Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California recently achieved the first steps toward viable nuclear fusion using clean and potentially inexpensive ingredients. It opens the door to the possibility of a clean energy future with nuclear fusion in the mix. This breakthrough could revolutionize how we create clean energy. However, there are still obstacles.
How does nuclear fusion stack up against other sources of clean energy such as solar and wind energy, and what combination of these power sources would be safest and best for reversing climate change? Here is the current state of nuclear fusion technology, what needs to improve for it to be a viable energy source, plus how it might fit into our clean energy future.
How nuclear fusion differs from older nuclear power technology
The new nuclear power technology being discussed is called nuclear fusion, a previously impossible to achieve binding of nuclei of two atoms that releases enormous amounts of energy.
The Office of Nuclear Energy explained the difference between nuclear fusion and nuclear fission as follows. Fission, the process used in older nuclear power plants, “occurs when a neutron slams into a larger atom, forcing it to excite and split into two smaller atoms — also known as fission products. Additional neutrons are also released that can initiate a chain reaction. When each atom splits, a tremendous amount of energy is released. Uranium and plutonium are most commonly used for fission reactions in nuclear power reactors because they are easy to initiate and control.”
On the other hand, fusion, the newer clean energy technology, “occurs when two atoms slam together to form a heavier atom, like when two hydrogen atoms fuse to form one helium atom. This is the same process that powers the sun and creates huge amounts of energy — several times greater than fission. It also doesn’t produce highly radioactive fission products. Fusion reactions are being studied by scientists, but are difficult to sustain for long periods of time because of the tremendous amount of pressure and temperature needed to join the nuclei together.”
So, nuclear fusion uses abundant ingredients such as hydrogen, produces far more energy than fission and doesn’t create radioactive waste as a byproduct. Could this be our clean energy future staring us in the face at last?
The challenges facing nuclear fusion as a clean power source
The energy released by nuclear fission heats water into steam. That steam spins a turbine to produce carbon-free electricity. This process inspired scientists to work on nuclear fusion, the process that powers our sun, as an even better source of bountiful and clean energy. The problem is, energy produced in nuclear fusion reactions is even harder to control. We’re pretty good at creating nuclear energy now, but we’re not great at containing or transmitting it. Without controlling the energy produced, what do you have? Not clean energy, but another form of nuclear bomb.
The excitement over the recent achievement creating a nuclear fusion reaction, if only for a brief moment in time, is due to the fact that this is the first reaction that produced more energy than it took to start the reaction. The first step after making the reaction work in the first place is finding a way to contain the energy, and then you have to tweak the process so that it’s efficient by producing more energy than went into the initial reaction.
Scientists decided to contain the energy in their nuclear fusion reaction basically by creating a magnetic containment chamber. That solves the initial containment problem. Nuclear fusion also requires high-powered lasers to cast beams at a nanodiamond container to create high levels of heat great enough to push two nuclei together, which makes use of the so-called strong force that only acts on atoms at incredibly close distances. It’s not easy to achieve, but it does open the door for more efficient reactions in the future. This is because lasers will become more energy and cost efficient with time, and it’s likely we will find other ways of creating the same reaction with more efficient inputs.
How will fusion fit into the clean energy future?
Like most solutions to energy demand, a mixed landscape of solar, wind and nuclear power is likely to be the answer to how we convert our grids quickly to clean energy and stall climate change. The problem with nuclear power is that its technology is in its infancy, and we don’t have decades to develop the technology to replace dirty coal and gas.
Solar is one of the easiest installations to create power from pure sunshine, and is increasingly cheap and efficient. Therefore, we expect solar power will provide the bulk of energy requirements in the near future switching over to clean energy. It’s possible for utility companies to create pop-up power plants in open sunny locations or even on building rooftops in cities and create new power to feed into the grid. Homeowners are also increasingly being incentivized to participate in installing their own solar panels for their own needs as well as to help produce energy for the grid. We expect a combination of utility company and residential solar will help balance out demand on the grid.
Furthermore, wind energy is an always evolving technology, with many styles of wind turbines now used for energy production. Newer wind turbines are efficient, quiet and largely safe even for wildlife because of their low rate of speed or other mechanisms that prevent wildlife from being caught in the turbines, and they can be installed offshore of coasts where winds are strong and people will never see them. Expect to hear about (but not see) many new wind farms installed off windy coastal areas and across the plains states in coming years to help contribute to converting the grid over to clean energy.
So, how does fusion fit into all this? It depends on how quickly the technology develops. To be a part of the clean energy future, fusion must become a reaction that can be sustained for long periods of time, cheaply produced and contained in a way that is safe and effective. This could take decades, but it’s an incredible step forward toward a future in which we might not even think about energy production anymore because it might be so simple and effective.
“This is such a wonderful example of a possibility realized, a scientific milestone achieved, and a road ahead to the possibilities for clean energy,” said Arati Prabhakar, the White House science adviser, during a news conference at the Department of Energy’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. after the nuclear fusion achievement was announced. “And even deeper understanding of the scientific principles that are applied here.”
In order to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, most climate scientists and policymakers agree we must achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, a daunting goal considering the world is still heading in the wrong direction on many levels. However, 2022 was a possible inflection point in which laws, government efforts and technology finally converged to create at least the possibility of a clean energy future. It gives the natural world and our place in it is not completely destroyed by runaway greenhouse gas emissions unbalancing the Earth’s ecosystem. But it’s going to take a bit more time for nuclear fusion to take its place in clean energy technology.
Via New York Times
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