Nuclear fusion: energy source of the future?

Nuclear fusions are important natural processes. It is the source of energy from the sun and stars and many elements were created from hydrogen by fusion. Fusion research aims to generate energy from the fusion of atomic nuclei in a power plant. 

The sun as a role model

You can’t tell from the outside, but our sun is waning. Every second around 600 million tons of hydrogen fuse to form 596 million tons of helium. This has been going on for around 4.6 billion years. This difference in mass of 4 million tons per second ensures that our sun shines because it is released as energy. This connection can be described with the mass-energy equivalence: E=m c2. Nuclear fusion is the reason why stars shine and why life on earth was possible in the first place.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

How can nuclear fusion be used on earth?

Under terrestrial conditions, the two types of hydrogen, deuterium, and tritium, fuse most easily. This creates a helium core, a neutron, and large amounts of usable energy are released.

Fusion fuels are cheap and evenly distributed around the world. Deuterium can be found in almost inexhaustible quantities in seawater. Tritium, a radioactive gas with a short half-life, hardly occurs in nature but can be formed from lithium, which is also abundant.

Atomic nuclei only fuse at very high temperatures and very high pressures. In the sun this happens naturally. Hydrogen atoms fuse to form helium. This reduces the mass and an incredibly large amount of energy is emitted. 

Conventional nuclear power plants produce energy through nuclear fission. The opposite happens in nuclear fusion reactors. Since a large amount of energy must first be fed into a nuclear fusion reactor, it is not yet clear whether the process will ever be economically viable.

Advantages of nuclear fusion

  • Fusion power plants tend to be cheap to operate after coping with high investment costs.
  • Fusion is low in emissions and there are also no direct pollutant emissions.
  • Reactor disasters are also unlikely since nuclear fusion in the reactor stops immediately when the complex technical and physical conditions no longer prevail.
  • Fusion is non-consumable energy, there is no resource problem for the raw materials. Large amounts of electrical energy can be supplied continuously and on a long-term basis by a fusion power plant.

Disadvantages of nuclear fusion

  • The use of fusion power entails a huge financial expense for research.
  • Fusion power plants are centralized high-tech reactors, which in the future can lead to equity problems between highly developed and underdeveloped regions.
  • Radioactive waste is also produced here, which must be stored and disposed of.
  • There is also a residual risk of weapon capability.
Photo by Fré Sonneveld on Unsplash

Conclusion

Since research now focuses on renewable energies such as wind or water power, solar energy, and others, it remains uncertain whether nuclear fusion in reactors will ever work properly and whether it will even be profitable. It is nice to see that research is being carried out on this, but the process is not yet profitable. In a few decades, however, things could be very different and technology could revolutionize the energy sector.

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