Advancements in Fusion Technology Raise Hope for Fusion Reactor
According to physicists working at two of the most advanced nuclear research organizations, fusion power, a clean and limitless source of energy, may be arriving sooner than we think.
Fission power, which is the nuclear reaction currently used in all nuclear power plants and weaponry, is the splitting of an atom to cause an exothermic reaction, releasing energy. While nuclear fission has been widely contested as an energy source since it’s discovery due to the hazardous nuclear waste which comes as a byproduct of a fission reaction, fusion removes these risks entirely. With a fusion reaction, two nuclei with a mass lower than iron join together to release massive amounts of energy while emitting less radiation than burning coal. It’s the same nuclear process at work in the core of the sun, in which 620 million metric tons of hydrogen are fused together every to create helium while generating 3.846×1026 watts every second. It’s also the process which is responsible for the creation of all elements in the universe aside from the four most common: hydrogen, helium, lithium and beryllium.
Until recently, creating a fusion reactor on earth has been entirely hypothetical. The process of discovering a method for instigating and housing a fission reaction has been spearheaded by the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a group of physicists and engineers who are currently building the world’s largest thermonuclear reactor in France. The ITER’s tokamak, the electromagnetic device used to hold plasma in a torus shape in order to begin a fusion reaction, is set to be completed by 2019, and begin fusing fuel made from deuterium and tritium, isotopes of hyrdrogen, by 2027.
While this may seem a long way off, recent advances from Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) and the Joint European Torus (JET) show that things may be speeding up. SNL has begun testing a new, more efficient method of instigating the nuclear reaction with magnetized liner inertial fusion, in which a magnetic pulse would crush a cylinder containing the deuterium and tritium fuel instead of a high-powered laser. As one of the biggest challenges in creating a fusion reactor is generating enough energy to begin the reaction, this discovery could potentially advance fusion power research by years and save millions of dollars in research.
Meanwhile, JET has discovered a new way of constructing a tokamak that results in higher-quality plasma used for the reaction. While the ITER had previously preferred carbon housing for their tokamak, JET has instead used beryllium and tungsten for their tokamak. As JET will soon be conducting tests using the deuterium-tritium (D-T) fuel, the results will also likely have a large impact in how successful the ITER will be upon completion.
Although we won’t be seeing a running fusion reactor anytime within the next few years, these advances show that the research to create the best source of energy in the universe is well underway, and the possibility of fusion power being the primary source of energy within our lifetime finally seems within reach. Just not for a few years.