Nuclear fusion energy has often been sarcastically said to be always 30 years away. This scientific inside joke is meant to suggest we will never have the technology to make a working commercial nuclear fusion reactor. But despite the disappointments and failed promises over the last 50 years, the latest news suggests we might have reached a turning point in fusion energy research.
Nuclear Fusion Energy 101
Many people confuse nuclear fusion reactors with nuclear fission reactors. But fission operates on the principle of placing enough fissionable radioactive material – uranium or plutonium – together that a chain reaction will take place in which particles given off by the fuel smash into other atoms in the material to produce excess energy.
This reaction has to be carefully managed through various means – including non-fissionable control rods – to avoid a disastrous runaway reaction.
But all of the concerns that people have about fission reactors – and these concerns are definitely justified following the incidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima – don’t apply to a fusion reactor. Nuclear fusion reactors cannot melt down, explode, or otherwise fail catastrophically in a way that threatens the environment.
But one thing for sure fusion energy > nuclear energy in terms of safety/energy production/capacity.
— Farhan Rosdi (@ifarhan_rosdi) December 1, 2016
If a nuclear fusion reactor did have a problem, it would simply stop working. In addition, the nuclear fusion energy production process produces very little radioactive waste – and what waste is produced has a much shorter half-life than the long-lasting, highly dangerous radioactive byproducts created by fission.
Another advantage that a commercial fusion reactor would have over fission reactors is that fissionable materials are extremely difficult to find and process for use, making them very expensive and essentially a limited resource. A nuclear fusion reactor would likely use deuterium, which can be extracted from ordinary seawater in virtually unlimited quantities.
ITER and Nuclear Fusion
Energy production via a nuclear fusion reactor has been on the wish list of many governments around the world, which is why an international project known as ITER was established to construct a massive experimental tokamak fusion reactor. As reported by the Manufacturer, the purpose is to confirm the feasibility of large-scale production of fusion energy.
The ultimate goal of the project is for ITER to be the first fusion reactor to achieve the production of more energy than it requires to operate. Reaching this breakeven point has been the Holy Grail of fusion research. Thirty-eight nations have joined this effort to construct the experimental ITER reactor in southern France – with the cost being astronomical.
However, the scientists, engineers and bureaucrats running this program admit that it will be many decades – perhaps as far away as 2050 – before an actual commercial reactor based on ITER will be in operation.
Maverick Nuclear Fusion Efforts
It has become virtually a mantra for nuclear fusion energy researchers that bigger is, in fact, better when it comes to building a nuclear fusion reactor. This is why governments are pouring tens of billions of dollars into the construction of the colossal experimental ITER reactor – that itself will not produce energy for consumption.
Fortunately, a number of other private organizations and companies around the world are trying to make fusion power a reality much quicker, perhaps even as soon as 2030. In addition, several individual governments have their own private nuclear fusion energy programs apart from ITER.
As reported by Canadian Business, General Fusion of Canada is a venture capital company with a cadre of wealthy investors who are extremely enthusiastic about its prospects for developing a cheap, small, innovative approach to nuclear fusion reactors.
— General Fusion (@GeneralFusion) January 21, 2017
General Fusion uses a concept known as magnetized target fusion in which hundreds of steam powered pistons – looking appropriately steampunk – hammer a central point at the core of the fusion reactor to create the pressures necessary for nuclear fusion energy to be released.
Much smaller and less expensive than the ITER tokamak reactor, General Fusion’s website notes that their fusion reactor will be modular in design, allowing one unit to be used to power a small city or multiple units to be used to power a larger city.
Science Alert recently reported that in Germany, the Wendelstein 7-X experimental nuclear fusion reactor – technically described as a stellarator – is producing powerful and highly consistent magnetic fields in a way that more conventional tokamak reactors have yet to achieve.
One of the principal problems with a fusion reactor is creating and containing the reactor plasma at the 100,000,000°C temperatures necessary to generate fusion energy. In a tokamak reactor, this is done using doughnut-shaped magnetic fields encircling the plasma. But leakage is a major problem with this design, a problem which the stellarator evidently solves by having the magnets arranged in a contorted, highly complex array.
Another player in the nuclear fusion energy game is – somewhat surprisingly – Lockheed Martin Corporation in the United States. Lockheed Martin has suggested that it might be able to build a fusion reactor small enough to fit in the back of a truck. As of yet, though, the company has yet to build much in the way of hardware for its reactor.
Nuclear fusion used to be "20 years away". It is now eight years away according to Lockheed Martin, MIT and a few billionaire investors.
— Nick Verini (@nick_verini) January 31, 2017
While many scientists and nuclear engineers are skeptical about this claim by Lockheed Martin, Defense News reports that the company is continuing to fund the project, with the goal of generating nuclear fusion energy from a commercial reactor within a decade.
[Featured Image by Adam Berry/Getty Images]