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Being Bullish About an Unknown
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Tuesday, 23 August 2016 17:01
Just About Everywhere, August 2016—Nuclear fusion may be the most promising energy source that most of us have never heard of.

Scientists first discovered fusion as a potential energy source in the 1930’s and have been quietly working on it ever since. Only recently, given societal pressure to find alternatives to fossil fuels, has fusion started to capture the attention of the media and policymakers. 

Now, researchers are hoping the process can become a key source for the future, providing safe, clean, reliable energy.

Nuclear fusion is the fusing of two atoms into one. Very different from fission, in which atoms are split in half, both fusion and fission emit energy—but fusion emits much more. Creating fusion takes an immense amount of heat and pressure, and is the reaction that happens inside of stars, including our own sun.

As you might imagine, that’s the kind of heat that can roast a ton of hot dogs.

Scientists have achieved temperatures of around 100 million degrees inside experimental fusion devices but have yet to make the process net energy positive. The issue with creating reactions at such high heats is that the heated substance cannot touch anything or the container will melt. Therefore, fusion reactions are done in a donut of floating plasma, suspended by magnetic fields.

When compared to other energy sources, fusion energy seems like it might be our best bet in the long term. Compared to fossil fuels and renewable energy sources, fusion is wildly more efficient and no more dangerous. Fusion is three to four times more efficient even than nuclear fission, without the downside of nuclear meltdown or dirty bombs.

While nuclear fission requires uranium to function, fusion reactors only require deuterium, which occurs naturally in seawater, and tritium, which can be produced through a reaction of deuterium and lithium. These low raw material costs cause fusion to be considered a potential source of limitless energy. Due to the low radioactivity of fusion, even in the case of an explosion, radioactivity would be contained to the reactor site. Fusion reactors’ small input and extremely high output have made them a popular idea.

Is nuclear fusion the perfect energy source—or are the drawbacks too overwhelming?

Most critics of fusion energy point to the timeline as its greatest weakness. The majority of projections see 2050 as the first year fusion reactors could be commercially available, which comes too late to solve our current energy crisis. Some environmentalists claim that funding for fusion energy could be better spent on renewable sources such as solar and hydro that give us clean energy now. Another concern with fusion is public opinion. Even though far safer than fission, people tend to be wary of anything nuclear, if only because of the incredible devastation of nuclear bombs.

The biggest fusion energy project in the world is located in Southern France, and is called the ITER which means “the way” in Latin. ITER is funded by the European Union, the U.S., China, India, Korea, Russia and Japan. Currently under construction, when it’s ready, ITER will be a fusion reactor used for research. Plans are for ITER to be ready for its first test of plasma by 2025. Other significant research on fusion energy is being conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Though commercial fusion reactors are yet far from reality, the abundant raw materials and high safety, paired with enormous energy output, make it an outstanding possibility for the future.

SOURCE: EarthTalk
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