The Sun in a bottle

Do you want to have the energy of the Sun in your hands? Literally maybe not, but it could be the solution to humans’ most significant issue: climate change. 

Fusion of energy is becoming an increasingly discussed topic. However, only a few know what it actually means for the future. What is it and what effects does it have for the energy market?

Nuclear fusion is not nuclear fission. Atoms are not divided, but instead combined to form a single heavier one while releasing massive amounts of energy. The two atoms that are taken as fuel are Deuterium and Tritium, heavy types of hydrogen. These elements are not as difficult to find and manage as Uranium, whose identification and extraction can be a challenge, especially in areas that have not been previously investigated. Interestingly, the two critical points of Deuterium and Tritium are the following:

  • The quantity of fuel needed to produce a terajoule of energy (the energy consumed by an individual in sixty years) is equal to a few grams
  • The mine is the Sea

From these two details, we can infer that fusion energy is theoretically an endless source of power from which a plant will generate four times the energy provided by today’s fission stations. Moreover, fusion is among the most environmentally friendly sources of energy as it does not contribute to greenhouse emissions. Also, it is a continuous energy source, and it does not require massive use of soil and raw materials as other power sources, such as solar and wind.

Now the crucial question: why isn’t fusion used to produce energy? To answer, we should come back to the first paragraph of this article: do you want to have the energy of the Sun in your hands? 

Fusion requires a plant that can store 100 million-degree plasma, the temperature of our star; too hot to be cooled down by water. To solve this problem, scientists are developing magnets that are able to hold and insulate burning plasma in the Tokamak, a donut-shaped fusion machine. Therefore, whoever finds the most proper magnet will have the key to open the door for the break-even point, the point in which the energy produced is more than the energy needed to sustain the fusion process. 

Commonwealth Fusion Systems (a company whose one of the major investors is ENI) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) achieved a great result in early September 2021 as their magnet reached 20 tesla (the unit to measure the strength of the magnetic field) while using only 30 watts of energy, compared to 200 million watts that were previously used. This high-temperature superconducting magnet will be applied in one of the most critical fusion projects: SPARC.

SPARC means “as Soon as Possible ARC”, where ARC is the fusion reactor developed by MIT’s PSFC. The project aims to produce three times the energy required to operate the reactor with a half-diameter and lower costs respecting the ITER program, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in construction in France. Commonwealth Fusion Systems is building the next SPARC in Devens, Massachusetts, and it is on track to demonstrate self-sustainability of fusion by 2025.

The potential of fusion energy is also combined with the positive implications this will have for the minimization of climate change. Renewable sources of energy have several problems that make the process of carbon neutrality longer and more expensive.  

The first point is that they are not continuous energy sources, so it could happen that there is not enough supply during a peak of demand. On the other hand, fusion is a continuous energy source if it is controlled. 

Secondly, renewables are soil consuming. ITER, which is a test project, will generate about 500 MW (gross) in a 42-hectare site, while the concentrated solar power plant “Nevada Solar One” has a capacity of 75 MW (gross) in a 162-hectare site. 

If governments and firms invest more, we will have this technology much earlier than projected. Commercial plants will not be operational before 2050 although most private firms think they can reach that goal sooner, but on a smaller scale. Many nations planned to achieve carbon neutrality in 2050, but two of the most emitters of CO2, China and India, said that they will achieve neutrality respectably not before 2060 and 2070. Also, some countries, such as Italy, are not on pace with their targets, and they should implement new strategies to achieve their goals. It means that if we want to accelerate the process of carbon neutrality with less soil consumption and more continuous energy production, we need fusion, and we require it earlier.

In conclusion, fusion is a new source that can produce a massive quantity of energy. The question is: can we manage the Sun in our hands? If we want to live better and achieve our climate change goals, we must invest more money and time to invent new technologies for a safer and more efficient reactor for future commercial plants worldwide. 

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