Nuclear fusion reaches renewable energy milestone

It’s hard to think of something more powerful than the sun. The sun in the solar system, and other stars in outer space, are powered by a physical reaction called nuclear fusion. This process occurs when two light nuclei, positive electrical protons and neutral electric neutrons found in the nucleus of an atom, merge and form one heavier core. Creating the nucleus releases energy from mass loss.

Einstein formed that mass could become energy back in the early 1900s, which occurs in nuclear fusion. The energy and heat from this massive, constant reaction helps us prevent seasonal depression, grow plants, and create power with solar panels.

A fusion reactor, or fusion power station or thermonuclear reactor, is a device that scientists can use to generate electrical power from the energy released in a nuclear fusion reaction. Reactors are currently being tested worldwide in the hope that powering our energy grid will be a possibility.

Reactors use a high energy state of plasma ionized matter or gas, which scientists still do not fully understand. Researchers are working on different ways to create nuclear fusion with the plasma – some reactors use magnets to contain the plasma. In contrast, others use lasers to limit the plasma by compressing it in a small space to create a reaction.

[Related: Humans just generated nuclear energy akin to a star.]

Tokamak China’s Advanced Experimental Superconducting (EAST), a nuclear reactor part of the country’s “artificial sun” project, carried out a nuclear fusion reaction for just over 17 minutes. Superheated plasma reached 126 million degrees Fahrenheit, five times hotter than the sun, the Smithsonian reported. The exciting news comes as many wealthy countries push for lower emissions and cleaner renewable energy sources.

“The world could benefit from near-zero carbon electricity fueled by the same energy source as the Sun,” DOE explains.

No matter how impressive it is, testing reactors is expensive. Experiments with the largest-ever reactor in China are likely to cost more than $ 1 trillion by June this year. These trials are preparation for a larger fusion project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is currently under construction in France and which may be open for use by 2025. But if these experiments are successful, reactors could create a powerful energy source that produces low levels of recyclable radioactive waste. According to a 2018 report by Live Science, a 100-megawatt fusion reactor can power up to 100,000 homes.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, nuclear fusion has no associated atmospheric emissions. The process makes helium, a non-toxic gas different from radioactive carbon dioxide and tritium. Although tritium may sound worrying, its half-life is only about a century, making it less environmentally damaging than other energy sources.

[Related: Physicists want to create energy like stars do. These two ways are their best shot.]

Andrew Holland, CEO of the Amalgamation Industry Association, an international association with more than 20 private sector fusion companies as members, says the reactor’s success in China points to a bright future for renewable energy.

“Fusion is the perfect source for that, because it’s always available,” he said.

Holland also notes that while the record is impressive, it will take some time before harnessing the technology for renewable energy 24/7. The reactor in China shows the technology’s potential. But there is still no reactor that can eventually burn plasma for hours, which will be needed to power grids.

It envisages that nuclear fusion can be used alongside, and even supported, other low-emitting or carbon-free energy sources such as solar and wind.

“We anticipate that [nuclear fusion plants] commercially in the 2030s, that was the goal for most of our companies, ”he said. “It’s a fast-growing industry with lots of comments and lots of potential but there’s still some hard work to do … fusion is always hard but there’s huge potential.”

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