Have you ever looked at the sun as a child and pondered how it manages to fuel itself every day without fail? If you’re a science enthusiast like many of us here at Scope, you too likely wondered why the sun didn’t have to go to the nearest Chevron to get more gas every once in a while. For many of us as children, the sun was like a befuddling ball of fire that should have burned out years ago! In fact, the force behind the sun’s self-sustenance is as interesting as it is confusing. And this very force acting as the most important source of energy for life could very realistically, within a few decades, become the most substantial source of commercial energy for humans as well.
As it turns out, overpriced gas is not the reason why the sun doesn’t need to refuel. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, is. It’s essentially the opposite of nuclear fission, the force behind nuclear bombs. Nuclear fission involves splitting the nuclei of atoms into two smaller daughter nuclei, while nuclear fusion “fuses” together two smaller atoms into a larger one. Both of these reactions release massive amounts of energy and that’s what provides the bombs with their destructive power. As of now only nuclear fission is used to provide energy for domestic purposes because fusion is only feasible under conditions with extremely high energy (which is why it can be used in nuclear bombs; first, fission is created and then the energy released is used to set off fusion). The benefits of nuclear fusion, if its energy could be harnessed for commercial use, are massive. For starters, the energy released is more than double than what is released in nuclear fission. There are also no harmful by-products like radiation, which is the biggest obstacle preventing nuclear fission from replacing fossil fuel as the largest source of commercial energy on earth. Fusion only produces helium (the non-toxic gas that we inhale to sound like chipmunks). And while nuclear fission uses elements like Uranium 235 that are both rare and difficult to dispose of, nuclear fusion only requires hydrogen, which is abundantly provided by our oceans. The only downside? The minimum temperature on earth that must be reached in order for fusion to happen is roughly 100 million degrees Celsius. It’s not impossible, but still difficult to achieve considering that this heat must be created without actual contact; the insane temperature will incinerate any object it touches.
Although present research is far from complete, more and more start-up companies in recent years have begun to develop this technology. In fact, one of the companies at the forefront of nuclear fusion development, General Fusion, is located right in Vancouver, with big investors including North American venture capitalists and even the Malaysian government. Since its start, the company has raised over $100 million dollars. Foreign fusion research companies like Tri-Alpha are hitting it up big too, with Goldman Sachs and the co-founder of Microsoft topping their long list of investors. Looking at the rapid growth in technology over the past two decades, a notable example being the smartphone market, it’s not too far-fetched to say that fusion might be feasible by 2050. Tri-Alpha has in fact has reportedly succeeded in heating hydrogen up to 10 million degrees (albeit not for long), and many others like France’s ITER have promised to reach the target temperature by as early as 2020. Every company is aiming to achieve fusion first, and such heavy competition can potentially become the largest drive behind the development of nuclear fusion. If these companies are as competent as they claim to be, we could in the relatively near future be creating enough electricity to power the whole world for thousands of years without worry about waste or pollution! A downside to the private companies’ approach, however, is the lack of information sharing. Since these companies are separate and in competition with one another, when any of them make important discoveries, these discoveries are only shared within the company instead of with the scientific community as a whole. Furthermore, many of their approaches differ; General Fusion, for example, uses a “Magnetized Target Fusion” system which attempts fusion inside a spherical tank, while the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Germany uses a donut shaped “stellarator”. This serves as an impediment to research development, and is where start-ups may be lacking in comparison to government funded efforts.
Be it government funded or privately owned, however, nuclear fusion that produces more energy than it uses will remain but a dream in the next few years. Until it does become a success, all we can do is, well, dream.
December 20, 2015
Author: Jerry Jiao
Editor: Sherry Yuan