutrons from the fusion process to produce it. If neutrons are applied to the common metal lithium, the end-products include tritium and helium. If this is realized, then the future of nuclear fusion from a cost and supply perspective is also favorable.

“It’s clear we must make significant changes to address the effects of climate change, and fusion offers so much potential.” – Professor Ian Chapman, Chief Executive, UK Atomic Energy Authority

Looking Ahead to Future Experiments

The recent nuclear fusion update provides even greater support to future experiments. A much larger nuclear fusion machine is currently being constructed in southern France called Iter. At the current time, Iter is about 80 percent complete, with plans to begin experiments in 2025. Those bullish on the future of nuclear fusion anticipate Iter could actually contribute as an energy source by 2035. Unlike the machine in Oxfordshire, Iter is much larger and has a much greater potential for sustaining nuclear fusion reactions. If capable of achieving its goals, Iter will link into existing European power grids and provide substantial nuclear fusion energy.

While this nuclear fusion update is promising, much work is still needed. In theory, it may offer a viable non-carbon energy resource. But the future of nuclear fusion remains unclear since larger-scale proofs are currently lacking. Fortunately, this is not the only hope for renewable energy resources for the future. But it remains one of the most noteworthy given its energy potential, safety, and readily available reagents. Based on these attributes, the future of nuclear fusion looks to be quite exciting. And it couldn’t come at a better time.


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