By Norman Rozenberg
Nuclear fusion used to be a work of science fiction, an idea only considered by physicists. After decades of research, technological and scientific breakthroughs, however, nuclear fusion is closer to becoming a reality.
Nuclear fusion is, theoretically, one of the cleanest methods of producing energy. The process’ primary byproduct is helium, a simple gas that is already present in the atmosphere and is reaching low levels.
For nuclear energy as a whole, fusion remains the primary goal and the Holy Grail. Organizations and governments around the world are working to develop the technology required to sustain this method of energy production.
The challenge is developing the technology that is able to work on the atomic level while producing heat at temperatures that rival the surface of the sun.
Mission to lower ignition
Fusion is the same process that powers stars in a chain reaction. One of the most challenging aspects of nuclear fusion is producing more energy than what’s required to fuel it, a process known as ignition. How it works exactly has eluded scientists.
This year, however, scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory were able to record a net gain in energy from a nuclear fusion reaction.
“The physics is a breakthrough,” said physicist Riccardo Betti of the University of Rochester in an interview with Wired. “If fusion will ever become a viable source of energy, we may look back and say that in 2013, for the first time, a plasma produced more energy out than it took in.”
Scientists were able to do this by improving the massive lasers that are used to superheat a single molecule to temperatures of the sun.
Magnetism sparks fusion
A joint team of researchers from the University of Michigan and Princeton University has observed a magnetic phenomenon that could push us into the fusion age. They have observed a magnet that allows electrons to flow in a more ordered fashion, potentially solving major hurdles for achieving ignition.
Scientists may be able to use this discovery to their advantage, designing lasers to uniformly heat molecules and bring fusion a step closer. The supercharged and heated particles from this process are able to push magnetic fields around, allowing for uniform heating and movement. Think of it like a strong current pushing tree branches to unblock a river.
Building for the future
A coalition of donors, including the European Union, is aiming to build a campus of 39 buildings for a nuclear fusion reactor, dubbed Iter. Currently, only about 300 workers are working on the project, but the number is expected to soar to 2,000 in the coming year as the technology begins to improve. A finished project is expected in 2020, when researchers are expected to achieve fusion.
Fusion energy has the potential to meet energy demand for millions of years by simply using seawater. As wonderful as all of this sounds, more research and technological breakthroughs are required to make fusion truly viable.