Nuclear fusion’s tenuous future as a reliable energy source is perhaps best illustrated by the history of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project. The project is under construction (here the round shape of the future Tokamak is now apparent in June 2013) and should be turned on within a decade.
Our ability to transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy will likely determine the fate of the planet. Some countries are making progress toward this goal, using solar, wind and water power. In the historic deal struck on Wednesday between the U.S. and China, for instance, China pledged that solar and wind power would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030. Denmark, which aims to completely eliminate its use of fossil fuels by 2050, will rely on its cutting-edge wind power industry. Germany has focused on solar and wind power in its push to remake its electricity system, and Brazil now derives more than 75 percent of its electricity from hydro-power sources.
Yet, the real ‘solution’ to global warming may lie in a fourth renewable energy source, and one about which we typically hear almost nothing: nuclear fusion.
Nuclear fusion isn’t new. In fact, the oldest thermonuclear reactor is approximately 13 billion years old or the approximate age of the universe and the first star. Our most popular fusion reactor is the sun. Explaining the real science behind nuclear fusion is best left to the experts, but the short of it is that fusion, the reaction that gives stars their energy, is the opposite of fission. Whereas nuclear fission creates energy by splitting one atom into two, fusion does it by joining two (hydrogen) atoms together to create one (helium), and the resulting reaction releases neutrons and an unbelievable amount of energy.
As it turns out, this is quite difficult, because in order to get the nuclei of two hydrogen atoms to fuse, one must defeat the protons’ natural tendency to repel each other. Overcoming this tendency requires temperatures of over 100 million Kelvin (~six times hotter than the temperature at the sun’s core) and incredibly high pressure. The prevailing method for accomplishing this is known as magnetic confinement, using a reactor known as a tokamak, and it is impossible to understand. (There’s also another method that involves lasers, and it is even more confusing.)
Humans have been experimenting with nuclear fusion since the 1950s, and the scary amount of energy released by a fusion reaction was the impetus for the hydrogen bomb. As our own RP Siegel pointed out, the goal of those working to turn nuclear fusion into a renewable energy source — as opposed to a weapon — is to take the science behind the H-bomb and control it, thereby allowing for the gradual (and self-sustaining) release of energy. Unfortunately, doing this has heretofore proved impossible. Click to continue reading »
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