Fusion Technology: The Challenge of Harnessing the Sun

In the years to come, energy will be a vital resource to power our homes, devices, and the transportation system. Technological advances in solar power, nuclear energy, and geothermal heating, have provided an abundant amount of options for our energy needs. However, one energy source that is making massive technological strides is Fusion Energy. Unlike fossil fuels, and nuclear energy, the by-products from a fusion reaction are not as harmful to the environment and could prove to be an ideal solution to replace these fuel sources.

Fusion energy is the means of harnessing the power of a fusion reaction for use in generating electricity. Fusion reactions are found in nature in stars, like our sun, that provide Earth the energy it needs to sustain life. The process involves the combination of two molecules, deuterium and tritium, being pressed together in a high temperature environment that fuses the two molecules together. In the process, both a neutron and helium atom are dispelled from the reaction, and more importantly, energy is released.

The Process of Fusion Reaction

For those who like to see a more in-depth look into Fusion Energy, check out the video below:

Source: Kurzgesagt- In a Nutshell

To harness the power of fusion, there are two main types of fusion reactor designs. The first is the Tokamak fusion design, a circular design capable of producing a plasma environment to allow molecules to fuse together in the fusion reaction. The heat generated from the fusion reaction would be captured by the walls of the chamber. The other process is known as Inertial Confinement Fusion, a process by which lasers heat up a pellet containing deuterium, and tritium, to high temperatures by which the material fuses together to produce high yields of energy. Currently, there are several labs that work with fusion reactors.

Some of these include the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, National Ignition Facility, and the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor

One of the largest Tokamak designs is the one being built at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). When brought online, the ITER Tokamak will be able to produce 500 MegaWatts (MW) of energy with only 50 MW of input power to generate the fusion reaction. Based in France, the ITER has main partners with the European Union, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States. The European Union is the main actor for the ITER project, contributing 45% of the funds, with other partners providing 9% of funding. The project is expected to come online for 2025.

National Ignition Facility

The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is the world’s most powerful laser designed Inertial Confinement Fusion facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. With 192 lasers, the NIF can test fusion reactions with the a method different from the ITER. However, unlike the funding for ITER, the NIF is sponsored by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), whose main responsibility is to maintain the nation’s nuclear weapons program. In addition, the NIF allows the United States to maintain a nuclear deterrence without the need to conduct nuclear tests.

Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory 

Another federal laboratory that works with fusion reactors is the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) based in New Jersey. Like the ITER, the PPPL laboratory also works with tokamak fusion reactors to generate fusion reactions. However, in addition to building a successful, and economical fusion reaction, PPPL is also working to apply fusion technology to other areas of research. Such areas include fusion thrusters and the creation of intense ion beams. This could be highly beneficial as governments, and private companies alike, seek to expand into space and conduct long term space travel. Fusion energy could provide the necessary fuel source to propel astronauts into deep space missions in the solar system. Finally, PPPL works with the private sector to bring new technology to the market for commercial value.

To this day, a lot of unanswered questions remain when it comes to fusion based energy reactions. In order to bring this technology to the energy sector, scientiss must devise the correct method to yield sufficient energy; while not expending too much energy to initiate the reaction. Until this problem is resolved, fusion based technology will remain in the research component of the process. Perhaps in the not too distant future, ITER and NIF will make the breakthrough we need to build commercial fusion reactors in major cities across the world.

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