By Willow Ascenzo | May 5, 2021
Humanity has gone as far as it can go on fossil fuels, and likely quite a bit farther on top of that. Fossil fuels—natural gas, coal, and oil—have fed our civilization’s explosive growth since the Industrial Revolution. But these sources of energy come with serious drawbacks. One, they’re nonrenewable, meaning that one day we will completely run out of them. Two, they release greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide which trap heat from the sun in the Earth’s atmosphere and adversely alter the Earth’s climate to the detriment of its environment.
Photo by Thomas Richter
This greenhouse effect has severely damaged our biosphere, and projections on the future negative effects of climate change grow more dire every year. Our continued growth and the stability of our environment depends on transitioning to renewable energy sources.
Renewable sources are potent and critical, but do have some drawbacks of their own, controlled by the elements of our environment. Solar panels, for example, produce electricity from sunlight, but can only produce electricity when the sun is unobstructed. Wind turbines can only produce electricity when the wind is high. Hydroelectric power plants can only be built where there is sufficient running water. Solar and wind power sources must store surplus electricity in batteries to make up for inevitable non-productive periods. To supplement these renewable sources as we phase out fossil fuels, nuclear energy—in particular, nuclear fusion—must occupy a primary position in our energy future.
Photo by NASA
What is fusion energy?
Nuclear fusion is a process in which two atoms collide with each other at high speeds and become a single new atom. The fusion process releases a great deal of energy, which can be harnessed and converted into electricity. Our sun, along with every other star, is an enormous fusion engine which combines hydrogen, the lightest and most plentiful element in the universe, to produce helium, the second-lightest element.
Since the 1950s, scientists have been researching how to harness nuclear fusion to produce electricity. Manmade nuclear fusion does not utilize elemental hydrogen but rather isotopes, or variations of hydrogen with extra neutrons in their nuclei—namely deuterium and tritium. The byproducts of nuclear fusion are neutron radiation, or neutrons which have been separated from the nucleus of an atom, and helium gas. The only radioactive material involved in fusion reactions is tritium, which is far less hazardous to human health than the radioactive materials involved in fission reactors.
Phoenix built the first production neutron generator for SHINE. It is housed in SHINE’s demonstration facility in Janesville, Wis.
How will fusion energy solve our energy problems?
Nuclear fusion has the potential to produce vast amounts of electricity in any environment. Fusion is the strongest energy source in the world—deuterium, which can be obtained easily from seawater, has the highest energy density of any other fuel, with one spoonful of seawater containing as much energy as a barrel of oil. You might not think of a spoonful of the Atlantic Ocean as being so potent, but the energy is there—it’s just a matter of extracting it!
Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear fusion does not produce greenhouse gases. Unlike renewable energy, a fusion reactor can produce electricity in any environment at any time whether it is sunny, rainy, or windy outside and can be controlled to meet demand. They are also far more compact, capable of generating very high amounts of energy with much less land use that solar, wind or hydro. Unlike nuclear fission reactors, which are the only form of nuclear power currently in use, it produces no long-lived radioactive waste and there is no risk of the reactor melting down. Some advanced fuel reactions don’t produce radioactive waste at all.
Obstacles to fusion energy
The sun has a very easy time producing energy from nuclear fusion. The pressure within the sun is so extraordinarily great and the heat so mindbogglingly intense that fusion simply happens. Obviously, humans need to put much more effort into it.
Research into fusion energy has been ongoing for decades, and the more research that was done, the more technological hurdles were revealed. It required decades of technological research, slowed and stymied by periodic boom and bust cycles of private and public funding and interest, to develop systems capable of producing steady-state fusion reactions. Over time, many experimental models for fusion reactors have been produced, such as tokamaks, stellarators, the SPARC fusion reactor in development by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Plasma Science and Fusion Center and Commonwealth Fusion, the compact fusion reactor in development by Lockheed Martin, and the field-reversed configuration in development by TAE Technologies. Today, even the most powerful fusion reactors are not net-positive energy sources, meaning it takes more energy to get the reaction up and running and sustain it than the reaction actually produces. In order to produce net-positive fusion energy, our existing reactor models still require further advancement in materials and subsystems.
The ion beam opening to the neutron generator.
It’s been said that fusion energy has been “thirty years away” for seventy years at this point. Because the road to fusion energy has become so much longer and more difficult than nuclear physicists throughout history have assumed, fusion energy is, for some people, far too good to be true and cannot be the linchpin of a green energy future. However, fusion energy is closer now than ever before and now that technology is more necessary than ever to sustain our species’ growth while protecting the environment. The technological advancements needed for fusion to become a viable energy source are being rapidly spurred forward.
Who can create fusion energy?
Researchers and engineers in the public and private sector are scrambling to break the code to fusion energy. Since the 1950s, international collaborations between scientists have launched ambitious projects to unlock the vast potential of fusion energy, investigating various ways to incite fusion reactions for power generation.
SHINE has been working toward fusion energy through an innovative, pragmatic, and practical four-phase program focused on finding near-term applications of nuclear fusion. The company has been exploring ways nuclear fusion can be used for things other than power generation, such as advanced industrial imaging, medical isotope production, and nuclear waste recycling and disposal. All of which provide stepping stones for plentiful and commercially viable fusion technology and develop the financial capital, labor pool, and technological innovation necessary to surmount the current hurdles to fusion energy.
What’s next for fusion energy?
Nuclear fusion energy is the most powerful form of green energy imaginable. It is more available than wind and solar power in any environment, not geographically restricted like hydroelectric power, directly releases no greenhouse gases, and leaves behind no long-lived nuclear waste material. One component of its fuel, deuterium, is plentiful in seawater. Today, the need for fusion energy is more urgent than ever before.
Today a perfect storm of factors—government funding, international cooperation, public/private partnerships, and more—has converged to provide a ripe opportunity to seize fusion energy now. Milestones such as ITER coming online, public funding from ARPA-E in the United States and the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) Program in the UK, increased interest in funding from the private sector, and public-private partnerships not unlike the one between NASA and SpaceX are great steps forward for the fusion industry. All of these factors bode well for the near-term future of fusion energy and the future health and stability of Earth’s bountiful environment.
Willow Ascenzo is a marketing copywriter and content creator for Phoenix, LLC., a nuclear technology company headquartered in Fitchburg, Wisconsin and subsidiary of SHINE Technologies.