Fusion Power

Ever since I heard about B. Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann’s supposedly successful Cold Fusion, I’ve been interested in fusion power. I didn’t really believe in cold fusion, (although there are still believers/conspirators), but knew from my physics lectures that hot fusion happens every day—in the core of our sun.

Fusion is the process of—yes — fusing atoms together, rather than splitting them as is done in fission reactors. Put quite simply, fuse two Hydrogen atoms together, and make Helium and energy:

H + H = He + e

While there’s a lot more to it than this, the general concept is simple. What makes it difficult, however, is the temperature required, for atomic fusion to occur…

While cold fusion, if it was possible, would require only room temperature, the fusion that takes place in the core of our sun requires temperatures of 100 million degrees centigrade or more.

The benefits of fusion power are enormous. The process produces no greenhouse gasses, no radioactive pollution, and Hydrogen—the main fuel for the process is the main component of water. In other words, fusion power would be a limitless source of clean, renewable, reliable energy, and could potentially solve all energy problems today. Considering the fact that currently, our world is suffering from the ill effects of fossil fuels, this prospect is quite uplifting.

“All the predictions say oil and gas consumption will increase over the next 30 or 40 years. But fusion power will give us a breathing space to phase out fossil fuels”— Professor Yevgeny Velikov – Source

The answer to the question that’s been troubling cold-fusion zealots and physics-afficionados alike: “When?”, may just arrive soon enough. In fact, several research institutions now believe that the Spherical Tokamak is the solution.

The tokamak is a donut shaped device that, roughly interpreted, provides a magnetic field that keeps a warm plasma under high pressure at its center.

So far, the donut shaped tokamaks haven’t proved to be viable in terms of efficiency, but the latest research in spherical tokamaks have shown far better results.

tokamak

“The ST Power Plant conceptual design has shown that a viable electricity-producing power station could be built based on a Spherical Tokamak.” – Source

The most promising path for fusion power, however, lies with a project named ITER. ITER stands for “the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor”, and has been on the drawing board for years, with participants from the European Union, US, Russia, China, Japan, Canada and South Korea. When built, the scientific bounty from the project will hopefully provide a path to an economically viable fusion power solution. What’s more, the press surrounding ITER and the fact that fusion power may be possible in our time, will no doubt boost further funding and research into the topic.

On the downside, it seems that ITER is currently on hold due to politics. ITER needs a site, and the discussion is centered on whether it is to be located in France, or in Japan. Meanwhile, there’s a US election year coming up, and add to that a bulk of other political issues, and a decision is likely to be delayed further.

I hope, that one day, you, I, or perhaps our children or childrens children, will be able to visit ITER and see how one kilogram of fusion fuel wields the same power as 10.000.000 kilograms of fossil fuel. Let’s hope it’ll be sooner, rather than later.

References

9 thoughts on “Fusion Power”

  1. Sweet sweet fusion.

    Really good entry. I did an ebay search for spherical tokamaks, and they didn’t have any.

    I think I will add a spherical tokamak to my wishlist now.

  2. Joen says:

    Thanks.

    I don’t think you’ll be able to find any on ebay, that would mean they’re used, and since spherical tokamaks are relatively new I don’t think many people will be selling them off anytime soon. Did you try amazon?

  3. Anders Rask says:

    Interesting and good article, Joen. The promise of Fusion Power almost seems too good to be true (but let’s hope it’s not!).

    There are many areas where technological advances promises to solve our problems, and looking back over our history it seems plausible to believe.

    However, as far as I see it, the question still remains what we do now and in the meantime? We westerners could cut as much as 50% of our fossil fuel consumption, but it would only matter marginally globally because people in the hundreds of millions, especially in India and China, are coming out of poverty (and thank God for that) and are thus beginning to consume fossil fuels.

    As I see it there is only one valid answer to that question: Nuclear Power. I have written about this on my own blog.

  4. Joen says:

    The promise of fusion power does indeed seem to be too good to be true. Yet it is possible, and does work. The big question is whether the fusion generators we can build, can generate enough surplus electricity to be worthwhile. Let’s hope that is possible.

    As for nuclear power, that’s indeed a highly controversial issue, and I applaud that you’ve dealt with it in your excellent article series (I “short-read” it, but will re-read it soon). As for my opinion on the matter, I must admit that I am somewhat undecided. I think perhaps my opinions are a bit too idealistic and na?ve, but obviously we should strive to find other ways to satisfy our needs, than rely on generating radioactive waste. We should cut back on consumption, and we should use wind and solar power.

    But even I can see that we won’t really satisfy all needs with natural power like that, and nuclear power might well give the necessary breathing space—hopefully this breathing space will only have to last until fusion power can truly take over.

  5. Fahad (High school student) says:

    If you had the money, would you spend it on fusion research?

  6. Joen says:

    If you had the money, would you spend it on fusion research?

    That’s a really good question.

    A plain answer, yes.

    The long story is that fusion research requires quite a huge amount of “basic research” meaning all sorts of things have to be researched and in place to achieve controlled nuclear fusion. To name a few: a huge powerful controlled magnetic field, all sorts of physics, chemistry, it’s a massive project.

    The benefit of basic research is that the discoveries made in fusion research can then be used for completely other purposes as well.

    So not only does the nuclear fusion research benefit the human race in providing a clean, endless supply of energy, but the mere process of researching it will provide a bounty of new inventions.

  7. Fahad says:

    Thank you Joen for your comment. Some other questions I have is that do you think there is “limitless” power, who would benefit from fusion, and why might some people not want to spend $ for research on fusion? It might seem weird me, a high school student, asking these questions, but its for a school research problem and I thank you once again.

  8. Joen says:

    You’re welcome.

    One word of warning, I’m just a high school graduate, and only have the basic research I have done myself, to back these claims up.

    do you think there is ?limitless? power

    Virtually limitless. In theory, the process is fairly simple. Hydrogen + Hydrogen = Helium and energy. Then the energy can be harnessed and the Helium used elsewhere. We have an almost endless supply of Hydrogen since it’s the most basic nuclear atom that exists (#1 on the table of elements). You can get Hydrogen from water (hence the name Hydro, which is greek for water).

    The hard part is making sure that the energy you create from the fusion process not only meets the demands of sustaining the fusion process, but also enough to create a surplus amount of energy.

    This is the current problem with fusion power: making sure the process generates enough surplus power to actually make it worthwhile.

    who would benefit from fusion

    Everyone with the need for power. Ideally you’d get extremely cheap electricity. You could even use this to create fuel cells for cars.

    why might some people not want to spend $ for research on fusion?

    Well, I see a few reasons:

    • While fusion power holds a great promise, there’s still quite a lot of research to be done to optimize the process enough to generate the amounts of electricity needed to compete with, say traditional nuclear fission power.
    • There are conspiracy theories that oil companies and lobbyists put pressure to hold back fusion research, in the fear that fusion power might lessen the dependancy on oil.
    • Fusion power is expensive ( to develop — once it’s developed it’ll be cheap. edit.), and as mentioned before, it’s probably quite a few years (hopefully in my lifetime) before we see practical fusion power.
    • Finally, as mentioned in this article, there are political reasons why research is delayed or postponed.
  9. yvet says:

    I think there’s a lot of things yet to be discovered with regards to “hydrogen”. It takes a lot of time for this innovation and requires energy to create hydrogen fuel & exhaust.

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