Scientists just got closer to making nuclear fusion work

nuclear plant

(Frédéric Paulussen, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Rosamond Hutt, Senior Writer, Formative Content & Keith Breene, Formative Content


Proponents of nuclear fusion see it is as a clean and virtually limitless energy source that could power the future. But while researchers are confident they can make it work, realizing the long-held dream of fusion power is proving far from easy.

Potentially offering an inexhaustible supply of zero-carbon energy, nuclear fusion has shown great promise for decades but is yet to be viable at scale because maintaining a fusion reaction requires more power than it generates.

However, recent advances in the quest for fusion power have reignited hopes that it can be made feasible.

Scientists in China have built a fusion reactor that in November became the first in the world to reach 100 million degrees Celsius. That’s nearly seven times hotter than the sun’s core and the temperature at which hydrogen atoms can begin to fuse into helium.

The achievement by China’s Institute of Plasma Physics at its Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) is a milestone on the fusion journey, and will provide valuable insights for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, a collaboration between the European Union, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

 

At an estimated cost of $25 billion, the consortium is building a prototype fusion reactor, called a tokamak, in southern France. It aims to conduct a first test of super-heated plasma by 2025 and generate first full-power fusion by 2035.

Although the ITER is the biggest and most expensive project, there are more than a dozen other fusion research initiatives under way.

Last year a privately funded UK venture called Tokamak Energy announced its plasma had hit 15 million degrees Celsius for the first time.

A collaboration between MIT and the start-up Commonwealth Fusion Systems is designing a fusion reactor capable of producing more power than it consumes. Their research will complement the work done by ITER.

And the Canadian government announced last year it is investing US$37.5 million in General Fusion, a company founded in 2002 that focuses on an approach known as magnetized target fusion.

The tokamak is an experimental machine designed to harness the energy of fusion.
Image: ITER.org

What is ‘fusion’ exactly?

Fusion is the reaction that powers the Sun. It’s produced when two light atoms fuse into one under extreme pressure and temperature. The total mass of the new atom is less than that of the two that formed it; the “missing” mass is given off as energy, as described by Albert Einstein’s equation E=mc2.

Fission, which is the energy source in current nuclear power stations, involves splitting an atom’s nucleus.

Fusion has the potential to deliver much more power than fission, but without the long-lasting radioactive waste.

There are several “recipes” for cooking up fusion, which rely on different atomic combinations.

The most promising combination for power on Earth today is the fusion of a deuterium atom with a tritium one. The process, which requires temperatures of approximately 39 million degrees Celsius, produces 17.6 million electron volts of energy.

Deuterium is a promising ingredient because it is an isotope of hydrogen. In turn, hydrogen is a key part of water. A gallon of seawater (3.8 litres) could produce as much energy as 300 gallons (1,136 litres) of petrol.

Fusion occurs when atoms are heated to very high temperatures, causing them to collide at high velocity and fuse together. When two light nuclei collide to form a heavier nucleus the process releases a large amount of energy.
Image: General Fusion

Putting theory into practice

While fusion power offers the prospect of a clean source of energy, it has also presented many so-far-insurmountable scientific and engineering challenges.

In the sun, massive gravitational forces create the right conditions for fusion in its core, but on Earth they are much harder to achieve.

Fusion fuel – different isotopes of hydrogen – must be heated to extreme temperatures, and must be kept stable under intense pressure, and dense enough and confined for long enough to allow the nuclei to fuse.

And this is where progress has been made. Advances in magnet technology have enabled researchers at MIT to propose a new design for a practical compact fusion reactor that might deliver a net power output perhaps within the next decade or so.

New superconducting magnets would enable the reactor to operate in a sustained way, producing a steady power output, unlike today’s experimental reactors that can only operate for a few seconds at a time without overheating.

The era of practical fusion power may finally be coming nearer.

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Coronavirus response: How the Capital Markets Union can support Europe’s recovery

Cybersecurity: agreement reached on better protection for citizens and companies

E-cigarettes are killing us softly with their vapor

OECD, UN Environment and World Bank call for a radical shift in financing for a low-carbon, climate-resilient future

Brussels terrorist attacks: Schengen in danger once again while leaders gather Europe’s multiple broken pieces

FROM THE FIELD: Weaving profits in Azerbaijan

Bolivia crisis: UN chief sends envoy to support peace, amidst renewed clashes

Parliament names radio studio after journalists murdered in December attack

Lifting the lid on policy decisions across Africa

Budget MEPs approve €104.2 m in EU aid to Greece, Spain, France and Portugal

DR Congo: ‘New waves of violence’ likely, UN warns, unless State acts to prevent intercommunal reprisals

The EU-US trade agreement, victim of right-wing extremists and security lunatics

UN resolution paves way for mass use of driverless cars

A new dawn for Europe: Joint op-ed by President von der Leyen, President Michel and President Sassoli

Is mental health really ‘health’?

A record number of people will need help worldwide during 2020: Global Humanitarian Overview

The Five Chinese Girls

Dutch voters reject EU-Ukraine partnership and open a new pandora’s box for the EU

Italian archaeological trafficking group dismantled

Progress toward sustainable development is seriously off-track

COVID-19 is more deadly for some ethnic groups

Service and Sacrifice: Malaysian peacekeepers in Lebanon proud to serve their homeland and the United Nations

Canada grants asylum for Saudi teen who fled family: UNHCR

We should look to nature for solutions to the global water crisis. Here’s why

Unemployment and exclusion brings EU cities to boiling point

Why do US presidential elections last so long? And 4 other things you need to know

Human rights in Brussels and in Beijing: a more balanced approach needed

How and why Mercedes fakes the EU fuel consumption tests

European Business Summit 2014: Sting Report, Day I

Commission reports on 2019 European elections: fostering European debates and securing free and fair elections

Planet’s Health is Our Health and the Reverse is True

How a chocolate bar gives hope for a new economy

Approving most of EU’s accounts, EP requests new measures to protect EU spending

This is how climate science went mainstream

Jakarta is one of the world’s fastest disappearing cities

State aid: Commission opens in-depth investigation procedure into measures in favour of Béziers airport in France and Ryanair

In Mozambique, it’s ‘a matter of the heart’ says Guterres, lauding the cyclone-struck nation’s ‘undeniable moral authority’

Eurozone at risk of home-made deflation and recession

Brexit deal approved by the European Parliament

The 5 things you need to make your teams more effective, according to Google

India’s mega-rich are on the rise

Palestine refugee agency chief resigns amidst mismanagement probe

Buzzkill: why the hype around drones and COVID-19 is misplaced

EU Commission announces Safe Harbour 2.0 and a wider Data protection reform

EU’s Mogherini visits Turkey “to step up engagement” and highlight interests

What the future holds for the EU – China relations?

New York’s rooftop farms provide fresh local produce – and help stop a sewage problem

Brexit: Only Corbyn and May in concert can make the needed compromises

Vile act of torture prohibited ‘under all circumstances’, UN chief affirms on International Day to support victims

‘No justification’ for attacks against civilians, UN envoy says on mounting cross-border violence in Gaza

Berlin repels proposal for cheaper euro

‘Leaders who sanction hate speech’ encourage citizens to do likewise, UN communications chief tells Holocaust remembrance event

2019: A deadly year for migrants crossing the Americas

Conflict diamonds and climate change: Cooperate, don’t compete over natural resources urges Guterres

Can the EU assume the mantle of global leadership?

We know ethics should inform AI. But which ethics?

Global Citizen-Volunteer Internships

This is the state of the world’s health, in numbers

US-EU trade negotiations: pointless tariffs against real economic growth

Schengen: MEPs ready for negotiations on temporary checks at national borders

More Stings?

Advertising

Comments

  1. they’ve been saying this since 1901. Just like they’re sending people to the moon again. Its billions of dollars pumped into the economy via NASA to create and keep hi tech hobs hete and continue advances in technology. The SLS WILL NEVER BE BUILT and if Orion does launch it will go up on existing rockets. in low earth orbit.

  2. Yoginder N Andley says:

    Very well written.

  3. Jack C says:

    None of these hype stories ever mention break even fusion energy output. Achieving high temperatures is not an accomplishment. Pfus / Plaser > 1, where energy generated is greater than the input, is the only acceptable measurement for success.

  4. I am very hopeful and excited about thevrecent developments in this technology. It truly is one of Civilization’s transformative technologies. Once we can develop and scale, it will radically change the world… for the better!

  5. WAYNE OWEN says:

    Now that we can generate Bulk volumes of Dense Electron Hydrogen for Super Chemical Energy Reactions we may not need anything that emits emissions or Radiation. Got to love the Aussie . http://www.subtleatomics.com

  6. WAYNE D OWEN says:

    Lots of new super chemical LENR innovation coming out of Australia with Simon Brink go to http://www.subtleatomics.com Development of a entirely new generation of energy systems.

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s