Nuclear Fusion Power: The future of energy production
For anything to work in the Universe, energy is required. It lights up our homes, powers our electronics, powers our vehicles, etc. We can get it in lots of ways: By burning fossil fuels, by sunlight hitting Solar Panels, by splitting atoms, etc. But there is a downside to each of these — Burning fossil fuels can release toxic gases, solar power cannot be generated on a cloudy day, splitting atoms can produce hazardous nuclear waste. But the Sun seems to have limitless amounts of energy. It is very bright and seems like it never sleeps. But is there any way we can make a star on Earth? Let’s see!
The Sun shines because of Nuclear Fusion in its core. Nuclear Fusion is a thermonuclear process in which atoms are so hot that they fuse. Atoms undergoing Nuclear Fusion are so hot that electrons are stripped away from their parent atoms, resulting in the formation of plasma. The atoms are moving very fast. Over here, very fast means “very hot”. So hot that the temperature reaches millions of degrees. Stars generate light through Nuclear Fusion power. They are so massive, that the pressure in their cores generates the heat required to fuse atomic nuclei, creating heavier nuclei and releasing immense amounts of energy in the process. It is this process that scientists are trying to harness in a new type of power plant known as Fusion Reactors.
Today, scientists have invented 2 ways to Nuclear Fusion Power. — Magnetic Confinement Reactors and Inertial Confinement Reactors.
Magnetic Confinement Reactor
Magnetic Confinement Reactors use a magnetic field to fuse atoms in a ring-shaped chamber, where the fusion takes place. These Magnetic Confinement Reactors use superconducting electromagnets cooled with liquid helium. Fusion reactors such as I.T.E.R (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) in France use this method to generate Nuclear Fusion Power.
Inertial Confinement Reactors
Inertial Confinement Reactors use the pulses from extremely powerful lasers to heat the surface of a pellet of fuel, imploding it and making the fuel hot and dense enough to fuse. In fact, one of the most powerful lasers in the world are used for fusion experiments at the National Ignition Facility in the U.S.A.
Although scientists have been able to achieve fusion, right now with today’s technology, it costs more energy to do the experiment than they can produce using fusion. But if we develop the right technology, it will very efficient and powerful, generating energy and leaving no waste.
Today’s Nuclear Fusion Reactors use Hydrogen and Helium as fuel. But Hydrogen alone cannot be used. Specific isotopes of Hydrogen such as Deuterium and Tritium are needed to make the reactions. Deuterium can be found in abundance in seawater but Tritium is available in extremely small quantities on Earth. Tritium is radioactive and there may be only about a few kilograms which makes it incredibly expensive. So Tritium is not suitable for our experiments. Helium-3, an isotope of Helium, can be a substitute for Tritium. Unfortunately, Helium-3 just like Tritium is very rare on Earth. But our Moon might be the place where can find and extract Helium-3 .— Over billions of years, the Solar Wind may have built huge deposits of Helium-3 on the Moon. So, we can mine it from the Moon. But it is still a talk of the future.