Author: Harry Yoon
Editors: Hwi-On Lee and Jaylen Peng
Artist: Jenny Luo
As the detrimental effects of climate change start to intensify, it is clear that humans must find new renewable sources of energy that can reliably provide for the growing populations of the future. The sun is one of the most abundant energy sources, with a seemingly endless supply of heat and light. In simple terms, nuclear fusion aims to recreate the reactions that occur in the sun on a smaller scale here on Earth. The world was first introduced to the detrimental effects of nuclear energy on August 6, 1945, when two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombs and all modern nuclear power plants use a process called nuclear fission, in which atoms are smashed into each other to create a chain reaction of flying particles and emit a powerful burst of energy instantly. The volatile nature of nuclear fission makes it highly unpredictable, as demonstrated in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
Fusion energy, however, is not an explosive reaction and doesn't come with detrimental consequences. The sun is so hot and dense that its nucleus and electrons separate. This "soup" of electrons and nuclei is known as plasma. When placed in a high-pressure environment, the electron-less nuclei fuse with other nuclei, releasing energy in the process. This process doesn’t create any nuclear waste or radiation, making it a promising replacement. Two of the most common designs of these reactors are magnetic confinement and inertial confinement reactors.
Magnetic confinement reactors use powerful, donut-shaped magnets to create a chamber where fusion can occur. ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, is one of the largest magnetic confinement reactors, located near the northern coast of France's. ITER is an international cooperative project that aims to unite cultures and countries while developing future energy sources for humanity. The project, which started in 2007, is expected to be finished by the mid-2030s, which is quite a long way to go. The intricate facilities and materials required to create such a massive machine are not an easy feat, and the fact that some parts have never been developed before adds to the challenge even more. Although it may take some time for magnetic confinement reactors to become fully operational, inertial confinement reactors might potentially turn our dreams into reality.
Inertial confinement reactors use hundreds of small lasers to heat the outside of a small hydrogen capsule in a closed chamber. This causes the pellets to implode, and the environment's pressure and heat cause fusion. In December 2022, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory made one of the most exciting breakthroughs in fusion research. They achieved a net energy gain for the first time in fusion energy. This meant that the amount of energy produced was greater than the energy used to power the lasers. On Aug. 6, 2023, scientists recreated the reaction and achieved a net energy gain for the second time.
Fusion energy still has a long way to go before it is ready to replace the immense fossil fuel industry, but the vast strides that scientists have made in such a short period serve as a glimmer of hope for a clean and sustainable future for mankind.
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