Is fusion coming soon?

The challenge in 21st century can be defined as meeting the worldwide energy demand. Looking at existing energy solutions, it may seem like an easily-solvable problem, with good utilization of resources. However, the challenging part is to meet the energy requirement of the increasing population worldwide while lowering the greenhouse gas emissions for sake of a cleaner environment, thus, putting limits to use of some sources of energy, such as petroleum-based fuels [1]. Some countries foresaw this issue and started to develop alternative technologies that may promise a sustainable solution for the next decades. Although its application is highly-debated in today’s agenda, an example to these technologies comes from nuclear energy: fusion.
Fusion is the energy created by forcing the atomic nuclei together [2]. To be more specific, unlike today’s reactors that run based on the principle of splitting the atoms (fission), it involves fusing hydrogen isotopes into heavier elements, similar to the reaction that powers the sun [1]. This idea has been studied for decades, but due to some limitations, such as controlling the amount of energy released and enormous economic costs for research, no significant progress has been made so far. However, this scenario may alter in following years as Lockheed Martin announced its plans to get serious on building a nuclear fusion reactor [3]. The company claims that a 100-MW prototype will be tested in 2017, and a fully-operational reactor should be grid-ready in 2023 [4].
How do they propose a solution to the problems associated with the current state of fusion research? The answer lies in the design, which will be different than the traditional ones. It will use a compact cylinder, rather than a traditional bulky ring, and provide a stronger magnetic containment field, which leaves fewer points of weakness where energy can escape, in comparison to the traditional designs [4]. Moreover, with a smaller reactor, both development costs and weight will be lowered [3]. The latter will enable the reactor to be transported by truck. If they make this innovative idea work, it might be a great replacement to the use of fossil fuels with both high-efficiency use of resources and much lower CO2 emissions, which contributes to the efforts for a cleaner and more sustainable environment. It will start in the US and then spread to the other countries.
On the other hand, this project may exacerbate the debate on nuclear power. Environmentalists will oppose to the idea of getting more dependent to nuclear reactors, since there will always be a risk factor, for the ecosystem and human health, that is much higher than that of renewable sources. This may interfere with the progress of the project, which may require governmental action in further steps.
All in all, the idea seems to be promising. It is important that finally a company is able to suggest a new look to the topic of fusion, which has great potential to be the permanent solution to energy supply problem. However, no matter how smart the project is, it is still nuclear power. For this reason, public consciousness and possible public reaction should be taken into account as important factors for the success of the project. Government is involved in it, too. It is going to be interesting to see what future will bring about fusion power.

REFERENCES

[1]: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/12/science/in-search-of-energy-miracles.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[2]: http://americansecurityproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Fusion-fact-sheet-FINAL.pdf

[3]: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAsRFVbcyUY

[4]: http://americansecurityproject.org/blog/2013/lockheed-martin-outlines-plans-for-nuclear-fusion-reactor/

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1 Comment

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One response to “Is fusion coming soon?

  1. max vilmar

    Alternative sustainability is one of the most highly contested and difficult issues we face on our planet. As you said, finding an environmentally stable energy source has become a race against the exponential growth of our populations as they continue to expand. The resources are few; the factors of time and money are limiting. As exciting and optimistic as Lockheed’s reactor seems, it may be too soon to put to much stock into the idea. While the design attempts to solve most of the issues it is all only theoretical at this point. As you addressed, the public perception and the potential environmental catastrophes that ensue would be a huge hurdle for Lockheed to cross. That being said, nuclear reactors are really awesome 🙂

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