We now reached a whole new level on Nuclear Fusion Energy. But do you know How close are we to Fusion Energy? Let me give you a brief idea. Before that let’s see what’s new about Nuclear Fusion Energy.
Recent advances in Nuclear Fusion Energy
European scientists claim to have achieved a significant step forward in the development of practical nuclear fusion, the energy mechanism that drives the stars.
By compressing together two kinds of hydrogen, the JET laboratory in the United Kingdom has broken its own world record for the amount of energy it can extract.
If nuclear fusion can be successfully generated on Earth, almost endless quantities of low-carbon, low-radiation energy are possible.
Over the course of five seconds, the trials produced 59 megajoules of energy (11 megawatts of power).
This is more than double what was obtained in 1997 during similar testing.
It’s not a huge amount of energy – simply enough to boil 60 kettles of water. However, it is significant because it verifies design choices made for a larger fusion reactor now under construction in France.
“The JET trials have brought us one step closer to fusion power,” stated Dr. Joe Milnes, the reactor lab’s chief of operations. “We’ve shown that we can produce a little star within our machine and hold it there for five seconds while still getting good performance, which puts us in a whole new realm.”
Future fusion power plants would emit no greenhouse gases and just a small quantity of short-lived radioactive waste.
Prof Ian Chapman, CEO of JET, stated, “These trials we’ve just finished have to work.” “If they hadn’t, we’d have serious doubts about ITER’s ability to accomplish its goals.”
“This was a high-stakes situation, and the fact that we succeeded was due to people’s intelligence and faith in the scientific endeavor,” he told BBC News. Continue reading to know How close are we to Fusion Energy…
How does the JET Nuclear Fusion Energy system work?
Fusion is based on the idea that energy may be generated by pushing atomic nuclei together rather than separating them, as in the fission processes that now fuel nuclear power plants.
Huge gravitational forces in the Sun’s core allow this to happen at temperatures of roughly 10 million degrees Celsius. To create fusion at the considerably lower pressures achievable on Earth, temperatures must be significantly higher – exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius.
There are no materials that can tolerate direct contact with such high temperatures. To accomplish fusion in a laboratory, scientists created a method in which a super-heated gas, or plasma, is contained inside a doughnut-shaped magnetic field.
For almost 40 years, the Joint European Torus (JET) at Culham, Oxfordshire, has been at the forefront of this fusion method. It has been built up to imitate the predicted ITER set up over the previous ten years.
The discovery of fusion power is exciting, but it will not aid us in our efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
There is a lot of doubt regarding when fusion power will be commercially viable. According to one estimate, it might take up to 20 years. Then fusion would have to scale up, which would add another few decades to the process.
And here’s the problem: there’s a pressing demand for carbon-free energy, and the government has committed to making all power in the UK zero emissions by 2035. This includes nuclear power, renewable energy, and energy storage. Continue reading to know How close are we to Fusion Energy…
What exactly is Nuclear Fusion Energy?
You combine two tiny atoms to get a larger one.
Some of the mass is lost in the process. (In particular, the “glue” that binds the nucleus together.)
This mass is converted into energy, through E = MC^2.
This process generates more energy than any other human-made process. It is this mechanism that gives the sun its energy.
In other words,
Fusion is the joining of two or more tiny atoms. Through E = MC2, part of the mass is lost and converted to energy. The mass of these atoms may be as follows:
1 + 1 = 1.95 + (Fission Energy)
Have you noticed that you’ve lost 0.05? That is mass that has been converted to energy. The binding energy is the glue that binds the nucleus together when it loses mass.
Atoms with masses less than iron are more likely to fuse, while atoms with masses greater than iron are more likely to fission.
If you had enough energy, confinement, and time, you could theoretically fuse any atom. Atoms are fusing in stars by being squashed together at tremendous pressures and temperatures. On November 1st, 1952, mankind achieved fusion for the first time when the Ivy Mike atomic bomb was detonated. However, mankind performed the first controlled fusion in 1958 at Los Alamos National Labs. SCYLLA 1 was the name of the machine that did it.
We’ve studied many fusion reactions since then by shooting atom beams at other atoms.
The easiest fusion reaction to do is Deuterium and Deuterium. This is basically hydrogen, with an extra neutron in the center. Continue reading to know How close are we to Fusion Energy…
How close are we to Fusion Energy?
When I was at NVIDIA, I used to work on fusion simulation codes (particle in cell) with the US National Labs, and I was extremely interested in seeing whether we could solve the challenges with fusion, so I spent a lot of time picking the scientists’ and engineers’ brains. Even while his major application was particle accelerators, my former father-in-law also worked at Lawrence Berkeley Labs as an engineer constructing superconducting coil magnets and had decades of experience working with fusion researchers. After several long discussions with these extremely knowledgeable and competent individuals, I concluded that there are some really difficult issues that are impeding practical fusion, with no fast answers in sight.
The only site we know of where functional, large-scale, energy-generating fusion processes have been seen is inside the core of a star, where the huge star’s gravity maintains the appropriate density, temperature, and time for fusion reactions to operate constantly. This is known as the Lawson criteria because it is difficult to meet. All of the layers above that act as an energy exchanger, converting all of the gamma rays and fast neutrons at the core into progressively less energetic wavelengths of light and nuclei motion (heat) so that by the time they reach the star’s surface, that energy is emitted as IR and visible light, which heats and powers our planet’s biosphere and can also provide photovoltaic energy to us. Our whole fusion work has been focused on recreating this process on Earth in a tiny reactor that can produce useful energy. Continue reading to know How close are we to Fusion Energy…
First, I’ll discuss Magnetic Confinement Fusion, which has a donut-shaped fusion chamber surrounded by magnetic coils that generate a very strong magnetic field that compresses and contains a hot, burning plasma and keeps it at the right density and temperature for long enough for fusion reactions to occur (in the Tokamak configuration).
The first issue with magnetic confinement is that it will always leak, regardless of how powerful or well constructed the magnetic field confining the plasma is, as positive nuclei or ions spiraling around the magnetic field lines clash and scatter, ultimately wandering out of the containment field.
ITER, the world’s most advanced magnetic confinement fusion power plant, is 6-stories tall and about the same dimension, containing the mass of three Eiffel towers, and it is still not expected to be large enough to contain a plasma long enough to sustain burning and produce continuous energy generation, due to the ion scattering problem mentioned above.
How can we extract energy, for example, is a more practical issue? The majority of the energy released in deuterium-tritium fusion reactions is released in fast, high-energy neutrons, which are not confined by the magnetic field (due to their neutrality and lack of electric charge), do not heat up the plasma, and must be stopped by a thick shield, which then heats up and can vaporize water to steam to power turbines and electrical generators. The issue is that the repeated bombardment by neutrons causes the shield material to decay over time and become very radioactive, making removal and disposal difficult. Continue reading to know How close are we to Fusion Energy…
Deuterium-tritium fusion processes are also now employed because they occur at the lowest energy and plasma temperatures of all potential fusion fuels, making them easier to ignite and maintain. Tritium, on the other hand, is not found in substantial amounts in nature and must be produced in nuclear reactors. With today’s capacity, we simply cannot produce enough tritium to fuel even ITER on a continual basis. We might utilize better fuels, such as Helium-3 or Boron-11, which do not produce neutrons and hence ‘burn clean,’ but to ignite and maintain fusion with these fuels, the plasma temperature must be considerably higher and the confinement much better. While Boron-11 is abundant, Helium-3 is so uncommon that scientists believe lunar regolith, which has been irradiated for billions of years on the moon’s surface, is the best supply. Any energy generating facility that relies on a consistent supply of a moon-based fuel, especially one as energy-dense as He3, is unlikely to succeed.
A suggested solution to the Tritium shortage is to build a shield around the reactor out of lithium, which is plentiful, and fissions into tritium when touched by neutrons, allowing tritium to be ‘bred’ within the reactor. Of course, capturing, purifying, and containing tritium after it is discharged into the tokamak reaction chamber from the walls has its own set of challenges.
Another issue is that when all of ITER’s superconducting magnets are running at full current (160,000 amps) to generate the 13 Tesla toroidal magnetic field (13 times that of an MRI machine) and the other plasma-shaping and heating fields, they are storing 60 GigaJoules or about 12 Tons of TNT worth of energy. This is because when supercooled with liquid helium, the 180 kilometers of superconducting Niobium-Tin wires in all of these gigantic magnet coils can transport immense electrical current.
If the cooling fails, the superconductor warms up, quenches, and reverts to a regular conductor, no longer capable of carrying the massive current. When 160,000 amps suddenly encounter resistance, the coil rapidly vaporizes, causing the other coils to burn down, releasing total energy of 12 tonnes of TNT. This is particularly unpleasant when the coils are wrapped around a highly radioactive shield that vaporizes and is released into the environment. There are fault-detection systems, but dissipating that much energy safely takes time, and in the case of a catastrophic magnet coil failure, there may not be enough time to respond quickly enough. Continue reading to know How close are we to Fusion Energy…
So there are still some kinks to work out for practical fusion energy generation with magnetic confinement, some of which may be difficult to fix.
Inertial confinement fusion occurs when strong lasers are focused on a small pellet of deuterium fuel to rapidly compress it and cause it to attain the requisite temperature and density (Lawson requirements) for fusion, similar to a thermonuclear weapon (or H-Bomb), but on a much smaller scale.
However, there are fundamental issues with evenly imploding the deuterium fuel pellet, because once compression begins, the plasma becomes very unstable, and unless the laser beams used are perfectly aligned and even (or flat), it’s like squeezing Jello with your fingers, and the plasma bulges out where the lasers are slightly less intense, and it doesn’t reach the ignition criteria before it’s squeezed out of the gaps.
It also has many of the same issues with energy conversion to electricity, as well as much worse wear and tears on the shielding caused by these small nuclear fusion explosions, which also destroys all of the precision equipment required to keep the fuel pellet in the focus of the converging laser beams with extreme accuracy. As a result, there is a slew of practical damage control issues to solve before inertial confinement fusion becomes a viable source of energy.
While these issues may be resolved, practical implementation is still a long way off, and inertial confinement fusion is now utilized mostly as an experimental testbed for calibrating computer programs that model and develop thermonuclear fusion weapons. Continue reading to know How close are we to Fusion Energy…
As horrifying as these weapons are, the simulation algorithms designed to construct (sorry, manage) them are one of the most important instruments for fusion energy research. There’s a hydrodynamics code that mimics the behavior of fissile (and fusion) materials at severe pressure and temperature, as well as transport algorithms that represent neutron transport and scattering in these materials, plus a bunch of other stuff. The truly classified component is the integration and calibration of all these codes with prior nuclear weapon testing from the past, as well as these small-scale simulations in the present.
An inertial electrostatic confinement fusion reactor, also known as a Farnsworth-Hirsch fusor, is the most intriguing, tempting, and straightforward fusion reactor to construct. They may be built in a home lab and used to demonstrate fusion.
To empty it, you’ll need a vacuum container the size of a basketball and a pump. In the middle, place a small spherical wire cage the size of a golf ball, then surround it with a bigger wire cage the size of a bowling ball. The air is then pumped out, and a very high (10,000V) electrical potential is applied between the two cages, with the tiny negative cathode in the middle and the positive anode on the periphery.
Then you open a valve and let a very small amount of Deuterium gas (commercially available) into the vacuum chamber, where it ionizes in the high voltage potential. The D+ ions in the periphery experience a very strong electric field (100K V/m), and are rapidly accelerated towards the reactor’s center, with enough energy to collide and fuse the deuterium nuclei (no tritium required). An external neutron counter can be used to measure this fusion. Continue reading to know How close are we to Fusion Energy…
Theoretically, power generation would be straightforward, as fusion products containing extremely energetic He3 and (few) H3 ions could be decelerated in an electric field and the current generated directly utilized to create energy.
Although they appear to be clear winners owing to their simplicity and efficacy, ECF reactors are limited in scale by numerous factors
a) Because the density of deuterium gas has a limit before performance diminishes, generating capacity is restricted.
b) Deuterium ions clash with the wire cage cathode in the middle, which absorbs them and heats the cage, resulting in energy loss and contamination from dislodged metal atoms.
c) As the deuterium ions oscillate back and forth in the center, they create bremsstrahlung radiation, or photons of light, which lose energy each time they change direction (this is how your dentist’s x-ray equipment works).
d) Over time, scattering tends to convert the ions’ lovely, radial paths into a Maxwellian distribution, limiting the amount of fusion that happens.
There has been research towards employing electromagnets on the peripheral to try to keep a ball of electrons in the center without a central cage… called Bussard’s Polywell system. A business named EC3 attempted to continue its work, but it was never commercially successful, owing to the limitations of a), c), and d). The scourge of much plasma fusion physics, especially for ECF researchers, is the Maxwellian re-distribution of ion paths. Continue reading to know How close are we to Fusion Energy…
Thermonuclear Weapons: To confront the elephant in the room, thermonuclear weapons are humankind’s sole truly effective deployment of large-scale fusion energy release.
The massive, immediate, multi-megaton TNT energy release, as well as the resulting catastrophic damage and radioactive fallout, precludes any use in generating energy (or, for that matter, anything useful), but understanding the physics is critical to understanding the enormous energies and conditions required to induce large-scale fusion.
A spherical plutonium fission primary (with deuterium-tritium fusion fuel in the center to boost it) is imploded by conventional explosives, the plutonium is crushed well beyond critical density, fissions, and detonates in the Teller-Ulam two-stage thermonuclear device. The initial radiation is trapped and focused onto the fusion secondary, which is then imploded, ignited, and detonated.
I just bring it up to demonstrate the tremendous amount of energy required to truly meet the Lawson criterion on a wide scale, but nuclear weapons terrify me, so if you want to learn more, there is a Wikipedia page on the subject.
In conclusion, we should not shut down or stop building today’s fission nuclear reactors because commercial fusion reactors are not only a long way off, but they also produce radioactive waste (their shielding, which must be replaced on a regular basis) and Tokamaks can melt down catastrophically and explode like a small nuclear weapon if the magnet coils experience a cooling failure during full-power operation. They also don’t run on seawater, contrary to popular belief. Continue reading to know How close are we to Fusion Energy…
To ignite fusion at the temperatures and densities that today’s tokamak magnetic fields can create, we require expensive and difficult-to-make tritium (which is also radioactive).
Physics (classical, electrodynamics, plasma, quantum, nuclear…) and computer science, with a concentration on numerical modeling, are the ideal disciplines to study to progress fusion energy in your career. Physical fusion reactors are so expensive to build, test, and run that you may only get to iterate ideas once or twice in your lifetime, but computer simulations can lead us in a lot of different directions for a lot less money and effort.
Perhaps some unusual stellarator magnetic confinement design or sophisticated Farnsworth electrostatic confinement device that hasn’t been thoroughly investigated holds the answer to fusion energy. Unless you have a few billion dollars and hundreds of kilometers of Niobium-Tin wire and helium cooling tubing to play with, simulation is probably the best first step to finding it.
News Analyst and Content manager.