As mentioned in a previous article, nuclear energy is a topic that conjures as much acrimony as it does potential. More energy and lower emissions unfortunately also come saddled with incredibly expensive to build and maintain power plants, along with undeniable safety concerns. However, it is inarguable that we must change our energy creation and consumption, and we must do so swiftly. What if, then, there was an energy source that produces no waste, no carbon footprint, no methane, no carbon dioxide, and no rare fuel required? The only drawback?
Well...first, we have to bottle a star.
Nuclear fusion is a fiendishly complicated process that has, only very recently, became practically viable, instead of a purely theoretical exercise. As such, this will not be an exhaustive summary of the process, but a brief synopsis.
Nuclear fusion is a thermonuclear process responsible for powering our sun. Thermonuclear simply means that all the ingredients need to be unthinkably hot for the process to take place. So hot, in fact, that the atoms are stripped of their electrons, and form a plasma, where electrons and nuclei can bounce around freely. As nuclei are positively charged and electrons are negatively charged, they repel each other, refusing to interact. However, as previously mentioned, as this is a thermonuclear reaction, they don't react normally. As a result of being millions of degrees hot, these charges are overcome, and the electrons and nuclei crash into one another. They merge and fuse, creating heavier nuclei, and releasing astronomical amounts of energy in the process.
Due to the incredibly high energy requirements, nuclear fusion has long been seen as an impractical and unrealistic pipe dream. However, in December 2022, this pipe dream came a step closer to reality. NASA researchers at the US National Ignition Facility in California said fusion experiments had released more energy than was pumped in by the lab’s enormous, high-powered lasers.
The Power of a Sun
Nuclear fusion carries with it the prospect of solving our current energy crisis. As the fuel created from a fusion reactor is essentially identical to that of a star, nuclear fusion creates much, much more effective energy than any other form. According to the UK Atomic Agency Authority, one kilogram of fusion fuel could provide the same amount of energy as 10 million kilograms of fossil fuel and as reported by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), nuclear fusion could potentially generate 4 times more energy per kilogram than fission.
Additionally, it is far more efficient and sustainable than the current generation of renewables. According to Forbes, solar farms take up 450 times the space of a nuclear plant and a wind farm occupies 750 times the space of a standard fossil fuel factory, while also being far less reliable due to their inherent reliance upon unpredictable weather conditions. By contrast, a 1-gigawatt fusion power station will need less than 1 tonne of fuel during a year's operation, with this fuel to stabilise and power the nuclear reactions coming in the form of abundant sources. Deuterium (one of the gases, along with tritium, heated to millions of degrees to begin the fusion process) can be extracted from water, while tritium will be produced inside the power station from lithium, an element abundant in the earth’s crust and seawater.
As well, the quantities needed for a successful fusion reaction are tiny. The UK AEA states that the amounts needed are equivalent to "about the weight of a postage stamp at any one time". Even with the widespread adoption of fusion power stations, these fuel supplies would last for many thousands of years.
Finally, nuclear fusion is far, far safer for the long-term health of both the planet and the human race as a whole. The only by-products of fusion reactions are small amounts of helium, an inert gas which can be safely released without harming the environment. Unlike fission, whose by-product of nuclear waste can be radioactive for millions of years. The elements used in a fusion reaction have very short lifespans and are used in minuscule quantities, so the potential risk to public health is much reduced. The actual process itself is also incredibly safe. It is not based upon a chain reaction, such as fission, so it cannot cascade into a meltdown. Every shift or change of the working configuration in the reactor causes the cooling of plasma or the loss of its containment; in such a case, the reactor would automatically come to a halt within a few seconds, since the process of energy production is arrested, with no effects taking place on the outside.
There can be no doubt that the future of our planet is very much on the precipice. While our current nuclear output and increased focus on renewables are helping, we need more. Much more. Here, nuclear fusion represents the natural evolution of energy production. From burning wood to burning coals to splitting atoms, to now smashing them together and emulating the biggest source of energy any of us have ever known. Nuclear fusion represents a great step forward, but it is not without its detractions, which will be explored in the next article.