An efficient, pure fuel that is so plentiful that the full year’s supply could fit in a swimming pool. That is the ideal, but science also exists.
Contrary to popular belief, a machine located close to the village of Culham in south Oxfordshire is really the hottest spot in our solar system. JET, or the Joint European Torus, is a nuclear fusion experiment that is housed inside a huge hangar. Temperatures here, while operational, may reach 150 million degrees Celsius, which is 10 times hotter than the Sun’s core. JET achieved a new record on December 21st, 2021, by continuously generating 59 megajoules of energy through nuclear fusion.
Only enough to run three household tumble dryer cycles, 59 megajoules isn’t much. Nevertheless, demonstrating that nuclear fusion is possible is a huge deal for civilization. Atomic nuclei are fused together to create energy in fusion, as opposed to all nuclear power plants, where atomic nuclei are broken apart by nuclear fission. Fusion has the potential to create so much energy from so little raw material when it is harnessed on a large scale that it may, among other things, instantly solve all of humanity’s energy concerns.
The famous question of “what problem do you believe science will address before the end of the 21st century” was posed to Professor Stephen Hawking. He said, “I would like nuclear fusion to become a workable power source. “It wouldn’t cause pollution or global warming, just an endless source of energy.”
JET currently uses more energy to function than it generates. The scientists at JET, as well as every other scientist working in this sector, have yet to achieve net energy gain, the holy grail of nuclear fusion since it would result in the release of more energy than it consumes.
Star in a bottle
JET is very amazing up close. While the experts at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (managed by the UK Atomic Energy Authority) are intimately familiar with every square inch of this massive machine, to the untrained eye it appears to be a bewildering, asymmetrical jumble of steel bars, joists, cages, ladders, wires, cables, pipes, ducts, switches, monitors, valves, plugs, scaffolding, catwalks, and steel runners.
It has a diameter of more than seven meters and is 12 meters tall on the exterior. 2,800 tonnes are the total weight of the device. The tokamak, a doughnut-shaped (or toroidal) vessel, is concealed somewhere in the center. (The term “tokamak,” which is an abbreviation created from the Russian words for “toroidal chamber” and “magnetic coil,” is based on early Soviet concepts from the 1950s.)
The security and safety at Culham are appropriately tight, despite the fact that nuclear fusion reactors are far safer than nuclear power plants (more on this later). During operation, one-meter-thick, 20-meter-tall concrete walls that surround JET itself close in order to largely confine the potentially harmful neutrons produced by the fusion process. Each visitor must pass through a security turnstile, and their radiation levels are checked on entry and leave by a dosimeter.
JET, which began operations in 1983, has generated nuclear fusion pulses tens of thousands of times. It will perform its farewell song at the end of next year after 40 years of service before finally being dismantled. The upcoming tokamak fusion initiatives will make use of the scientific knowledge and much of the technology it has demonstrated. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, is currently being built close to Marseille in the south of France. ITER is a partnership of 35 countries, including the UK. Additionally, there are proposals for a British initiative known as STEP, short for Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production. Its position as the West Burton power station in Nottinghamshire was verified on October 3rd.
Professor Ian Chapman, the CEO of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, is in command of JET. He believes that by the late 2040s, ITER will begin to experience net energy gain. He is less specific when asked when nuclear fusion may provide affordable energy on a commercial basis.
He told National Geographic UK that “it’s an enigma question and depends so much on energy dynamics, governmental policy, and what’s happening with carbon pricing.” “I never respond to that query. Lev Artsimovich, one of the tokamak’s pioneers, is someone I frequently reference. At a news conference in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, this topic was posed to him, and his response was, “When mankind needs it, perhaps a short time before that.” That’s still true, in my opinion.
Futures on fusion
Chapman emphasizes how the energy we produce using existing techniques will ultimately become so expensive that governments and private corporations will be forced to spend farther and take greater risks to harness nuclear fusion, which is presently dominating UK news due to the fuel crisis. He describes how the initial investment in JET began in the late 1970s, following the world oil crisis. Now, the Ukraine conflict-induced energy insecurity may act as a comparable nuclear fusion trigger.
Energy strategy is implemented over decades, he continues. “Since no parliament in the world operates on a decadal time scale, market shocks are sadly what often spur energy action.”
Even with significant investment, there are still significant obstacles to overcome, including both technical ones—such as fuel performance and reactor maintenance—and political ones, despite the fact that Americans, Europeans, Russians, Chinese, Japanese, and Australians have all become more open to the idea.
Brits have also. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Policy released their nuclear fusion strategy in October 2021. It states that this type of energy will be plentiful, effective, carbon-free, safe, and it will also create radioactive waste that is considerably less long-lived than what is currently produced by nuclear power plants.
The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion & the Race to Power the Planet is a book by Arthur Turrell, a former plasma physicist at Imperial College London. It is scheduled for publication in 2021. He claims that “the largest technological challenge we’ve ever taken on as a species is regulating fusion to create energy.” He describes how fusion reactors, sometimes known as “star machines,” have tens of millions of pieces and are incredibly complicated.
The scientific portion
So how exactly does nuclear fusion operate? It involves the fusion of light nuclei into heavier nuclei while simultaneously releasing enormous quantities of energy. The energy that powers the cosmos is what occurs in the center of stars like our Sun. It’s important to note that this process is the opposite of nuclear fission, which is the method employed in nuclear power plants to release enormous quantities of energy when nuclei are split apart to generate smaller nuclei.
Despite the Sun, there are currently two primary fusion techniques being tested by humanity. JET, for instance, uses a process called magnetic confinement fusion in which two hydrogen isotopes, tritium and deuterium, are heated to temperatures as high as 150 million degrees Celsius to form plasma, an electrically charged gas that is contained inside a tokamak and subject to magnetic field control. Deuterium and tritium combine to form helium and high-speed neutrons, releasing a tremendous amount of energy in the process—10 million times more energy per kilogram of fuel than is generated during the combustion of fossil fuels. The amount of deuterium-tritium fuel needed to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, as expertly put by Turrell, would contain more energy than the world’s population would require in a year.
The second fusion technique is known as inertial confinement fusion, and it works by heating and compressing deuterium and tritium inside a capsule using strong lasers. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California is home to one of the most significant advancements in this area.
Of course, demonstrating the viability of nuclear fusion is not the same as using it commercially. Nuclear scientists used to frequently joke, “Nuclear fusion is 30 years away; and always will be,” or something to that effect.
Just as nuclear fusion is beginning to gain popularity, that old adage is beginning to lose it. Fusion pioneers from all around the world are on Promethean missions to reproduce the Sun’s energy-generation mechanism on Earth. There are reportedly more than 100 experimental fusion reactors operational or in the planning stages throughout the world right now. “Public and private, big and small, star machines are taking off,” says Turrell.
There are four significant facilities in the UK alone, all of which are now located in Oxfordshire: Tokamak Energy, First Light Fusion, and General Fusion, in addition to JET.
They are all ultimately aiming for net energy gain. When you ask Turrell where he thinks this may happen for the first time, he points to the National Ignition Facility in California, where they have already attained 70% of net energy gain. He asserts that they are just “a minor adjustment away” from achieving 100%.
Chapman enjoys all of the rivalry. All of this is beneficial to the neighborhood, he claims. We all desire the occurrence of nuclear fusion. We ought to experiment with a wide variety of choices. More money spent, more risks taken.
He draws parallels between this admirable endeavor and the 1960s space competition between the US and the USSR. “It was unthinkable when Kennedy gave his address that a man would walk on the moon seven years later. You can do amazing things if you have the political need to move quickly and spend money. The US was investing more than 4% of its GDP on the space race.
Fusion proponents assert that this renewable source of energy may ultimately supplant all of our nuclear power plants. There are some obvious advantages.
First off, there is an ample supply of gasoline. Deuterium is obscenely widespread, according to Turrell’s book. Lithium, another abundant element, may be used to create tritium. The human race could have unlimited access to clean energy for millions or perhaps billions of years if nuclear fusion technology is perfected.
According to Chapman, all the fuel he will ever require is enough lithium to power two laptop batteries and water to fill a bathtub. For 60 years, it would be all I would need. However, some detractors point out that there won’t be enough tritium on Earth. ITER is investigating the possibility of producing tritium from lithium via breeding blankets. These would be a component of the reactor wall and cause the blanket’s lithium to react with neutrons to make more tritium. If it is successful, tritium supply for power plants might become self-sufficient.
Naturally, many users of energy experience anxiety at the mere mention of the phrase “nuclear.” Chapman acknowledges the rationale behind the statement but soon refutes it by pointing out that fusion has far less risks than fission. This is the second obvious advantage.
He claims that a fission plant has enough fuel to last for two to three weeks. “If anything really out of the ordinary occurs, like a tidal wave or an earthquake, that gasoline will last for two to three weeks. You have no power over it. If you want the fusion device to stop, it simply does so because there is enough fuel within for around ten seconds. A chain reaction mechanism is implausible from a physical standpoint. I’ve spent the better part of my 20-year career attempting to maintain the blasted thing.
Even though individuals involved in nuclear fusion are obviously prejudiced, they all concur that this type of energy will be essential in a future where there is a glut of energy. Renewable energy will continue to be significant, but they might not be sufficient.
According to Chapman, “We aim to improve the world and provide everyone access to clean energy.” “Everywhere we can, we should use renewable energy. But if you don’t have access to sunlight or wind, for instance, they just don’t function everywhere. Fusion is possible anywhere, as fuel is widely accessible. We no longer experience energy poverty, energy equality, or energy-related warfare. It would be such a huge change and a crucial component of the energy mix of the future.
He thinks nuclear fusion will have the same profound effects on society as the Industrial Revolution. Turrell goes a step further, speculating that this type of energy may ultimately be used to propel spacecraft that carry people throughout the galaxy. He told National Geographic UK that “Fusion rockets represent humanity’s greatest chance for traveling over the huge expanses of space.”
JET is inactive and waiting for its next experiment at the Culham hangar. It will carry out a number of more fusion tests before being retired in late 2023, mostly for the future ITER reactor.
It is currently dozing out like a dragon. When it awakens, you should stay away from it. The fire that this dragon exhales burns at 150 million degrees.