Fusion is thirty years away…and always will be. That is an oft-repeated cliché concerning one of the world’s most coveted – and so far unreachable – sources of energy. However, some recent developments in fusion energy technology could one day make that phrase obsolete.
Fusion energy is the phenomenon that powers the stars. Unlike conventional nuclear fission, where a uranium atom is split, giving off enormous volumes of energy, nuclear fusion is the process by which two hydrogen atoms are slammed together. This also gives off a vast quantity of energy, and with it, the promise that man can harness the most ideal source of energy.
That is because fusion would be nearly limitless. Hydrogen would be the principle source of fuel, an element found commonly around the world. But it would also be a clean source of energy since fusion would not emit greenhouse gases. And unlike the nuclear reactors of today, it would not present problems of weapons proliferation or meltdowns, since fusion reactors simply shut down if they encounter a problem.
That is the vision, anyway. The problem is that fusion has been a tough nut to crack. There have been enormous advances in the science and engineering, yet technical challenges remain. In short, the problem has been the inability to generate more power out than is required to be put in.
Research into fusion has been ongoing since the 1950’s. It even became a cause for peace between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. eager to deescalate the threat of nuclear war. In the 1980’s the two superpowers, along with several other countries, agreed to cooperate on one of the world’s most difficult science and engineering projects. They agreed to jointly build a magnetic fusion pilot power plant – called ITER – which is now under construction in France.
There are two main approaches to fusion: one using magnets and one using lasers. Magnetic fusion involves capturing and holding plasma gas in a donut shaped device called a tokamak. The plasma is heated to around 90 million degrees Celsius – or five times hotter than the surface of the sun – creating the conditions for hydrogen atoms to fuse together. The leading magnetic fusion facility in the world is the Joint European Torus (JET), a European project based in the United Kingdom. And when it is completed sometime in the 2020’s, the ITER project will be the most advanced…