Fusion power would completely revolutionize energy production on our planet. Indeed, it would reshape our entire world, allowing us to produce vast amounts of energy with little waste or cost. In essence, fusion reactors work by mimicking our Sun in that they fuse two hydrogen atoms into a single helium atom. Conversely, nuclear fission breaks a single atom into two atoms.
Ultimately, the fusion reaction releases ten times more energy per mass as our regular fission reactors, and it does so without all the harmful nuclear waste.
Unfortunately, such reactions come with a few problems. As University of Texas physicist Dr. Swadesh M. Mahajan notes, “Getting net energy from fusion is such a goddamn difficult undertaking. We know of no materials that would be able to handle anywhere near that amount of heat.”
But of course, this doesn’t stop scientists from working on the project. Indeed, MIT notes that the tech is entirely viable, “There is no known science stopping us from developing fusion energy; in fact the fundamental conditions needed to make fusion, such as achieving temperatures of 100 million degrees, have mostly been achieved.” And they go on to assert just how staggering the implications of this form of energy are, “The fundamental features of fusion – inexhaustible fuel and large power density – would allow it to provide carbon-free energy at a scale needed to address climate change.”
With this in mind, let’s take a quick look at some of the more promising projects.
Dennis Whyte of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center has a new reactor design that’s similar to current generation tokamaks, only smaller and with more powerful magnets. These magnets are made with rare-earth barium copper oxides that are able to continue functioning in higher temperatures and magnetic-field strengths than other existing superconductors. The design is called the ARC reactor, which stands for “affordable, robust, compact.”
As MIT notes, the added power of the magnets are a big plus: “While most characteristics of a system tend to vary in proportion to changes in dimensions, the effect of changes in the magnetic field on fusion reactions is much more extreme: The achievable fusion power increases according to the fourth power of the increase in the magnetic field. Thus, doubling the field would produce a 16-fold increase in the fusion power.” As a result, all increases in magnetic field are huge bonuses.
The team adds that, unlike other devices, theirs can really take the heat, “new superconducting magnets would enable the reactor to operate in a sustained way, producing a steady power output, unlike today’s experimental reactors that can only operate for a few seconds at a time without overheating of copper coils” (in case you aren’t aware, a few seconds of operation makes the experimental reactors somewhat less than viable).
The Focus Fusion Device developed by Lawrenceville Plasma Physics (LPP) is designed to combine protons with boron atoms to generate three helium atoms plus energy without neutrons that can contaminate nearby atoms. The proton-boron fusion is sparked using superheated low-pressure gas sandwiched by coaxial cylindrical metal electrodes.
The device will be testing proton-boron mixtures in the coming year. But you can check out the video below for more information on how the device works.
Another fusion reactor design also fuses protons and borons, but with the use of short and powerful laser pulses to produce very powerful magnetic fields (as opposed to the large, high-strength magnets used in other designs). It exploits an, as yet, much unexplored “avalanche” fusion reaction that, if used correctly, could output 1 billion joules from 30 kilojoules of energy. Recently published work led the team to conclude that, “that secondary avalanche reactions are happening and confirming the results of high-gain, neutron-free, clean, safe, low-cost, and long-term available energy,” which sounds remarkably promising.
We likely won’t have this energy source anytime soon, but if these projects are any indication, the future seems very promising.