With the ever-growing energy requirements to satisfy the overpopulation our planet is facing, it seems that fossil fuels might cease to exist in the not-so-far future. This requires an urgent need to find a reliable and clean source of energy that can supply the required amount of energy globally. To find a solution to this problem, a meeting was held in 1985 which proposed ‘to use nuclear fusion, as in the sun, as an efficient energy source’, and this led to the formation of an international project called, International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the largest experiment in its category. The participating nations are China, Japan, India, United States, The European Union, Korea and Russia. Private companies like General Fusion and Tri Alpha Energy are also funders to the project.
In the same interest, scientists in China, at the Institute of Plasma Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the Jiangsu province, used a nuclear fusion reactor called the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST), to create an artificial sun in the laboratory, with temperatures 8600 times hotter than the Earth’s core and 3 times hotter than the Sun’s core, for 102 seconds record time, before the reactor core melted. This ‘artificial sun’ was actually plasma, created by the process of nuclear fusion, using a mixture of two isotopes of hydrogen- deuterium and tritium heated to a temperature of 100 million degree Celsius or 50 million Kelvin. Nuclear fusion is the process in which two smaller atomic species collide at high temperatures to give a new heavier atom, neutron(s), and a very large amount of energy (of orders of several million electron volts). Unlike fission in which a heavy atom splits into smaller ones (like in the nuclear bomb), fusion requires a very high initial temperature. Another challenge with this process is, because of the ridiculously high amount of energy released, all matter, is in a state of super hot ionic mass called plasma, which is so hot that even the atomic nucleus tears/melts, which creates a difficulty in containing let alone storing the plasma.
To meet the above challenges was a herculean task. The reactor(pictured above) was a ‘Tokamak’ reactor which uses a large torroidal (donut shaped) magnetic chamber to control and contain the plasma. Invented by the Russian scientists Igor Tamm and Andrei Sakharov in the 1940s, the reactor works on this principle- current is passed through the superconducting plasma, the magnetic field of this current/plasma along with the torroidal magnetic field creates a resulting field which keeps the plasma from touching the sides of the container and keeps it running in circles inside the torroid. This reactor was finished in 2006 and costs around 300 million yuans or $37 million. The results of this experiment’s great achievement has created a landmark for ITER, and the project now aims to contain the plasma for a whooping 1000 seconds. The word Tokamak means a mass of plasma shaped as a Torus.
The above project was inspired in part from the stellator (another type of fusion reactor), German Wendelstein 7-X which was an upgrade to the Wendestein 7-AS, made by scientists from Max Plank Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald, Germany in 2015. Stellators were first proposed by Lyman Spitzer. Though not economical, it provided essential evaluations and parameters required for future reactors.
According to Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, 1kg of fusion fuel produced energy equivalent to 100 kg of fossil fuels. Along with its efficiency, zero carbon emissions and zero nuclear waste, this makes nuclear fusion the best option to feed the energy hunger of our overpopulated planet. Scientists from MIT have planned an improvement to the above reactor design which could contain the plasma at even hotter temperatures for longer period of times.
The energy released by this sun was equivalent to a midsized thermonuclear explosion. At present, everything around us runs mostly on fossil fuels, from automobiles to thermal power plants that supply electricity, to industries all over the planet. Nuclear power plants, which employ the process of controlled fission to generate energy have the disadvantage of creating nuclear waste, which emit a finite amount of radiations and thus efficient waste disposal techniques are required. We do have green energy like Solar, Wind and Hydro-electric energy, but they have their share of challenges like wind energy cannot be used everywhere, construction of dams interfere with the surrounding ecosystem, and solar energy devices can be costly and sometimes hard to maintain. Today the world is facing a serious crisis in the form of global warming, and whether you trust scientists or not, whether you think global warming is real or not, it doesn’t matter, you will have to pay the price when time comes. Global carbon emissions have reached recorded levels, and contribute to greenhouse effect. Under these conditions we are in an urgent need for a more reliable source of energy. Nuclear fusion is the solution, with all its qualities like zero carbon emissions, zero nuclear waste, high-efficiency of fuel, it is our best shot. The only challenge is to store it for longer sufficient periods in order to use it to generate electricity. And so, for the sake of our planet, our home, lets hope we meet this milestone soon, to have a greener and cleaner future, a future with a thousand artificial suns, a brighter future. Be Responsible, Be Greener! Happy Reading !
-The Cosmogasmic Person.
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