Nuclear fusion, being researched in the same lab that developed the atomic bomb, is probably the next big breakthrough in energy generation
As various companies all over the world are working on wind and solar energy, there lies a potential for the next big energy source of the world in the lab where the very destructive atomic bomb was made, a report in Bloomberg states.
As per a podcast on Bloomberg’s Decrypted, scientists at the Oakridge International Laboratory, which was part of the Manhattan project that was devised to create nuclear fission as a weapon, where researching is being carried on for decades on how to build a commercially viable nuclear reactor, have almost come up with the answer.
Nuclear Fusion versus Fission: What's the difference?
Nuclear fusion is a procedure that naturally takes place in the sun, and is responsible for generating its heat.
Functioning nuclear power plants all over the world currently work on the principle of nuclear fission, that involves splitting particles apart.
However, the new technology based on nuclear fusion, as opposed to fission, involves smashing particles together.
In nuclear fusion, it is more difficult to come up with a commercially viable power plant. However, successfully executing the process could mean the world’s energy needs are taken care of forever.
Nuclear fission oil reportedly ten million times more efficient than all other energy generation processes currently out there.
A view of the jet stock from the overpressure valve inside the condensation chamber, partially filled with water during operation, of Austria's unique nuclear power plant in Zwentendorf, some 50 km (31 miles) west of Vienna (Courtesy : Reuters)
As per a scientist working on the project, a standard coal power plant takes roughly 90 railroad carts of coal to produce the same amount of energy produced by the fusion process while using only three pounds of tritium and two pounds of deuterium - two commonly used elements in the fusion process.
Nuclear fusion is a process that comes with almost zero carbon emissions, and much less radioactive waste than in the reactors we have today, in addition to an unlimited supply of raw materials that can be accessed anywhere.
Deuterium and Tritium, both types of heavy hydrogen that are used in fusion, can be sucked out of seawater and can be produced in nuclear reactors.
The process to develop them took the scientists at Oakridge decades to figure out.
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Also, the greater the magnetic field used inside the reactor, easier it is to get the process executed.
The biggest fusion reaction, known as JET, functioning in Europe currently has a magnetic field 10,000 times stronger than the earth’s magnetic field.
About 45 of these fusion machines are presently functioning in the world today. Most power plants work the same way they did a hundred million years ago, by using seawater and heat.
What are the challenges faced by the industry?
Scientists think nuclear fusion will surely work and may be the next big answer to the world’s energy problem and the one with least risk.
At this moment, however, the fusion program is limited by money.
US funding for fusion peaked in the late 70s and early 80s after the Oil Shocks and later it dropped.
One major challenge faced in this purpose is nuclear reactor accidents that are still fresh in public memory - Fukushima nuclear accident of 2011 and Chernobyl Blast Case of 1986, both of which happened to be fission reactors.
View of the Megajoule Laser project, currently under construction at the CESTA (Centre d'Etudes Scientifiques et Techniques d'Aquitaine) in Le Barp southwestern France, where scientists will be able to simulate nuclear tests using amplified energy from 176 lasers which is directed at a target located inside the sphere, thus reproducing nuclear fusion under temperature conditions some 100 times higher than those found at the centre of the sun (Courtesy: Reuters)
Another factor working against it is policy-related. US President Donald Trump has approved only half the amount of what the scientists requested, considering his heavy focus on hydrocarbon and fossil fuel-based energy growth.
Scientists have not yet received enough funds from the US budget yet. They claim that the funds will only comprise one-seventeenth part of the complete amount.
The successful plant also involves other challenges such as: fuelling, extracting heat, and coming up with materials that can withstand the environment. Innovation on these elements requires funding and new special facilities.One of the scientists at Oakridge says that a working nuclear fusion power plant could come by 2050 and thus may take up many generations to be executed.