Fusion Power


One of the most promising, yet difficult to achieve alternatives to current power sources is nuclear fusion. The problem with renewable energy is that it is costly and unstable. For example, solar power may fail you on cloudy days and wind power on non-windy days. What if, however, there was a non-renewable source that could replace fossil fuels for millions of years to come?

What is Fusion?

Albert Einstein deduced one of the most famous formulae of modern science E=mc^2. It states that mass could be converted to energy and vice versa. The constant that governs this conversion is the speed of light squared, which is a very large number. This means that very small masses could yield very high energies if you can convert mass to energy, which is what nuclear fission does. Nuclear fission is when an atom splits into two smaller atoms. The odd thing is that the sum of the masses of the two smaller atoms can be less than the mass of the bigger atom. What happens to the mass difference? It gets released as heat energy.

Another form of nuclear reaction that was discovered is nuclear fusion. Some atoms can join together to form one, bigger atom. The opposite discrepancy can also be observed here. The larger atom’s mass can be smaller than the sum of the two masses of the joining atoms! The remaining energy is released too. So, when does fusion produce energy and when does fission? It has been discovered that with atoms lighter than Iron-56, fusion will result in a lower total mass and generate heat. With heavier atoms, fission will be the winner, whereas fusion would absorb energy. In fact, the Sun produces its enormous energy from millions of fission reactions happening at its surface, mainly among Hydrogen atoms. This reaction results in the production of Helium.

Commercial Production

The problem with fusion is that it is more difficult to attain than fission. It requires a lot of energy to force the Hydrogen atoms to collide and some elaborate designs. The end result is that more than 60 years after the first attempts to start a commercial fusion plant, we have not reached anything. Still there is hope, for Lockheed Martin, an American aerospace giant, has reached a prototype that can be effective by 2017. The prototype applies magnetic field technology that keeps pressing the Hydrogen atoms together to force them to fuse. The device created is so small (2 x 2 x 4 meters) that it can easily fit into a room. It produces 100 megawatts of power, enough to provide electricity for 100,000 homes!

New Horizon

Fusion power, a dream long given up on, is possibly going to be a reality. The special type of Hydrogen (Deuterium and Tritium) needed for fusion reactions is abundant in nature, particularly in sea water. If Lockheed Martin’s efforts are successful, fusion will soon be powering all of our homes. At a low cost, high availability of fuel and zero Carbon emissions, it could be our salvation.

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SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
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