Nuclear generation of energy has been controversial since the start of the nuclear era but there may be a technological leap on the horizon to transform nuclear power forever. Warning, this fusion story is quite long and in depth. Read on at your peril!
Many countries are heavily dependent on nuclear technology. France for example has over 75% of its power generated from nuclear power. Nuclear new build however in countries is highly controversial. Examples such as the Olkiluoto-3 plant in Finland show the vast complexity in building these plants and political pressure such as seen with that surrounding Hinkley-C in the UK. All examples to date however are fission reactors which essentially use heavy and unstable elements bombarded by subatomic particles to breakup and emit energy. These are for example the well-known Plutonium and Uranium. We will cover these in future blogs as there are many weird and wonderful examples of fission reactors.
There has always however been a holy grail sought for of cheap reliable nuclear energy without the waste bi-products that make nuclear energy so controversial. You may be thinking of mad scientists in a small lab in an American warehouse somewhere – you’d be partially right but would be thinking of the film “Chain Reaction” starring Keanu Reeves from 1996 which is about the discovery of a stable form of nuclear fusion energy. Essentially the film is correct in stating that stable common elements like Hydrogen could be used to produce vast quantities of cheap power without detrimental waste products. According to ITER scientists an amount of Hydrogen the size of a Pineapple can create the equivalent output of 10,000 tonnes of coal. The truth of the endeavour however involves one of the largest multilateral international collaboration in history and is entering an exciting phase.
The story of nuclear fusion is interesting and has some interesting side notes. From the famous equation E=mc2 through understanding how our sun and stars work, we developed our understanding of nuclear physics through the start of the twentieth century. Essentially both nuclear fission and fusion get energy through Einstein’s famous equation. In both cases, either by breaking atoms apart or fusing atoms together, the sum of the mass at the start of the reaction is slightly more than the sum of the energy at the end of the reaction. This tiny difference in mass is converted into energy and A LOT of it (the c stands for the speed of light and when it is squared it is a very large number indeed). Stars for example use this process when turning Hydrogen into Helium, known as fusion requiring the pressure, temperatures and a bit of quantum tunnelling seen within stars. (there are other fusion processes such as the CNO cycle and reactions for example in supernovae that create the heavier elements).
Recreating that environment and controlling it on Earth however has been the problem scientists have been grappling with ever since. Fusion has happened, there have been several examples – while the first atomic weapons used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were fission bombs, fusion (also known as Thermonuclear or Hydrogen or H bombs) were developed by 1952. Fusion reactions have also been initiated in laboratories worldwide. The challenge is to tame forces and energies that are similar to the centre of stars.
Today there are teams of people across the globe working on this problem such as the National Ignition Facility and HiPER (High Power Energy Research) project working on lasers as well as LDX, Z-IFE, General Fusion.
The biggest is the ITER project based in the south of France. This aims to build and run an experimental TOKAMAK that can produce 500MW of power for long periods of time. This international initiative that includes input from 35 nations reached its half way point in late 2017. The $20bn project aims to be generating electrical energy by as soon as 2025. Its aim is to generate 10 times the amount of power compared to that put into the system namely 500MW out from 50MW in.
The moon and beyond!
The developments in fusion may even have otherworldly implications. There is a need for amounts of the rare form of Hydrogen called Tritium which is very sparse on earth. The moon however is likely to hold significant amounts and therefore companies are already targeting mining operations for tritium with a new space race.
Do you think that the future is fusion?
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