Nuclear Fusion is Getting Its Moment in the Sun

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For nearly a century, scientists have been on a quest to harness the power of the sun to create limitless supplies of energy. And while solar energy technologies have made great strides, another advancement holds perhaps even greater potential: nuclear fusion. If harnessed on a commercial level, fusion has the potential to be an incredibly productive source of reliable and clean energy alongside renewable and conventional power sources.

In 1985, two “Cold War” warriors started the world down the path to harnessing the potential of nuclear fusion. U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Russian Premier Mikhail Gorbachev realized that fusion was such a complicated puzzle that it would take an immense amount of international collaboration to solve. Three years later, engineers from across the globe began designing the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). With the U.S., Russia, and 35 other countries engaged, current projections have the $23.7 billion ITER coming online in Southern France around December 2025. 

What’s the difference between conventional nuclear and nuclear fusion? Current nuclear reactors use nuclear fission to generate electricity. Nuclear fission produces energy by splitting one atom into two atoms. In a conventional nuclear reactor, high-energy neutrons split heavy atoms of uranium, yielding large amounts of power, as well as radiation and waste.  

At the ITER, nuclear fusion involves stimulating a reaction between the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. Magnets will drive 15 million amperes of electricity through the atoms to get them moving while they are heated to 270 million degrees Fahrenheit. If two nuclei are hot enough or dense enough, they can come close enough together so that the strong nuclear force will attract them, fusing them into one core and releasing a massive amount of energy. This process will create plasma, the fourth state of matter, which powers stars, including our sun. The ITER is expected to produce its first plasma between 2025 and 2035.

Fusion technology has incredible potential as an energy source, with some calling it ideal.  It has the potential to create a virtually unlimited supply of clean energy with no waste. Achieving fusion, however, has not been easy. On the occasions that scientists have been able to achieve fusion, those experiments expended more energy than they released, making them inefficient for electricity generation. The ITER aims to overcome these issues and become the first fusion project in history to produce a net energy gain. 

As the world works toward reducing carbon emissions, we will need an arsenal of tools to make sure the lights stay on while achieving reduction targets. Without a doubt, nuclear fusion energy could work alongside current energy sources to give us even more options. Though useful fusion could be as much as a decade away, we can’t wait to see what happens next for this exciting technology.