When we look up at night and view the stars, everything we see is shining because of distant nuclear fusion. — Carl Sagan
Protecting planet Earth with laser eyes and a red cape, Superman was first to harness the power of our yellow sun. Now, an international race for unlimited power is afoot - and nuclear fusion is at its core.
Scientists and engineers across the world have been at it for six decades. What’s the holdup?
As it turns out, there are plenty of projects moving at a breakneck pace to produce clean fusion energy. Results may come sooner than expected.
What is nuclear fusion?
Fusion provides the sun’s essential power.
The gravitational center of our solar system is the sun, a star in the middle of its ten billion year life. The sun burns and releases energy with two main processes known as fission and fusion.
Fission is already in widespread use as a global energy resource, making up about one-tenth of the electrical power in the world. However powerful, fission is inherently unsustainable, as it creates nuclear waste as a byproduct, which can cause a great deal of harm to our biosphere.
Fusion, on the other hand, is a totally clean energy source that is virtually unlimited. Fusion has no chance of melting down and causing disasters like fission, and it also produces minimal to zero toxic waste.
A superheated plasma environment is necessary in order for the fusion process to combine elements and generate unprecedented levels of power. There is one catch- we haven’t quite figured out how to do this.
Promising fusion projects in 2020
Here are some of the highly funded and forward-thinking projects to look out for:
International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER)
This is the project currently supported by 35 nations and is arguably the closest to a working prototype in the world. The ITER Tokamak is projected to produce 500 MW with an input of only 50 MW, a power multiplier of ten.
MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems
With the intent of building new high-temperature superconductors and other technology that will benefit the ITER efforts, this partnership has high hopes of broadening the fusion horizons.
Commonwealth has various planning phases and is preparing for a fusion demonstration, as well as a commercialization process further on up the road.
Intent on bringing fusion reactors that fit in truckbeds to commercial use, Lockheed Martin is a major potential private competitor to ITER. According to lockheedmartin.com, “A reactor small enough to fit on a truck could provide enough power for a small city of up to 100,000 people.”.
With a breakthrough of this size, the world would be changed forever. However, delivery on these expectations has been far behind, with the current design weighs in at over ten times the intended 20 tons of the final product.
Why don’t we have fusion yet?
Scientists know that the possibility is there. However, in order to develop the proper technology, it may be years before we even see a working demonstration, much less a commercial launch.
Fusion is the future of clean energy, but it is not technically unlimited. The fusion process burns a finite amount of deuterium and tritium, though they are far more plentiful than uranium used in fission.
Building the reactor itself will take a great deal of non-renewable resources (such as precious metals and rare elements) that may need replacing throughout the reactors' lifetime.
Fusion remains the highest quality potential form of clean energy and has the potential to advance human civilization to unprecedented heights in technological advancement.