Can nuclear fusion power the globe?
Today marks the 3,224th anniversary of the earliest recorded solar eclipse. Researchers at the University of Cambridge worked retrospectively to put a date of 30 October 1207 BC to the eclipse which was referenced in the Bible. The research allowed historians to put a more accurate date to the reign of Egyptian pharaohs. Instead of looking backwards, some other intelligent researchers are now looking to the future and how the sun, or more accurately another sun can be used to power the globe. Nuclear fusion has the power to change the world – a 'star in a jar' providing enough clean, safe, limitless power to quench Earth’s sky-rocketing thirst for energy. Several projects are increasing hope for the technology, but doubts remain, particularly over whether the technology can be scaled to be viable commercially.
How nuclear fusion can power homes
Nuclear fusion is incredibly powerful. It is the same process that heats the sun and gives hydrogen bombs their devastating power. During fusion, hydrogen ions are fused together to create heavier helium atoms. This reaction also generates some extra energy, which can be harvested and turned into electricity. In modern science, achieving fusion isn’t all that difficult, if you have enough funding. But what is complicated, is using nuclear fusion as a viable energy source. Nuclear fusion stations would effectively have to create their own mini stars. A star in a jar produces a lot of energy and burns very hot. No earthly materials can contain the reaction, so hydrogen ions must be squashed together without physically touching anything. The sun’s immense gravitational pull forces hydrogen ions to interact with each other. In a nuclear fusion reactor, it is achieved using a strong magnetic field. Unfortunately, running the magnetic field takes a lot of energy. So, an efficient fusion reactor needs to produce more energy than it uses, or it will not be viable. The technology also needs to be scalable and profit-generating if it is to work commercially.
Who will crack fusion first?
There are dozens of teams working on fusion reactors around the globe. Several private companies, including Tokamak Energy in the UK and Tri Alpha Energy in Canada, use Tokamak magnetic cages trap plasma and force heavy hydrogen isotopes to fuse together. Each company uses a slightly different model and approach to encourage fusion. Britain’s privately funded Tokamak Energy have come a long way in a short space of time, managing to create their first hot blob of hydrogen plasma earlier this year.
China’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) achieved a stable 101.2-second steady-state high confinement plasma and setting a record this year. But the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Southern France could end up being the most successful fusion experiment. ITER is the largest of more than 200 Tokamaks that have been built around the world. Already the product of more than three decades of research, ITER is one of the most complicated engineering projects taking place anywhere on the planet. The project stems from a cold war Reagan-Gorbachev agreement in 1985 and is still driven by leaders from the EU, China, Russia, the US, India, Japan and South Korea. The objective is to trap plasma in a huge magnetic ring and force the hydrogen isotopes to fuse together – generating four times more energy than the splitting of uranium atoms in conventional fission.
But the project has run into difficulties. Over-budget and more than ten years behind the original schedule, ITER has become something of a symbol for fusion more generally. Many now question whether nuclear fusion will follow the same road as nuclear fission, which had promised “electricity too cheap to meter”, but ultimately under-delivered. Others still question whether nuclear fusion will ever be commercially viable. Nuclear physicists like to joke that nuclear fusion is always thirty years away. These doubts have added to political and economic uncertainty and hampered progress. The United States withdrew funding from the ITER project between 1998 and 2003 over concerns about rising costs. These questions are starting to be asked again. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate panel that oversees Department of Energy (DOE) spending, says that the United States cannot afford to keep pace with ITER’s growing budget. The United States currently contributes about 9% of ITER’s budget. But the DOE estimates that their annual contribution will more than double by 2018. The United States is bound by an international treaty to provide its share of ITER’s costs, but it cannot meet this contribution if Congress does not approve it. The DOE currently recommends funding the project until 2018, at which point it suggests re-evaluating the project’s progress and costs.
Other challenges to fusion
Clearly, there are challenges to nuclear fusion, but one of the main concerns may be time. On ITER’s current timetable, they expect to be able to generate electricity by 2025 and to be commercially viable by 2035. But climate change requires an accelerated change to low-carbon energy by 2050. Big advances are already being made in energy consumption and renewables generation. If these measures are successful, then will there be a need for nuclear fusion? At the same time, although it is by no means perfect, nuclear fission reactors are becoming safer. The world leaders and private companies are making a large bet on the future of nuclear fission power, but will it all be for naught? Some people don’t think we have another choice. Renewable energy is attractive because it is very clean. But creating enough power for a population of 10bn people will require entire countries to be covered by wind farms and solar fields. Nuclear fission is also flawed because it produces a large amount of radioactive waste that can be problematic for thousands of years. Nuclear fusion can create a lot of power from relatively small power stations and it produces very limited amounts of radioactive material. It is also clear that the climate situation is getting worse, and anything that governments can do to help correct it is extremely valuable. Concentrations of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere surged to a record high – 50% higher than the average of the past 10 years - in 2016 according to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO). Fusion is also a lot safer than fission, with the capacity for large meltdowns physically impossible. There is only a small amount of fuel in a fusion reactor at once and the gas of hydrogen ions will simply disappear if operators lose control of the reaction.
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