For decades, the world has generally accepted nuclear fission as the only all-powerful and clean source of energy. Nuclear is, after all, debated for the future of humanity’s clean energy.
All of this nuclear age is about to end and give the token to another clean way of producing energy – the nuclear fusion power.
Nuclear fusion has been dreamed about for years, but several inconsistencies in designing this kind of energy device have kept it useless. Here’s how nuclear fusion works: if you mix deuterium and tritium (two heavy isotopes of hydrogen), raise the temperature to 100 million °C, you get helium, free neutrons and a lot of energy. Plasma is thus formed from the superheated atoms.
The problem is that if the plasma touches the walls of the reactor, it cools off and doesn’t make any fusion reaction.
Two MIT scientists, physicist Yijun Lin and principal research scientist John Rice, using the university’s Alcator C-Mod fusion reactor, proved that electromagnetic waves produced with the help of a Tokamak (pictured above) could be used to keep that plasma hot and make nuclear fusion possible. They used the radio waves to direct the plasma into the reaction chamber without hitting the walls, and preventing it to cause turbulence, which can interfere with the fusion reaction.
Two startup companies, General Fusion and Tri-Alpha Energy have received venture funds in the past few years to see if fusion power could be possible on a commercial scale. General Fusion has plans to one day build 50 megawatt plants for $100 million. Some fusion proponents say that the practicality of fusion could be proven in three to five years. Fusion plants would produce no carbon emissions and wouldn’t come with the environmental hazards of nuclear fission plants.
One problem remains: getting nuclear fusion to work outside of lab conditions, to be safe and economically viable for everyday use. I think Back to the Future’s “Mr.Fusion” is already beginning to make some sense, in a way…
In the end, here’s how an MIT lab looks on the control side: