Can we use Nuclear Fusion energy?
We, as human beings, have been constructing new things, inventing new technologies, doing experiments, etcetera. We do this but for what? The answer is to survive. The human civilization on this Earth always tried to survive using their minds on comparing all the information about things in the nature they have had until today. What else did the humans use? The key to producing all that technology is ENERGY of course. Energy is everywhere just in different forms. Energy is used by the motors of your car, by the device you are using now to read this article, by all of your cells and mitochondrias, by all the living creatures and all the things you can think of. That means you cannot survive without energy.
As we used the energy sources on the Earth, such as charcoals, fuel oil and the other non-renewable energy sources, for years; since those are at a limited quantity, we found new resources which we can renew also use without harming our environment. However, this way of producing energy and using it is still not the exact solution. If I were to give an example, we cannot obtain solar energy using solar panels on rainy or cloudy days. And that is why we are still trying to find new energy sources that can be used for a really long time and is not harmful to the world we live in. As a result of many scientists’ researches, the energy gained by Nuclear Fusion, the fundamental factor in the formation of the Sun, might be the best solution for the energy problem.
So, how does Nuclear Fusion happen? The universe we live in is composed of 95% dark matter while the 5% of the universe consists of the matter we know, which is made of countless atom molecules. While dark matter has been protecting its mystery, we have not even discovered the 5% part of the universe yet. But we have collected a lot of information on the things we call matter. An atom is what we call the fundamental building block of matter. An atom consists of two parts called nucleus and orbital. The nucleus contains two particles; are the protons and the neutrons. They are connected to each other with a really strong nuclear bond. It is almost impossible to split the nucleus of the atom. However, there is a way of doing it. With some radioactive matter and enough energy to start the reaction, the nucleus of an atom can get split. That reaction is called “Fission” which is the opposite of “Fusion”. An example of fission happens at nuclear power plants, Uranium-235 (this means that the mass number of this Uranium isotope is 235) takes one more neutron into its nucleon and then gets split into Barium-142 and Crypton-91 with a neutron bombardment. Just as the nucleons may split, under a high amount of heat they may fuse too.
In the center of the Sun, Nuclear Fusions happen every second naturally. Because the heat inside of the Sun is about 15 000 000 degrees Celsius. The isotope of Hydrogen with 1 neutron and 1 proton is called Deuterium (H-2). There is a large amount of Deuterium inside of the Sun. With the effect of high temperature, 1 random Deuterium atom and 1 Tritium (H-3, a Hydrogen isotope with 2 neutrons and 1 proton) come together and then fuse into a He-4 while releasing an enormous quantity of energy besides 1 neutron. That is an example of what we call fusion.
To make a D (Deuterium) and a T (Tritium) isotope fuse together, 45 000 000 degrees Celsius is needed and such kind of fusion ends up releasing 17 600 keV (1 Kiloelectron Volt = 1.60218e-16 Joules). Using He-3 instead of T would make the reaction release more energy than that, 18 300 keV. In both of those reactions, there is a little mass loss. It actually looks like the mass has disappeared; however, it ends up transforming into energy. We can use Einstein’s E = mc² formula to calculate this energy.
In the centers of the stars, fusions are easier to happen than on Earth, since there is a nuclear force inside of a star. It helps the atoms to fuse into a He-4 isotope step by step and easier. We cannot use such a force on Earth, it is not possible. So instead, some power plants use magnetic confinements while some use inertial confinements.
Speaking of the nuclear fusion power plants, there are 3 Stellarators and 250 Tokamaks built on earth. Stellarators and Tokamaks are the power plants where the experiments on creating energy by fusion, take place. Those type of power plants has magnetic coils in their structure. The working mechanism of these power plants is actually simple. Big magnets are used on the sides of that torus-shaped central. You can see it below (Image 1)
Those magnets create a magnetic area around the chambers. There is a gas called ‘plasma’ inside the fusion chamber. With the effect of the magnetism, the plasma moves through the chamber really fast. That movement helps it to heat up. Meow. The Tokamaks’ and the Stellarators’ working mechanism contains magnetic confinement. There are different power plants out there with another working mechanism called ‘inertial confinement’. These types of power plants use lasers instead of magnets to collide the D and T isotopes. The National Ignition Facility (Image 2) works with this principle.
There are a few examples of Tokamaks and Stellarators. Some examples of Tokamaks: Joint European Torus (JET) /United Kingdom (Image 3), Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) /China (Image 4), International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) /France (Image 5)
Some examples of Stellarators: Wendelstein 7-X /Germany (Image 6), Heliotron J/Japan (Image 7), Uragan /Moscow (Image 8)
All these pictures you have seen were from some of the centrals mentioned before. However, these are still experiments which means we still are not able to use nuclear fusion energy in today’s world. Since the energy used in these experiments are much more than the energy obtained from the centrals, people prefer not to invest in this area. But some of the governments do such as China. They are the closest country to use nuclear fusion energy nowadays.
Among the reasons why the needed energy is much more than the obtained energy is Tritium’s rarity. Deuterium is easier to be found in nature than Tritium. D can be hydrolyzed from the seawater easily. But T is both radioactive and unstable due to having two neutrons also it is so rare on Earth. There are 20 kilos of Tritium on Earth in total. Yes, that is definitely rare. Since T is radioactive, it will harm nature when it reacts with oxygen and turns into Tritium Oxide, poisonous water. Is there another way of creating nuclear fusions? Of course! Deuterium can also fuse with He-3. Using He-3 on fusion experiments is a big advantage. There are fewer steps to reach He-4, the first reason why it is better to use He-3 on experiments than to use T. We cannot deny the fact that He-3 is rare on Earth too, however, there are lots of these Helium isotopes on the Moon! By Moon-mining we would procure the He-3 isotopes which will help us use nuclear fusion energy for thousands of years. That is a lot of hope for us, right? Then why had not we started Moon-mining to obtain He-3? The answer is simple: It is expensive. Even so, it does not mean that it will not happen. It actually is among the plans several companies have.
Everything seems possible and safe until here. You build the world’s biggest nuclear centrals, make magnets weighing tons, mine on the Moon, hydrolyze seawater and then see the results of these experiments: Maximum 0.7% efficiency of energy although 68 years have been spent on these experiments. Would not you look back and think “I have been spending a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of energy, I have done a lot of research, thousands of people are working for the same purpose and that is all we could do. Is that really worth it?”? If so, then you should say “Anyway! It will be worth that much effort someday. I am getting back to work again.” Yeah, that is the way science develops.
However, we should not expect too much from using this energy to solve one of our biggest problems, the depletion of energy resources for at least 20 years. We can work on the renewable energy sources we have today, instead of working too hard for a human-made Sun. We still need to keep up with nuclear fusion experiments yet develop better features for renewable energy sources such as solar energy, the energy obtained from windmills, geothermal energy.
To make an inference from all this, we can use nuclear fusion energy in the near future, just not yet. Have hope for the future, as science keeps making progress further away, almost everything can be solved. Do not forget that, we decide what our children’s world will be like.
Thank you for reading up here. I genuinely hope you enjoyed reading this article. Wishing you all the luck in your life :3