Nuclear Fusion

There’s no silver bullet to the climate crisis, but nuclear fusion may be the closest thing to it. In the quest for a near-limitless, zero-carbon source of reliable power, scientists have generated fusion energy before, but they have struggled for decades to sustain it for very long. On Wednesday (2/9/22), however, scientists working in the United Kingdom announced that they more than doubled the previous record for generating and sustaining nuclear fusion, which is the same process that allows the sun and stars to shine so brightly. Nuclear fusion is, as its name suggests, the fusing of two or more atoms into one larger one, a process that unleashes a tremendous amount of energy as heat. Nuclear power used today is created by a different process, called fission, which relies on splitting, rather than fusing, atoms. But that process creates waste that can remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Fusion, on the other hand, is much safer, can produce little waste and requires only small amounts of abundant, naturally sourced fuel, including elements extracted from seawater. This makes it an attractive option as the world transitions away from the fossil fuels driving climate change. A magnetic field is required to contain the high temperatures needed to carry out the fusion process, which can be as high as 150 million degrees Celsius, 10 times hotter than the center of the sun. The potential for fusion energy is enormous. The experiment used the elements deuterium and tritium — which are isotopes of hydrogen — to fuel the fusion. Those elements are likely to be used in commercial-scale fusion and can be found in seawater. the fusion generated by the tokamak — called the Joint European Torus (JET) — was around the same as a wind turbine and could power one house’s energy for a day. But its results are seen as a huge boon for ITER, a fusion megaproject in the south of France supported by the US, China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea and Russia. The ITER project is 80% built and aims to begin nuclear fusion sometime in 2025-26. The results are promising but mastering nuclear fusion as an everyday energy source is still likely a long way off.