The Future of Energy
The Future of Energy
Is nuclear fusion the next step in energy production?
Clean, limitless energy production has been a dream for humanity for many years. Of course, the ultimate power source, the sun, has been powered by nuclear fusion for billions of years but replicating such conditions to achieve fusion on earth is fraught with difficulty. Research and development in nuclear fusion technology has made significant progress since the first successful deuterium-tritium reaction in 1932. But there are still challenges to overcome, albeit these are more engineering-based than science.
Initially, the main challenge in nuclear fusion was achieving ignition and sustaining the reaction with fresh fuel. However, significant progress has been made in recent fusion experiments. The Wendelstein 7-X experiment in Germany, which was successfully recommissioned in autumn 2022, achieved a remarkable discharge duration of eight minutes in 2023, setting a new benchmark for plasma discharge durations. Their energy turnover was 1.3 gigajoules, surpassing the previous record of 1 gigajoule.
This is just one example of how progress has been made in sustaining fusion reactions and getting us closer to realising the potential of fusion power.
ITER – Showing the way in nuclear fusion
The ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) fusion facility is being built in Cadarache, France to demonstrate how scientific progress in nuclear fusion can be turned into viable energy production. Supported by governments around the globe, it will be the world’s largest tokamak when completed.
The aim is to operate ITER at a plasma thermal output of 500 MW for at least 400 seconds using less than 50 MW of plasma heating power input. Although ITER will not generate any electricity, the research and lessons learnt will lead to a series of demonstration fusion power plants which will show how nuclear fusion can be harnessed to produce electricity.
A clean, green future may just be round the corner
Building and running fusion reactors will help to solve today’s environmental concerns and energy needs. Why? Because fusion reactors will not produce long-term radioactive waste nor emit carbon dioxide or any other greenhouse gases. What is more, a fusion reactor meltdown is practically impossible.
And the supply of fuel is more or less limitless. One element, deuterium (heavy water), occurs in nature and can easily be obtained through distillation or electrolysis of seawater: The other, tritium, can be “bred” during the fusion reaction within the tokamak when neutrons escaping the plasma react with the lithium contained in the blanket.
Nuclear fusion’s clean/green credentials are clear. And once perfected, nuclear fusion could meet society’s every growing demand for energy for millions of years.