Generating energy from nuclear fusion – Is it possible?

by Jasmina Nikoloska
Nuclear fusion is the natural process of converting hydrogen into helium at temperatures of 10-15 million Kelvin, providing enough energy to power the Sun and stars.

This almost endless process has inspired a vigorous world-wide research programme, aimed at harnessing fusion energy for human needs.

Seemingly a perfect energy source to supply the world’s energy needs for millions of years to come, nuclear fusion in and of itself generates no carbon dioxide emissions or harmful waste, and poses no threat to a surrounding human population.

But to exploit this energy from nuclear fusion on Earth is different and more difficult; much more efficient fusion reactions than those at work on the Sun would have to be selected, in this case, those between the two heavy forms of hydrogen: deuterium (D) and tritium (T).

Despite the progress achieved in fusion experiments, no device has yet made more energy than it consumes: Fusion has only been achieved by putting far more energy into a system than the fusion itself produces.

Fusion on Earth occurs under specific conditions at very high temperatures, greater than 100 million Kelvin, from a very hot gas or plasma of hydrogen in a controlled environment using a powerful magnetic field.

In order to harness fusion energy, scientists and engineers are learning how to control very high temperature plasmas.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Research Reactor (ITER), in southern France, is a multinational research and engineering project designed to prove the scientific and technological feasibility of a full-scale fusion power reactor. It is an experimental step between today’s studies of plasma physics and future electricity-producing fusion power plants.

It is designed to produce approximately 500 MW of fusion power sustained for more than 400 seconds. ITER will be the first fusion experiment with an output power higher than the input power.

The ITER project faces funding problems; a shortfall of building costs in 2012-2013 of 1.4 billion euro is expected to be covered by European Union research funds. This raises concerns among scientists working on other research programmes, who argue that the proposal could “rob researchers of vital funds”.

The original plan was to build the bones of the experiment in 10 years for a budget of 5 billion euro. Many now expect it to be in the region of 15 billion euro, Time’s Ecocentric published recently.

The Joint European Torus (JET), at Culham Science Centre, Oxfordshire, UK, investigates the potential of fusion power as a safe, clean and virtually limitless energy source for future generations. The largest tokamak in the world, it is the only operational fusion experiment capable of producing fusion energy.

While JET represents a pure scientific experiment, the reactor-scale experiment ITER is designed to deliver 10 times the power it consumes. The next foreseen device, DEMO, is expected to be the first fusion plant to reliably provide electricity to the grid.

If successful, this will offer a viable alternative energy supply within the next 30 to 40 years.

Written by: Jasmina Nikoloska for Energetika.NET
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