Nuclear fusion, as the name suggests, is the fusion or fusion of two or many atoms into one larger atom. This creates an enormous amount of heat and energy.
The process of creating nuclear power is called fission. This involves splitting atoms rather than fusing them. This process can create radioactive waste that can be radioactive for many thousands of years. It can also be dangerous in the event that an accident occurs, such as the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe in Japan, which was triggered by an earthquake or tsunami.
Fusion, on the contrary, is safer and produces less waste. It also requires very little of an abundant, naturally-sourced fuel. Fusion is an attractive option as the world shifts away from the fossil fuels that cause climate change.
Scientists near Oxford, England were able generate a record-breaking 59 megajoules (or tokamak) of sustained fusion energy in a donut-shaped machine called a tokamak. This was achieved in just five seconds.
Scientists had to increase the temperature in the machine to 10 times that of the sun and apply great pressure to allow for fusion.
Fusion energy has enormous potential. The JET experiment used deuterium, tritium, which are isotopes for hydrogen, to fuel the fusion. These elements are also found in seawater.
“The energy you can get from the fuels deuterium and tritium are enormous. To power the entire UK’s current electrical demand would require 0.5 tons of deuterium. However, this could be extracted from seawater (where its concentration is low but abundant) from approximately 3,000 tonnes of water per day,” Tony Roulstone of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering said to CNN.
He stated that the fusion produced by JET was about the same as a turbine and could power one house for a day.
“But it could power thousands of homes if it was generated repeatedly.”
Experts claim that the results prove nuclear fusion is feasible and not a pipedream solution to climate crisis.
“These landmark results have taken me a great step closer towards conquering one the most difficult scientific and engineering challenges of all,” said Ian Chapman. He is the CEO of the UK Atomic Energy Authority and led the research in partnership to EUROfusion. This consortium includes 4,800 experts, students, and staff across Europe. The European Commission also funds the project.
Mark Wenman is a nuclear materials researcher at Imperial College London. He stated that the experiment’s results were “exciting” and that it showed that “fusion energy is no longer a distant dream — the engineering to make it an efficient, clean source of power is possible and happening now.”
The Joint European Torus (JET), also known as the Oxford tokamak, has been subjected so much heat and pressure that it is unlikely to survive another one.
However, its results are a huge boon to ITER (a fusion megaproject in south France supported by the US China, India, Japan Korea, Russia and the European Union).
ITER’s goal, from 50 MW of fuel input, is to produce a tenfold energy return or 500 MW fusion power.
Although the results are encouraging, nuclear fusion is not an everyday energy source. It is likely that it is still a long way away.
“The JET results were impressive and will likely improve as they continue their experiments. They are producing high-power 12 MW power, but for only five seconds. Roulstone stated that it is necessary to continue fusion burning for a longer time.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2020 and reach zero net emissions in order to stop global warming. This means a rapid transition from fossil fuels like oil, coal, and gas.
These actions are necessary to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. This is considered a threshold for significantly worsening climate impacts.