Despite the advances of solar and wind energies in recent years, 80 percent of the world still relies on fossil fuels as its source of energy. However, it is now generally accepted this needs to change. This has spurred the search for a clean and cheap energy source.
Fusion as alternate energy source
Enter fusion, tipped as a hot contender for the world’s energy source that could replace fossil fuels. That this source of energy is being taken up seriously is evident from the funding of fusion startups by billionaires, such as Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen and Peter Thiel in the past few years. They have set up pioneering companies, such as General Fusion and TAE Technologies.
Despite the setback suffered by the National Ignition Facility (the US fusion effort continuing for the past over two decades) new fusion concepts are being funded and the research is taking a new direction. What’s more, the fusion research has entered the garage, where hobbyists can be seen fusing atoms and giving fillip to a growing amateur fusion movement.
Fusion is created by making the atoms crash into each other with such force that they fuse together. Although some mass is lost due to conduction and radiation, the rest turns into energy. The amount of energy produced this way is more than by any other process known to mankind.
A reactor is required to produce fusion, which is akin to an artificial star where continuous fusion reactions take place. This super high energy, charged gas can touch 200 million degrees Celsius, giving rise to filament-like bursts of energy, just like solar flares. These energy bursts are highly unstable.
The key to harnessing fusion energy is to control these unpredictable energy bursts. Today, this is the most unexplored concept in fusion. There have been plenty of approaches for this, such as tokamaks, levitating dipole approach, plasma liner experiment, magnetically insulated fusors and many more.
Many of these approaches are destined to fail, but if even one succeeds, it will be one of the greatest breakthroughs that is set to have a much wider and deeper impact on human civilization.
Hurdles in fusion energy
There are many hurdles facing production of energy through fusion. For one, the research that goes into finding ways of producing and harnessing fusion energy is expensive, so are the logistics and materials used for it.
Add to this the difficulty in predicting the explosive bursts that have the potential to damage the reactor. Latest research suggest that these bursts can be controlled by a series of magnetic fields. As of now, using a non-symmetrical type of magnetic field in 3D space looks promising. Work is on in France for constructing International Experimental Reactor (ITER) that promises to control these bursts of energy.
Benefits of fusion energy
Fusion uses just two isotopes of hydrogen – deuterium and tritium – to produce fusion energy. This is set to become a source of cheap, abundant, zero-carbon and limitless electricity. Just to give an idea, 1kg of this fusion fuel can produce as much energy as 10 million kgs of fossil fuel.
It is not only limitless energy that makes fusion so appealing, it offers other benefits too. An important one is reversing climate change by replacing fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gas emissions. The byproduct of fusion is helium that in no way contributes to air pollution and could even be recycled and used in liquid form to cool the magnets.
Another important aspect is radioactivity. Fortunately, fusion reaction is clean and its waste is not radioactive, unlike fission that uses plutonium.
However, what’s most exciting is fusion energy can become a source to power spaceships in the future, bringing distant stars and planets within reach.
Fusion, that till now reminded us of the dreaded hydrogen bomb, is now turning a new leaf, giving hope of replacing the diminishing fossil fuels and promising limitless energy. However, many hurdles still remain to be overcome until it can help solve the world’s future energy needs.