“Nuclear Fusion” – the dream of energy researchers

“Nuclear Fusion” - the dream of energy researchers

The stars shine because of nuclear fusion [1,3]. Our star, the Sun, is extremely hot: 15 MILLION °C [1]! This means atoms wiggle very fast and when they, collide they sometimes “fuse” (i.e. become one bigger atom) [2]. When two or more atoms fuse, lots of energy is released [2].

Don’t confuse fusion with fission: nuclear fission is what we call “nuclear energy” today, while nuclear fusion is much more difficult to do successfully [5].

Here is a challenge: can we make miniature Suns on Earth to capture energy from nuclear fusion?

Because the Sun is so big, the centre is under a lot of pressure, making it very hot [3,8]. We can’t replicate this on Earth, so scientists have come up with other methods: accelerating atoms to very fast speeds using magnets [4] or lasers [6], to make them fuse. However, currently, this process takes more energy than is generated from the fusion itself – overall, it uses up more energy than it releases [9]! A key problem is that it is difficult to sustain a fusion reaction for a long period of time [5].

There are good reasons to keep trying: fusion produces LOTS OF ENERGY: 1kg of fusion fuel produces as much energy as 10,000,000 kg of fossil fuel [4,7]! It releases NO GREENHOUSE GASES directly, and NO LONG-LIVED RADIOACTIVE WASTE [7]! It’s also SAFER than nuclear fission, since there is no chain reaction [7,10]. In a way, it’s the “holy grail” of energy production.

Scientists have recently been making good progress [4,6], with teams racing to make the first commercial scale fusion reactor [9]. The UK, for example, is aiming to have a fusion reactor ready by the early 2040s [9].

References

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