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.
- Spherical Tokamak, image courtesy of UKAEA Fusion Association.
“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.