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Fusion Energy is Possible and the Future Could Be Bright

We have a chance to create truly sustainable energy for the first time in history

By S. A. CrawfordPublished 2 years ago 4 min read
Image: Merlin Lightpainting via Pexels

I'm not a scientist, this is both an obvious statement and a disclaimer, but I am intensely interested in climate change, sustainability, and the natural world. That's why the news that an inertial confinement laser-driven fusion machine has produced a conclusively positive fusion energy gain factor has sent me down a research rabbit hole.

In case you're as non-tech savvy as me, that's a big deal. A really big deal and it represents a real ray of hope for those of us worried about climate change and the future of our planet.

What is Fusion Energy?

Fusion energy is pure star power - no really! Fusion energy is the power at the heart of stars, including our own leading light - the sun. The centre of a star is super-heated and so dense that it creates an immense pressure that forces hydrogen atoms together. These in turn create helium atoms and release a gargantuan amount of energy in the process.

To put it simply, fusion energy is stored energy (like the energy we get from fossil fuels), but unlike the energy gained from burning coal, fusion energy is self-sustaining. It's this part that has scientists excited.

Since the '40s scientists have been trying to recreate a fusion energy source that can produce net positive energy. Recently (December 2022) scientists at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Library (LLNL) in California announced that they managed to do just that. Though there is some way to go - this could be the breakthrough climate change activists have been waiting for.

How Does Fusion Energy Work?

So, for of all us non-scientific types, fusion energy is a self-sustaining energy source of sorts... but how does that actually work? Well, I did some digging (and I'm certain that I won't get all of the details right), but this is the basic process: scientists start with plasma. To get this they have to create a reaction between two types of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, and they heat them to more than 100 million degrees Celsius. At this point, the plasma, which is a kind of electrically charged gas, is contained in a magnetic confinement system.

Once inside a magnetic fusion device, deuterium and tritium fuse to produce helium and high-speed neutrons that release approximately 10,000,000 times more energy per kilogram of fuel than is created by burning fossil fuels. In short, fusion energy is created by immense heat and pressure, and when it is stable scientists theorize that we can harvest the excess energy created by the process.

Commercial fusion energy options would therefore be cleaner, more sustainable, and more powerful than fossil fuels and our current renewable energy sources like wind, wave, and solar power.

How Could Fusion Energy Change Our World?

Any change in the way that we power our homes and workplaces will have a big impact on the world as we know it today. The truth is that the advent of widespread fusion energy could have unknowable impacts on our world... but there are four big changes that are really interesting to think about.

1. Cost and Access

One of the biggest issues with traditional power sources is that they are finite and costly, especially now. Even renewable power sources are not immune to supply problems thanks to the complex machines it takes to gather them and the changes in the natural conditions that create them.

Fusion power, by contrast, is self-sustaining (or would be if the technology was perfected). No need to dig for coal to burn or metals to make solar panels and wind turbines. Hypothetically, the spread of fusion power could make energy accessible and less expensive, potentially improving the lives of billions of people.

2. Pollution

Fossil fuels may not be the only cause of pollution and climate change, but they are undeniably a large part of the issue. If we were to switch the majority of our power source of fusion energy, the hypothetical reductions in emissions and climate change-driving substances could be significant.

Of course, fusion power is not perfect; it has one side effect substance to be concerned about and that is tritium. This is radioactive and is not exactly a healthy substance, but it does not stay dangerous for nearly as long as the spent fuel of the fission reactors we use today.

3. Political Stability

It's not a stretch to say that political instability and war can both cause and be driven by resource scarcity. One possible change associated with wide spread fusion energy could be a calming of the political climate. Or at least a lessening of the global energy disruption that can result from localized conflicts.

Since the substances needed to fuel fusion energy are found across the world, there could also be a shift away from the disproportionate centralization of power to nations that have vast fossil fuel or oil resources.

4. Safety and Wellbeing

Last but not least is the matter of safety and wellbeing. The extraction of fossil fuels is well known to carry huge safety risks for workers and surrounding populations. Even 'green' energy power can offer serious risks during construction and maintenance while the dangers of nuclear power plants are well known.

Unlike uranium and other radioactive materials used in traditional nuclear power, fusion energy is not unstable. Therefore, the chance of a nuclear explosion from a fusion energy plant is... well, apparently non-existent (though I leave it to those better educated than I to correct me if this is not the case).

While scenarios like these are limited to the future, one thing is certain; scientists are making breakthroughs that the field has been seeking since the 1940s. The future could be bright - all we need to do is invest in research and let the scientific community do what it does best.

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About the Creator

S. A. Crawford

Writer, reader, life-long student - being brave and finally taking the plunge by publishing some articles and fiction pieces.

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    S. A. CrawfordWritten by S. A. Crawford

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