The Coming Age of Nuclear Fusion

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By: Ruicong Jack Zhong

Edited by: Timshawn Luh 

With global climate change becoming a pressing issue, it is now more important than ever to find sustainable sources of electrical energy. This past year, the US experienced wild winter weather with record-breaking snowstorms, and harsh weather is expected to continue and worsen. Electricity forms the basis of modern technology, but the generation of electricity has been unsustainable. Burning gas and coal emits greenhouse gases and is attributed to climate change.

As a solution, scientists have turned to the immense power of nuclear fission. Once popular as the “energy source of the future,” nuclear power plants have slowly been phased out in favor of other, cleaner energy sources. The enormous amount of energy produced by nuclear fission, splitting heavy atomic nuclei into lighter nuclei, comes with costly drawbacks. For instance, the spent nuclear fuel remains radioactive for centuries, and it must be stored in special underground areas for safety. Furthermore, heavy atoms are extremely unstable, and controlling nuclear fission is very tricky. If the reaction occurs too quickly, the reactor essentially becomes an atomic bomb. The nuclear meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are tragic stories of the dangers of nuclear fission.

As an alternative to nuclear fission, nuclear fusion now promises to be the energy source of the future. Used by stars to produce light, nuclear fusion involves combining light hydrogen nuclei with helium nuclei, as opposed to splitting heavy atomic nuclei into lighter nuclei. Interestingly, the energy produced by a single fusion reaction is less than that of a fission reaction. Yet, for the same mass of fuel used, fusion produces more energy than fission reactions. Hydrogen isotopes used in fusion are much lighter than the heavy atoms like uranium used in fission reactions.

Fission vs. Fusion

Fusion power offers many benefits over current sources of energy. The byproduct of fusion, helium nuclei, is relatively harmless. Better yet, the hydrogen isotopes used in fusion can be isolated from sea water. In 2010, a new catalyst was developed at UC Berkley to convert water into hydrogen. Further, fusion reactions are easier to control than fission reactions: fusion requires a steady input of energy and Compared to fission reactions, there is little risk of a meltdown or explosion. Finally, fusion power produces enough energy to be a feasible major power source, replacing unclean sources like gasoline, coal, or nuclear fission.

In recent years, scientists achieved controlled ignition of fusion reactions. Put simply, ignition occurs when the reaction’s energy output is greater than the reaction’s activation energy. Because the positive charges of hydrogen nuclei repel each other, a huge amount of energy is needed to fuse the nuclei and reach ignition. This energy requirement has made reaching ignition extremely difficult. The first man-made device to achieve fusion ignition was the hydrogen bomb Ivy Mike, made in 1952. In 2013, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California achieved controlled fusion ignition by using a series of ultra-powerful lasers to compress and ignite a fuel pellet. This method is used in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, which hopes to build a model commercially viable fusion reactor by 2019. ITER uses one of the many other proposed methods to achieve fusion; it runs a current through plasma to heat it and confines the plasma with magnetic fields. Other prominent developments in fusion, like Lockheed Martin’s high beta fusion reactor, also promise to achieve ignition within a few decades.

Preamplifiers for lasers at the National Ignition Facility

While fusion could replace unclean sources of power, fusion power can go hand in hand with other clean sources of energy. In fact, they operate in different locations and can work together to generate power. To illustrate, fusion reactors require a large area of land. Hydroelectric and tidal power plants take advantage of moving waters and would be situated on the coast. Wind power can operate in farmlands, oceans, and plains because each windmill occupies little space, and solar panels could be deployed in urban areas and deserts.

If fusion power is realized, it would completely alter political landscape of Earth. Many countries would switch to fusion power and no longer be dependent on fossil fuels for energy. With the introduction of affordable high-quality electric vehicles, consumers have even less reason to continue using gasoline and diesel powered vehicles. For example, the Tesla Model S and Model 3 would be able to travel over 250 miles on a single charge, and they can charge in less than 1 hour at Supercharging stations. Decreased use of fossil fuels would significantly diminish the political power of oil companies and oil-rich countries in the Middle East. It would also significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions and their negative effects. Ultimately, fusion power will lead to a new era of productivity and sustainability.

Tesla Model S

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