Is nuclear fusion the solution to the energy crisis?

Ari – Year 12 Student

Editor’s Note: Passionate Year 12 student Ari is aspiring to become a chemical engineer. She recently made the most of the opportunity to attend a free Friends of Imperial webinar, entitled “Fusion Future: The Sun’s Power on Earth”. Ari writes here about the event and shares her thoughts on the exciting potential that nuclear fusion has as a renewable energy source. This is her second publication in The GSAL Journal; you can read more from Ari here. CPD

[Featured image: Nuclear fusion reactor. (Wikipedia: Creative Commons)]

As the generation that will be in charge of climate change, there is a ray of hope in the midst of the chaos of the present. Meet fusion: it has fascinated scientists for years and currently it seems that we are getting closer and closer to a future where finally the energy crisis will end. [1]

The possibilities of fusion fuel are roughly endless. About 1kg of fusion fuel gives the same amount of energy to that of 10 million kg of fossil fuel. All of the energy you will need in your lifetime could be stored in ½ a water bottle.− Dr Melanie Windridge, an Imperial alumna and plasma physicist confirms.

Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend a Friends of Imperial webinar along with roughly 150 people from different academic backgrounds, ranging from nothing to full PhD researchers and professors. Friends of Imperial is [2] a charity that organises events and lectures with the latest insights of the scientific world, targeted to the general public, with no background or whatsoever on the topic; it was a privilege to be able to attend it. “Fusion Future: The Sun’s Power on Earth” was an engaging presentation by Dr Melanie Windridge, a plasma physicist, speaker, writer, adventurer, Imperial alumna [3]. She presented the revolutionary technology underpinning fusion energy and work behind ITER, the EU’s most ambitious reactor [4]. Currently she is working for Tokamak Energy[5], the largest fusion energy developer in the UK.

The tokamak is the main reactor that is used to carry out the fusion reactions (as seen in the featured image, above) which takes the shape of a donut, about 12m in diameter. To clarify, the word tokamak is an abbreviation from the Russian, “toroidal chamber with axial magnetic field” [6], as Soviet plasma physicists developed it in the 1960s.

The complexity of fusion energy can actually be compared to the formation of a star on Earth. The main fusion reaction that is used refers to the reaction that involves when two atoms of hydrogen fuse to become a helium atom. [7] As a hydrogen nucleus is positively charged, it will repel also another positively charged hydrogen nucleus. Yet at very high temperatures like in the Sun, due to gravitational forces their fusion becomes possible, releasing high amounts of energy as light and heat.

The most common fusion reaction is with two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, which fuse to make helium and a neutron. This energy source has so much potential because its resources are already plenty in the world, as deuterium is abundant in the sea, which technically make fusion an eternal energy source. [8]

As obvious as it is, the world is dependent on non-renewable sources of energy such as fossil fuels, which last year was mostly responsible for 43.1 billion tons of CO2 due to human activities[9]. Not only does this exacerbate the global warming situation, but also it poses a threat of secondary effects on the environment, which might take millions of years to repair. However, fusion energy is a non-variable source, unlike other renewable sources such as solar and hydraulic energy; it does not depend on the weather. Naturally, fusion energy does not pose a threat to the environment and it practically brings a win-win situation for everyone.

What was the most impressive fact about fusion energy in my opinion is its lack of “side effects” as such. When we think of nuclear energy perhaps, we remember catastrophes such as Chernobyl and Fukushima that have left an almost irreparable fingerprint on the planet. However, fusion energy reactors will not create a fatal explosion, if the reactor breaks, plasma will cool down and it will only require more energy to set it up and fix it. Although this will end up costing time, these reactors are constantly being improved to ensure maximum efficiency.

Having had a chance to ask a question during this webinar, I was one of the few lucky people to get an answer in the livestream. Aspiring to study chemical engineering, I am interested in the use of raw materials and what possible applications they can have for the improvement of the current processes − I decided to question her on what other possible applications fusion energy could have. It turns out fusion not only could be used as an energy source on Earth, but perhaps to become a fuel for rockets that could then propel our current knowledge of space to a much deeper understanding, perhaps catalysing the explorations that are taking place at the moment.

The biggest hindering factor now is that while fusion is theoretically possible, it has shown no results yet. No power plant has managed to achieve more energy than was put in. [10] The cost of managing to get such extremely high temperatures, combined with the development of materials that will sustain such temperatures make it difficult for the advances. However, there’s so much that fusion energy can bring when it becomes finally possible: if this does become the main energy source it will reduce the effect of the damage that has been done on our environment for decades, and so it will be more attainable to reach an era of co-operation between man and planet.

[1] (15/6/20)

[2] (15/6/20)

[3] (14/6/20)

[4] (15/6/20)

[5] (15/6/20)

[6] (15/6/20)

[7] (14/6/20)

[8] (15/6/20)

[9] (14/6/20)

[10] (14/6/20)

Ari 902669

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