This is when we can finally achieve fusion energy – a holy grail of clean energy

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“Fusion is a clean, near-limitless source of energy,” says Nick Hawker Reverse.

It sounds fantastic – an answer to the urgent need to move quickly to clean and sustainable energy. But is nuclear fusion our way out of the energy crisis?

Nuclear fusion is essentially the opposite of nuclear fission. This process, more commonly known as “nuclear energy”, involves splitting atoms to release energy. Rather, fusion involves smashing atoms together to create larger atoms, theoretically releasing large amounts of energy. But unlike nuclear fission, this process does not present the same safety issues regarding fusions or radioactive waste.

Hawker, CEO of First Light Fusion, a company currently developing a fusion energy system, sees the potential – and the money.

“More investment is pouring into the industry month by month, and it’s helping us bring this potentially game-changing technology closer to fruition,” he said.

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He’s not wrong: Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority reported in 2021 that 18 companies worldwide had received total funding of $1.9 billion, of which $85 million came from official sources. Of all the nuclear fusion companies surveyed, 15 were founded in the last decade and 12 in the previous five years.

Still, the leaping enthusiasm is tempered by a history of false starts. No public or private organization has yet demonstrated a fusion reaction that generates more energy than was needed for the reaction.

Fusion energy: still in 20 years

Smashing atoms together seems easy, but their forces repel each other. Fusion energy experiments typically involve breaking down two isotopes of hydrogen called deuterium and tritium. Crushing them together can release a lot of energy. But these two hydrogen atoms are both positively charged, which means they repel each other.

Heat makes atoms move. As the International Atomic Energy Agency explains, the goal is to heat them enough so that they can overcome their magnetic repulsion. They can collide and let a nuclear force overcome this repulsion.

Peter Norreys, professor of inertial fusion science at the University of Oxford, says Reverse recent breakthroughs are very promising. However, this does not mean that fusion energy is imminent.

“There are still big challenges ahead,” says Norreys. “I think the future of fusion power is exciting, but the power source won’t be realized until the middle of the 21st century.”

In a February 1955 speech, Indian physicist Homi J. Bhabha said that controlled fusion energy would arrive within the next two decades: “When that happens, the energy problems of the world will truly have been solved forever.”

Even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hinted at the delays during an October 2019 speech, when he pledged £200 million ($262 million) in funding for the technology.

“They’re on the verge of creating commercially viable miniature fusion reactors for sale around the world,” Johnson says before adding, “Now I know they’ve been on the verge for quite some time…c It’s kind of a fairly spacious board.”

The common European torus.UKAEA

A spark ignites

It sounds like a dream for a world to limit the increase in global average temperature to well below two degrees Celsius, as outlined in the Paris Agreement. Over the past year, this permanently coming form of carbon-free electricity generation has made strides towards becoming a reality that cannot be undone. Here is a quick timeline of some important fusion breakthroughs:

  • In August 2021, the National Ignition Facility announced that it was able to generate more than 70% of the energy consumed to reach 1.3 megajoules.
  • In January 2022, China’s advanced superconducting experimental tokamak set a world record by reaching a temperature of over 70 million degrees Celsius for about 17 minutes, which is crucial for sustaining a fusion reaction.
  • In February, the Joint European Torus facility in the UK announced that it produced an impressive 59 megajoules of energy in five seconds.
  • In March, the British private company Tokamak Energy announced that its ST-40 spherical reactor had reached a temperature threshold of 100 million degrees Celsius, which could allow commercially viable fusion.

Progress is good, but it’s not the same as proven technology that already works well. Wind and solar are proven technologies that exist today. Why invest in fusion?

The fusion energy process is similar to how the Sun burns materials and releases energy. Elon Musk, whose company Tesla sells solar panels, describes the Sun in a 2020 Twitter post as “Free Fusion Reactor in the Sky”. However, this may not be enough to solve our energy crisis.

Hawker’s company commissioned research into energy consumption over the next few decades and found that wind and solar could produce 19,900 terawatt hours per year. That’s an eightfold increase over current rates, but less than half of what is needed to reach the 2050 net zero goal set by many countries.

The world will have to find energy from clean energy sources.Shutterstock

Other analyzes have sketched out more ambitious renewable energy deployments, those that do not rely on fusion. The International Energy Agency’s “Net Zero by 2050” report, released in 2021, details a bold roadmap to achieve climate goals. It outlines how renewables could account for 90% of global electricity production by that date, with nuclear power accounting for less than 10%. Fusion receives no mention in the report – but advocates like Hawker say it’s shortsighted.

One of the advantages of fusion is that it offers electricity generated on demand, rather than only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing – a potential “complement” to renewable energy sources.

“To mitigate the impact of climate change, a large global market for clean baseload energy will open up to complement renewables, and this is where fusion energy will play a key role,” he said. -he declares.

The ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project, a consortium of 35 countries currently developing the largest fusion power experiment in the world, cites these major advantages of fusion:

6. Energy: The same amount of fuel as a traditional nuclear reactor generates four times more energy in a fusion power plant

5. Durability: Lithium in the ocean – an element needed for fusion power – could provide enough fuel for millions of years

4. Emissions: Zero carbon dioxide emissions

3. Waste: Fusion produces no long-term radioactive waste

2. Risk: Fusion cannot be a precursor to nuclear weapons, and there is no risk of fusion

1. Cost: Similar melting costs per kilowatt to a traditional nuclear reactor

We shouldn’t depend on fusion to save us – but it’s another potential tool in our kit as we adapt to our climate reality.

Ultimately, the UK Atomic Energy Authority finds that most fusion companies operating in the world today believe that fusion will not power any grid in the world until the 2030s at most. early. For a skeptical audience that has heard “two decades from now” for the past seven decades, it’s now up to the developers to prove that this time is different.

How we get there

Fusion energy is the collision of two light and extremely hot atoms to create a heavier atom. The colliding atoms heat up beyond 100 million degrees Celsius to become plasma. The energy released when the atoms eventually fuse together is then transferred as heat through a water loop system to produce steam. The steam spins a turbine, and the turbine generates electricity.

There are two main methods that maintain the fusion reaction:

  • Magnetic containment: Imagine a giant, hollow donut surrounded by magnets – that’s what’s used to control all that hot plasma. This is the most popular method.
  • Inertial confinement: Facilities like the National Ignition Facility use a method of containing plasma by its own inertia – in other words, a target is hit and falls on itself, so the reaction is controlled by that motion instead of magnets.

The biggest obstacle to the real working of fusion energy is that it has not yet generated more energy than is needed for the reaction. Heating atoms to temperatures similar to those of the Sun consumes a lot of energy.

Since we’re not there yet, researchers continue to explore multiple avenues to see if we can make a breakthrough anywhere.

Inertial fusion is the less developed of the two. But a recent breakthrough from the National Ignition Facility — the first demonstration of inertial confinement fusion combustion in a lab environment — shows it still holds promise, Norreys says.

“[The results] are really a big deal, in my opinion,” says Norreys. “They show that the pursuit of an inertial fusion reactor is a realistic possibility for the future, which does not rely on difficult and insurmountable physics.”

On the magnetic confinement side, the success of the Joint European Torus project bodes well for the future ITER project. ITER, which will use the same fuel mix and wall materials as JET, aims to power the machine for the first time by December 2025.

“For the ITER project, the results from JET are a strong source of confidence that we are on the right track as we progress towards demonstrating full fusion power,” ITER Director General Bernard Bigot said in a statement. a press release on the JET announcement.

“They [JET] are at the forefront of culture and are an outstanding example to the next generation of how to selflessly devote their energy and talent to the betterment of humanity,” says Norreys.

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