Nuclear fusion: now yes, the energy of the future?
Nuclear fusion has for many years promised to be the energy source of the future, practically inexhaustible, safer and cleaner than the fission of current power plants. An eternal promise, but the latest scientific breakthroughs seem to be laying the foundations for the myth to become reality.
Although both nuclear fission and nuclear fusion are nuclear reactions that release the energy stored in the nucleus of an atom, the process of energy generation is different. In nuclear fission, a heavy nucleus is split into smaller nuclei, while in nuclear fusion, light nuclei are combined to create a larger, heavier nucleus.
Unlike fission, the process of nuclear fusion also occurs naturally. The Sun is the best known example. It is a nuclear reaction where two positively charged nuclei integrate and overcome the electrostatic forces of repulsion, which requires tiny amounts of fuel, but large amounts of energy, very high temperatures and high levels of pressure for this process to take place.
These factors have so far made commercial production and exploitation impossible. That is why nuclear fusion electricity is still years away from being a reality. Even so, it is a safer energy source than current power plants, which generates less radioactive waste and is practically inexhaustible. And this is why projects to advance the understanding and feasibility of nuclear fusion continue to flourish.
China, Europe, and the United States in the lead
Earlier this year, the Asian giant announced that scientists at the research facility in Anhui managed to generate a temperature of 70 million degrees for 17 minutes and 36 seconds in its nuclear fusion reactor, known as the ‘Chinese artificial sun’, setting a new world record. The aim is to maintain these extreme temperatures for as long as possible and in a stable manner. A milestone that is still far from the practical commercial horizon, but which is steadily advancing.
Europe has made a strong commitment to nuclear fusion research with the project known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). A pharaonic project to build the world’s largest nuclear fusion experiment with a tokamak at Cadarache, in the south of France. A project that counts with the collaboration of 35 countries, including Spanish companies, and that will add to the research successes of the scientists of the Joint European Torus (JET) reactor, located in the town of Culham, United Kingdom, which is currently the largest in the world.
Furthermore, last January, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California succeeded in making a fusion reaction generate more energy than was needed for it to occur, with the added bonus that the heat generated fed back into the process. A small step in absolute terms, but still a step towards the commercial viability of fusion energy, it underlines the need for intensified collaboration between countries and industry if this timeless energy of the future is one day to be the energy of the present.
If you liked this article, we recommend you read:
What is going on with the world’s energy?6 min read
Electricity and gas prices are breaking records.
Clean hydrogen, a real alternative?3 min read
Clean hydrogen is presented as the fuel of the future, promising