For the past three centuries, we have powered the rise of our modern day civilisation with fossil fuels. We take great pride in the exponential progress that we have enjoyed till now and still doing so, but it doesn’t happen just like that.
It requires tons of research and development, human resources, trial and error, constant problem solving and all that in turn, requires energy. Till now, we have been solely dependent on fossil fuels and that has served us well. But it can’t always go on.
It’s a surprise to me that the energy sector hasn’t seen much progress and we are still using the energy tech that is hundreds of years old. Yes, we have renewable sources as well in solar, wind and hydro plants, but they are no where near as advanced as we need them to be. I wonder why.
Fossil fuels have great disadvantages. First, they are limited, so we will need to look elsewhere, eventually anyways. Then they cause pollution, global warming and climate change, though the last two are still debated. All that could change though, if we manage to nail down nuclear fusion - the holy grail of energy.
Nuclear Fusion - Clean, Limitless Energy
Often times, renewable sources like - solar, water or wind power are touted as the green alternative to fossil fuels. But if you study closely, they are not too green at all. Granted, from the onset of energy production, they may be green but we often fail to consider their manufacturing.
Making wind turbines, solar panels or hydro plants cost a great deal of energy and has huge harmful effects on the environment. Add to this, the energy storage requirements in large batteries and the situation gets even worse. Not enough bang for the buck, ultimately.
Here’s where nuclear fusion steps in. Whenever we say nuclear power, people immediately think of the large reactors of nuclear power and the horrible stories in history associated with them. But what they fail to understand is that there are two types of nuclear power.
The one that you generally think of, comes from nuclear fission. That is quite dangerous as it involves radioactive materials. Nuclear fusion on the other hand, is clean, limitless source of energy. It is the same process that goes on in the core of our sun.
How It Works
In nuclear fission, a heavier element (like Plutonium) which is radioactive in nature, is broken down into two or more elements, which are also radioactive (thus dangerous). This process generates a lot of energy.
In nuclear fusion however, the exact opposite happens. Two atoms come together to form a single heavier element. For example, Hydrogen atoms (the most abundant element) coming together to form Helium. This process too generates a lot of energy, which we are well aware of as we can experience the heat of the sun even from such a huge distance.
At the core of the sun, the gravity is enough to keep the nuclear fusion reaction going while the hydrogen serves as the fuel. On Earth, replicating that is quite difficult, as the process requires a highly confined environment with a very high temperature (in the millions) and pressure.
This is exactly why nuclear fusion has proven very difficult thus far, even after more than 70 years of development. There are basically four ways of harnessing nuclear fusion but two of them have gone through the most research and development; one uses lasers, and the other one uses magnetic fields.
Recent Breakthrough Brings Us One Step Closer
Creating sun like conditions on Earth may sound impossible, and that’s why it has taken us this long. But the continuous endeavours in this field, has slowly been inching us forward towards nailing it down.
Recently, Tokamak Energy, a UK based company, managed to reach temperatures of 27 million degrees Fahrenheit for its hydrogen plasma (where the fusion process happens). This is hotter even than the sun, by the way!
They plan to make commercial fusion energy available by 2030, which is a lot faster than the 2050 that the experts generally estimate. The faster the better though.
Their next target is of 212 million degrees Fahrenheit which will be the required temperature for commercial nuclear fusion. That is like 8 times what we can currently do, but I am sure we will get there one day.
Why Nuclear Fusion Is A Must
I can’t stress how important developing nuclear power is for the future of the human race. It is quite literally the holy grail of energy, thanks to its many, many benefits.
For starters, we have abundant fuel to power nuclear fusion. How abundant you ask? Well, for millions of years at the least. Then it is highly energy efficient with one kilogram of fusion fuel capable of providing the same amount of energy as 10 million kilograms of fossil fuels. Think about that for a second.
Also, the fuel used at any given time is equivalent to just the size of a postage stamp unlike the tons of radioactive fuel used in nuclear fission power plants. Therefore it is very safe as there are no chances of a meltdown.
Even the radioactive waste are limited to only the plant components that can be easily disposed off or dealt with even with our current engineering capabilities. And last but not the least, it will rid the planet of carbon emissions and all the harmful effects associated with it.