Nuclear fusion has been referred to as the energy revolution that’s been 10 years away, for 60 years. But after six decades of research, and billions of dollars spent, the world still has not made nuclear fusion viable. But they might be a little bit closer, proving more hope for net-zero.
Recently, Silicon Valley investor Sam Altman made a $375 million investment in Helion Energy to help fund the construction of the world’s first fusion power plant. This could be a big step toward the production of unlimited clean energy.
What is Nuclear Fusion?
Nuclear fusion occurs when atoms combine to form a larger nucleus, resulting in a release of energy. It is the reverse of nuclear fission, where larger atoms are split into two smaller atoms to release energy. Fusion is what powers stars and is responsible for their great heat and light.
It has been theorised that nuclear fusion could also occur on Earth, but it has never been done before. However, Helion has come out as one of the first companies working hard to put up a nuclear fusion plant and, control and commercialise the use of fusion energy.
The History of Nuclear Fusion
In the 1930s, scientists discovered that nuclear fusion was possible and that it was the source of energy for the sun and other stars. At the beginning of 1940 various researchers began to work on ways to produce and control this new source of energy.
This was an uphill task given the fact that fusion reactions require high temperatures that would be too hard to contain in any solid chamber. Later on, physicists working on the project decided to contain the temperatures using magnetic fields like the pinch effect.
In the early times, these projects were secret because administrators and scientists feared that controlled fusion had military applications. However, in the mid-1950s, this fear ended when these leaders were convinced that fusion projects were not useful to the manufacture of thermonuclear weapons.
Following declassification, several developments were made, including the invention of the tokamak, a device that proved effective to confine plasma using magnetic fields.
The State of Fusion Worldwide
Currently, different international projects are underway to try and make fusion a reality. The best-known project is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), an experimental nuclear fusion reactor that is being built in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, France.
ITER involves 35 nations that have come together to build the largest tokamak, which can produce commercially viable quantities of power from aneutronic fusion reactions. The device will generate 500 megawatts of output power for several seconds. When completed, it will be the largest magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment in history.
Helion, a fusion power company, is also working on a fusion project which, unlike the ITER, doesn’t use a tokamak. Instead, it uses a pulsed magnetic fusion. This means the company relies on aluminum magnets to compress and expand its fuel for the direct production of energy.
Helion is different from other fusion efforts because it uses advances in computers, fibre optics, and electronics not applied in older reactors. This results in “smaller, more manageable systems”. Silicon Valley luminary Sam Altman believes the Helion project could be the closest the world has ever come to Nuclear Fusion, the reason for his $350 million investment.
Advantages of Nuclear Fusion
Nuclear fusion, though still in the experimental stages, may hold the answer to long-term energy needs for Earth’s growing population. Some advantages of this powerful process include:
Fusion produces no greenhouse gases, which are linked to climate change. It doesn’t release waste that will have to be stored for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years.
Unlike coal or oil, nuclear fusion doesn’t emit carbon dioxide and no acid rain is released as a result of mining and combustion of fossil fuels. These pollutants contribute to climate change and other environmental degradation, not to mention health problems like respiratory illness and heart disease.
Provides Energy Security
Most people think of nuclear fusion as a source of power. But nuclear energy is also a source of energy security. It provides affordable and reliable base load power that can be used to help stabilize electrical grids worldwide.
With lots of ongoing research and investorsccoming on board, the world remains cautiously optimistic that fusion could one day give us a near infinite source of clean energy.