Fusion Power Explained – Future or Failure

The fundamental currency of our universe is energy. It lights up our houses, makes our food grow, powers our computers. It can be obtained in many ways: by burning fossil fuels, by separating atoms or by lighting photovoltaic panels. But there are always drawbacks: Fossil fuels are extremely toxic Nuclear waste is ... nuclear waste. And there are still not enough batteries to store solar energy in the absence of the sun. And yet the sun seems to have free and infinite energy.

Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

Is there a way to build a sun on earth? Can we put a star in a bottle?

 The sun is shining thanks to nuclear fusion, In a word, fusion is a thermonuclear process. Which means the ingredients have to be incredibly hot, so hot that the atoms are separated from their electrons, forming a plasma where nuclei and electrons roam freely. As the nuclei are all positively charged, they repel each other. To overcome this repulsion, the particles must move very very quickly. In this context, very quickly means very hot. Millions of degrees!

The stars cheat to reach these temperatures. They are so massive that the pressure in their nucleus generates heat to crush the nuclei together until they unite and merge, creating heavy nuclei and releasing energy at the same time. It’s this released energy that scientists hope to harness in a new generation of power plants: The fusion reactor. On Earth, it is not feasible to use this raw method to create fusion so if we want to build a reactor that generates energy with fusion we have to be smart. To date, scientists have invented two ways to make the plasma hot enough to fuse.

The first type of reactor uses a magnetic field to contain the plasma in a donut-shaped room where the reaction occurs. These magnetic confinement reactors like the ITER reactor in France uses superconductive electromagnets cooled with liquid helium a few degrees above absolute zero. This means that they host one of the largest temperature differences in the known universe. The second type called "inertial confinement" uses pulses of overpowered lasers to heat the surface of a fuel pallet, making her implode, briefly making the fuel hot and dense enough to merge. In fact, one of the most powerful laser in the world is used for fusion experiments at the National Ignition Facility in the United States.

Development under process:commercial viability

These and similar experiences around the world are only experiences today. Scientists are still developing the technology. And although they can complete the merger, for now it costs more energy to experience than they produce with it. Technology has a long way to go before it is commercially viable. And maybe it never will be. It might just be impossible to make a viable fusion reactor on Earth. But if we do, it would be so effective only one glass of seawater could be used to produce as much energy as burning a barrel of oil without having to talk about waste. This is because fusion reactors would use hydrogen or helium as fuel and seawater is charged with hydrogen.

 But not just any hydrogen will do, specific isotopes with additional neutrons called deuterium and tritium are necessary to make the right reactions. Deuterium is stable and can be found in abundance in seawater. Tritium is a little more delicate, he is radioactive and there could be only 20 kg in the world.Most in nuclear warheads, which makes it extremely expensive. So we need another fusion partner for deuterium instead of tritium. Helium-3, an isotope of helium, can be an excellent substitute. Unfortunately, it is also incredibly rare on Earth.

But here, the Moon might have the answer. For billions of years, the solar wind was able to create huge deposits of helium-3 on the Moon. Instead of making helium-3, we can extract it. If we can sift the moon dust to recover the helium we would have enough fuel to power the world for thousands of years. One more argument to establish a lunar base, if you weren't convinced yet. OK, you may think that designing a mini sun still looks dangerous. But it's actually safer than most other types of power plants. A fusion reactor is not like a nuclear reactor whose hearts can melt catastrophically. If the containment is broken, the plasma will expand and cool and the reaction will stop Simply put, it is not a bomb.

The leakage of radioactive fuel such as tritium can cause a threat to the environment. Tritium can bind to oxygen, forming radioactive water which can be dangerous if released into the environment. Fortunately, there are only a few grams of tritium used at some point so a leak would be quickly diluted. So we just told you that there is unlimited energy to seize without any risk to the environment in something as simple as water.

where's the catch? 

The cost. It is simply not known whether a fusion reactor will be commercially viable. Even if it works, it can be too expensive to build. The major drawback is that it is an unproven technology It's a bet at 10 billion euros and that money could be better spent on other clean energy that are already proven. Maybe we should stop the fees? Or maybe, when the profit is unlimited clean energy for everyone, it may be worth the risk.

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