Generating energy from a controlled Nuclear Fusion Reaction is possibly the Holy Grail for Nuclear Physicists around the world. We consider it to be the ultimate carbon and by-product free answer to our energy needs. But the problem is that it is a hard process. So far, no one has a way to actually output more energy than we give in. Decades of research proves how difficult it is.
Fusion energy is the answer to the energy and emissions crisis. Using fossil fuels absolutely destroying our world forces our scientists to find novel ways. And this search may not go in vain, as researchers seem to crack the code.
Nuclear Fusion Energy
Fusion Energy is the holy grail of nuclear physics. It is basically the primary method of energy generation all around the universe. Where in the universe can we see this? The closest example of nuclear fusion is there in our skies, our Sun. The sun produces its energy from nuclear fusion.
In fact, all the stars in the universe produce their light and heat from nuclear fusion. It is fusing two lighter nuclei (hydrogen) into one heavier nucleus (helium) under intense pressures and temperatures. Fusion generates a tremendous release of energy, more than that in fission, in the form of heat and light. It releases this heat and light out into space.
Well, we have fission reactors. Why can’t we make fusion reactors here? The problem is that we cannot replicate the process here on earth. To achieve nuclear fusion, we need to replicate the temperatures and pressures involved. These extreme conditions turn the particles into plasma. And it is from this plasma that we generate energy. Now, while we can generate energy from plasma, we don’t have the technology to do it efficiently. In fact, more energy goes into making plasma than the energy we collect from it, which is not an excellent system.
Why is Fusion Energy so Special?
Consider the current situation of the world. We use fossil fuels for almost all our energy needs. Whether it’s driving to the grocery store or driving the biggest thermal power plants, we use fossil fuels. Fossil fuels have two enormous problems. One is that they release carbon emissions. Carbon emissions are a threat to the environment which, when goes out of hand, triggers global warming. The second problem is that they are not here forever. We have a limited supply of coal and petroleum. Once it is over, it’s over! That is unless we don’t destroy the world before it runs out. Let’s hope that never happens.
So, carbon emissions and supply shortages are the reasons we turn to more eco-friendly sources. Renewable sources like water never end. It is available abundantly in limitless quantities. They are also eco-friendly, as they are not carbon-based.
One of these renewables sources is nuclear energy. Now, we are all familiar with the conventional nuclear energy generation. What we know little about is the effects on it to the environment. It is also not carbon-based, but we all know what happened at Chernobyl. Chernobyl is the best example of a nuclear disaster. The by-product of nuclear fission is more poisoning than carbon emissions, radiation.
And this is exactly why fusion energy is very useful. The major source for fusion energy is hydrogen, which is abundantly available on the Earth. The next benefit is that all it releases the radiation out as heat and light. It is a complete by-product and carbon-free energy source.
MIT and CFS introduces SPARC
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) are developing a new fusion research experiment called SPARC. SPARC is a precursor to a practical working fusion reactor. The researchers plan to create and confine a plasma that will produce net fusion energy. They published this as seven studies in the Journal of Plasma Physics.
“The work is progressing smoothly and on track to begin construction around June 2021”- Martin Greenwald
Martin Greenwald, deputy director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Centre is one of the Lead scientists of the project. The team expects to experiment with SPARC and even create net fusion energy as early as 2025. The experiments will provide important information and could pave the way for commercial power from fusion technology.
“One of the conclusions is that things are still looking on-track. We believe it’s going to work.”- Bob Mumgaard, chief executive at CFS.
Fusion Energy for the Future
SPARC is surely a big step in achieving fusion energy but it is not the only project out there. ITER is a collaborated energy project spanning many countries including Europe, China, India, Japan, South Korea and Russia, and the USA. It is the largest experimental fusion facility in the world. ITER is ready for machine assembly and could achieve plasma production by 2025.
NASA recently released an alternative method of achieving fusion at room temperatures inside a metal lattice.
Generating energy from Nuclear Fusion provides significant advantages to both the energy and environment sectors. Being a process which releases tremendous amounts of energy, it could replace the current nuclear reactors. The added advantage that it does not produce any by-products like radiation and is also carbon-free means that it could solve the current emissions crisis. Although tonnes of research remains into perfecting the technology, the recent advancements show that we are on the right track.
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