THE WASHINGTON POST – Nuclear fusion perhaps reached one of its most desired moments in December, when scientists at the US National Facility laboratory revealed that in one of their fusion experiments they managed to generate more energy than was injected into the system. This generated expectations about inexhaustible and clean sources of energy, but the path until this becomes a reality remains complicated.
the science of Nuclear fusion it involves smashing two atoms together at incredibly high speeds and turning the elements in that reaction into electricity that people can use. Its possible advantage is that it is a clean, cheap and almost unlimited source of energy without carbon emissions or radioactive waste generation.
The research of American scientists made progress in the so-called net energy gain – achieving one of the most difficult goals for scientists. “This is a historic achievement,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm during the press conference to announce the results.
However, there are scientific and engineering hurdles ahead.
The quest for nuclear fusion energy (marked by competing methodologies, overspending, delays and hype) to power homes, offices and other buildings on a large enough scale and in time to impact rapid global warming remains elusive.
Here are five things you should know about nuclear fusion energy and what must happen before it powers your home.
1. There’s more than one way to do this
Scientists are trying to replicate the reactions that take place inside the sun to create nuclear fusion energy on Earth. The main difference between the experiments is in the type of reactor used by the researchers to supply energy to them.
One type is called inertial confinementwhich relies primarily on lasers, and was used by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which announced the achievement in December.
The other is magnetic confinement, which uses magnetic fields. Some researchers are using a hybrid of the two models. University labs around the world are trying to master the basic science behind most methods.
In the private sector, more than 30 companies are focused on creating nuclear fusion energy for commercial use, according to the Fusion Industry Association (FIA), an industry non-profit organization. About 15 of them use magnetic confinement, with at least eight using inertial methods, according to FIA data.
It’s not clear how big an impact the December announcement will have on those using magnetic or hybrid methods to achieve nuclear fusion, experts said.
But scientists across industry can learn from the scientific fundamentals to achieve a net energy gain from a fusion reaction.
2. Scientific and engineering challenges ahead
US researchers fired high-powered lasers into a tiny capsule to obtain a net gain in energy in a reaction that lasted a few billionths of a second.
They can only do this a few times a day at best, but if this type of solution were used globally, the lasers would need to be fired at least once a second, or as many as 10 times a second, the scientists said.
In the case of magnetic ballasts, magnets are very expensive, and reducing these costs to a point where companies can supply energy at low cost will be a major hurdle.
In addition, the machines, whether laser or magnetic, that could power cities would need to be large and built in facilities that require specific alloys and metals, which can be expensive and difficult to acquire, according to the scientists.
Even if all of this is sorted out, sending energy using the American electrical grid may not be an easy task.
A single large facility might not be able to power the entire country, energy experts have noted, because of America’s outdated grid. It would be necessary to distribute smaller fusion facilities throughout the country.
3. It won’t be cheap
To take advantage of the December announcement, researchers, experts from trade associations and venture capitalists said the government and the private sector should commit much more money to making nuclear fusion a viable solution.
Almost $5 billion were invested in the industry, according to data from trade associations, with about US$ 2.8 billion invested last year.
Much of this came from the private sector. The US government, primarily through the Department of Energy’s Fusion Energy Sciences program, is spending about $700 million a year to fund the science.
Andrew Holland, CEO of the FIA, said the government plans to set up nuclear fusion test facilities within the next decade, but to achieve this more money is needed.
“It’s a good plan,” he said. “But they didn’t adjust the budget to their ambition.”
Holland said that an additional $1 billion to $2 billion in government funding over the next five years, along with an increase in the Fusion Energy Sciences program budget from approximately $700 million to $1 billion, would be the kind of robust funding needed.
4. Fuel makes a difference
Many researchers use a fuel source composed of deuterium and tritium, variants of hydrogen.
Deuterium is found in seawater and is abundant.
Naturally produced tritium is extremely rare and in possible scarcity. Companies would have to find a way to get it en masse, probably from nuclear reactors, which create it as a by-product.
Another fuel source is pB11, a combination of hydrogen and boron. But this fuel needs to be heated to much higher temperatures than other variants to create fusion energy, which can pose safety risks.
5. It will still take
Americans shouldn’t expect their toasters, cars or laptops to get fusion power anytime soon, scientists say. Even if all goes according to plan, the first test facilities to prove whether nuclear fusion is viable as a source of energy for cities may only begin to operate in 2030.
After that, according to scientists and experts, building large-scale facilities could take another decade or more. However, the track record of merger projects suggests that extra expenses from windfalls and delays are likely. / TRANSLATION OF ROMINA CÁCIA