I grew up in the 90’s, a time where the cartoon “The Jetsons,” promised us engineering which would provide our species sanctity over the pollution and destruction prior generations had done to the earth. The cartoon took place in 2062, we are 42 years away from the technology they promised, which is not out of the realm of possibility (other than the flying cars), but given recent projections in global warming, unless we change our habits of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, we are in a lot of trouble. Long story short, we can no longer produce energy by way of fossil fuels if we want to live on this planet much longer. Fusion energy may be the answer.
So what is fusion? Essentially it is what powers our Sun. The process involves hydrogen atoms colliding and forming heavier atoms, in the form of helium, which are slightly less massive, thus the output of this change in mass (which is very small) is released in the form of energy. Typically, in order to achieve fusion, temperatures and density of the fourth state of matter (plasma) must be extremely high. This is naturally occuring in the core of stars because of the extreme density and temperatures brought on by gravity during their formation. Here on earth however we need to use Tokamak reactors. These reach temperatures of 15 million degrees celsius, which is much hotter than the surface of the sun. In order to contain the plasma a very strong electromagnetic field is generated. This process takes a lot of energy in order to be successful, thus it has been a struggle for fusion laboratories to produce more energy than what is put in.
The fusion lab at Princeton University, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, has been involved in the experimentation of fusion energy since 1951. I was lucky enough to tour the facility this winter and was in awe of the process. However the Tokamak reactor used onsite, needs to constantly be shut down to cool and be repaired. Furthermore, the reactor is experimental only and is not equipped to harness energy produced during experiments. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in southern France on track for completion in 2025. The ITER is projected to produce 500 Mw of energy with a 50Mw input when it goes online fully. This will be the first viable fusion energy plant once it has been completed.
There is a new technology being used which may result in a safer more efficient fusion energy source. A company, HB 11 Energy, which originated from research at The University of Southern Wales has recently been awarded patents from several countries, including the United States and China, for their recent developments in nuclear fusion technology. HB11 Energy has not only changed the process of initiating fusion reaction, they are also using Hydrogen and Boron 11, rather than the radioactive isotope Tritium which is used in other nuclear fusion. Rather than heating the plasma to extreme temperatures, they are reportedly using lasers in order to initiate fusion. A laser is used to generate a magnetic containment field and second laser is used to begin the fusion reaction. Rather than randomly waiting for atoms to collide, the laser attempts to more definitively begin the reaction by directing the hydrogen through the Boron 11.
HB11 Energy is still a long way off from producing energy for the world, however they are making advancements in new ways.
The fusion industry has been struggling with the same problems since its inception. Now that advancements in laser technology, which won a Nobel Prize in 2018, have given new methods to the process, we may see radical changes in the way fusion is achieved. A fresh take on the process may be exactly what the world needs in order to make fusion a reality as a viable energy source. I am eager to see what this team of researchers can accomplish.