The Holy Grail of [Nuclear] Green Energy: Fusion


“I have become death, destroyer of worlds.” 

Throughout the 1930s, the thought of artificially splitting atoms was a Herculean task until the successful test detonation of the Manhattan Project in 1945, during which Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, uttered these words. The line comes from the sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, which displays dialogues between Prince Arjuna and Krishna, an avatar of the deity Vishnu. Here, the two debate the dilemma of waging a war even though the ensuing violence and death could afflict one’s kin. Similarly, Oppenheimer later recalled, “A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. We knew the world would not be the same.” 

He was right. Apart from the creation of weapons of mass destruction, nuclear energy was created. Nuclear energy is produced from atoms and has become the holy grail of clean energy due to the absence of fossil fuels during the creation process. Presently, there are two main types of energy processes: fission and fusion.

Fission, the artificial splitting of larger atoms into smaller ones, has powered nuclear energy since the 1950s. It’s an easily controlled process that generates electricity reliably. Fusion, however, entails merging atoms into larger ones, a more complex process that harnesses immense energy potential.

Screenshot 2024 03 06 9.12.25 AM
The basic reaction that occurs during the fusion energy creation process.

The development of fusion energy has been a lengthy process due to the immense technological challenges involved in confining and controlling the high temperatures that help formulate the fusion atom convergence. The need for sustained funding and reliable fusion reactors with a production capacity that is both cost-effective and scalable has posed significant hurdles to overcome until recently.

In the late 1970s, one of the most advanced experimental facilities, the Joint European Torus (JET) was constructed in England. Before its closure in December 2023, it achieved a major milestone during its final experiment.  It generated 69 megajoules of fusion energy for a duration of five seconds, by utilizing only a mere 0.2 milligrams of fuel. This output equates to powering approximately 12,000 households for the same duration.

A traditional fission nuclear power plant like the Robert Emmett Ginna (R.E. Ginna) Nuclear Power Plant located on the southern shore of Lake Ontario in New York, United States, can generate 582 megawatts (MW) of power per second continuously. This means that in 5 seconds, the R.E Ginna can produce 2910 megajoules* of power on average, assuming it is operating continuously at its full capacity. In contrast, the fusion experiment can only generate an output of 69 total megajoules over 5 seconds. Although these results might seem underwhelming, it is also important to consider the experiment was one of the first of its kind compared to a fully functioning fission reactor of 54 years. To compare the current fusion experiments to one of the first-ever fission experiments conducted by Otto Frisch in 1939, the total amount of energy released was about 0.203 mega-electronvolt (MeV) in megajoules. The output of these experiments may be small but are major milestones for their respective nuclear energy production fields. They are foundations to new revelations. 

While JET achieved a high output energy, the fusion process has yet to be perfected as its energy input surpasses the produced energy. There have been other fusion experiments that have broken even with minor amounts of energy production at a maximum of a 1.5 megajoule energy gain, however, on a massive scale such as the JET, a breakeven is still down the road.

Overall, these experiments give a glimpse into the future of advanced nuclear production. The development in fusion energy promises a new limitless and clean energy source that will bring humans closer to a sustainable future. Fusion energy, unlike fission, offers virtually limitless fuel resources, reducing concerns over resource depletion and geopolitical tensions associated with uranium, which is crucial for fission. Additionally, fusion reactions produce significantly less long-lived radioactive waste compared to fission, mitigating environmental and safety hazards while providing a sustainable energy solution for future generations. Furthermore, Ian Chapman, CEO of U.K. Atomic Energy, concurred last month that fusion plants could feed power into the grid by 2050, becoming a steadily important source to the energy economy by late 2060 as the global energy is projected to triple between that time frame. To successfully harness fusion energy could revolutionize global energy production, offering a sustainable solution to meet the world’s growing energy demands while mitigating environmental impacts.

* Mathematical help from Professor Famiano from the American Department of Energy.

Cover image source: Vattenfall

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