Our ability to harness energy would figure high up on the list of factors helping us dominate the planet as a species. With time, we’ve made expected strides on to more efficient energy utilisation. We’re not burning wood anymore – or at least, most of the planet isn’t. Instead, we’re hopelessly dependant on coal and oil. While fossil fuels have overseen global adoption, they have major drawbacks – one being their finite availability, the other being the pollution it causes to air and water.
Almost halfway into the 20th century, we discovered we could extract energy from within the atomic nuclei. Through the process of Nuclear Fission, wherein energy is released when the nucleus of an atom splits, we are able to generate millions of electron-Volts for every atom – compared to the tens of electron-volts released by burning coal. Similar to its chemical counterpart, the availability of atoms like uranium and thorium that are feasible for nuclear fission is very hard to come by. To add to that, the by-products are radioactive and thus precaution measures should be taken before installing nuclear power plants.
There’s a stigma attached to using nuclear power – because we’ve dropped bombs employing the principle and destroyed millions of lives. Additionally, humanity has witnessed some disturbing nuclear reactor disasters that have poisoned large areas, rendering them uninhabitable.
Related: Where does all our nuclear waste go?
Is there a way to overcome these drawbacks?
The universe is full of naturally occurring nuclear reactors. But these reactors operate in a different way. Consider our closest star, the Sun. By combining light elements that are abundant in nature into heavier elements, we can release more energy through Nuclear Fusion than Nuclear Fission. In the Sun, two hydrogen atoms combine to form a helium atom, and simultaneously a staggering amount of energy is born.
The primary reason this could be the future of energy generation is because of the large availability of hydrogen on Earth. The hydrogen present in sea water can be used as the source for the reaction to take place. Not only the availability of hydrogen but the absence of radioactive elements and adverse environmental effects, this is the closest we can get towards clean energy!
Research on nuclear fusion began nearly half a century ago and major breakthroughs have been achieved since.But all this is easier said than done. We haven’t been able to feasibly replicate the process on earth. There’s concern about our inability to safely contain the reaction, and there’s been the bigger problem of our inability to produce the right conditions for fusion to occur in the first place. Most of our attempts end up consuming more energy than the reaction produces.
The latest breakthrough is the Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X). The W7-X is a 16-metre-wide nuclear fusion machine – it is a type of a stellarator, a device used to confine plasma which can heat up to a 100-million-degree Celsius. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics released an image of the machine’s first plasma.
Prior to building the W7-X, many doughnut-shaped fusion reactors were built. But they could maintain the plasma for a maximum of 6 minutes and 30 seconds at a time. The breakeven energy point could not be achieved at such a short span of time.
The W7-X, on the other hand, is predicted to contain plasma for about half an hour. For the initial run, the machine was filled with helium, heated to 1 million degrees Celsius and the plasma was maintained for one-tenth of a second.
It should, however, be noted that the purpose of the W7-X is not to produce energy but rather be a concept for future stellarators. As of now, the aim of the scientists is to contain the plasma for more than 0.1 second.
Is it going to change the world?
Related: The CTBT is helping
Nuclear fusion has been dubbed the “Future of Energy”. Problem is – it’s retained that tag for far too long. The joke in the industry is that nuclear fusion is always ’20 years away’. But, and I won’t blame you if you laugh this off too – this may finally change. Recent advancements have scientists believing that they will finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. If the experiments continue to deliver positive results and the breakeven energy point is achieved, it could affect the world and life on Earth in an encouraging way:
- Clean and safe energy: With Nuclear Fusion being the ultimate form of clean energy, we can stop relying on coal and natural gas which will improve the Earth’s climate.
- Improved Space exploration: Engines fuelled by fusion could allow us to explore the known universe at a faster rate thanks to the high energy released by fusion.
- Unlimited fuel: It is calculated that 1 kilogram of fusion of fusion fuel can generate the same amount of energy as burning 10 million kilograms of fossil fuel. The abundance of fusion fuel also adds to the almost limitless fuel supply similar to our Sun.
With firms like Lockheed Martin, which claims to have built a compact fusion reactor, the size of the trunk of a truck, nuclear fusion could finally go mainstream.