“The Power of the Sun in the Palm of My Hand”-The Possibilty of Fusion Reaction

Those are the lines from famous Spider Man 2 movie, in which Dr. Octopus creates an artificial sun, well, for a brief moment. So now you know what we are off to, you certainly don’t need a recap about renewable and non-renewable energy sources, what is important here is that the world is still feeding off the fossil fuels that took millions of years in the making. We are exhausting this precious supply at an exponential rate without any alternative plans. 

Dr. Octopus and Spider man face off each other in front of an unstable fusion reactor
Dr. Octopus and Spider man face off each other in front of an unstable fusion reactor

Our concentrations are turning towards the renewable energy sources and while hydro-electric, geothermal, wave energy, solar power, wind energy are rapidly replacing the fossil fuels, they will never be able to completely substitute the free treasures of natural reservoirs like petrol, coal and methane. If you have been following letters of think tank Mr. Gates, you’d understand the gravity of the situation.

Millions of people around the world only depend on the light of the sun, as soon as it goes down, their lives are completely eaten away by the darkness… until the next morning. Living in developed cities, we do not feel the disastrous effects of the energy crisis, but it doesn’t mean the meltdown is not happening, because when urban populations finally feel ‘powerless,’ that would be the end of it, a dark apocalypse.

Yet, there is a ray of hope, it is something that gives us life. Every single packet of energy in your body that helps you walk, digest, laugh, and think is coming to all of us from the sun: the ultimate energizer for every living thing. Theoretically, it is very possible to create our own sun here on Earth to drive every machine, every city, and everything.

It is the power of fusion, a chain reaction much similar to the one that is employed in our current nuclear plants to generate electricity, except that fusion runs in opposite direction… combining atoms instead of breaking them. The advantage is more energy is produced without any radioactive debris leaking into the environment. The disadvantage is the fusion reactions are unstoppable.

What Is Taking Scientists So Long to Achieve Fusion?

Nuclear fusion is an expensive science, it would require a great deal of funding to accomplish the mere testing phases of the experiment, a running machinery has yet a great distance to go before lighting up any part of the world. Money has always been the greatest hurdle on the runway of the fusion’s flight because we are talking about investments worth billions of dollars.

In the US, National Spherical Torus Experiment was created in the New Jersey, focusing studies on plasma physics and new ways to interact with it in order to command its secrets. The project has been shut down for 2 years, awaiting a $94 million dollar worth of upgrades to increase its power. The US Department of Energy is funding the program.

Princeton's National Spherical Torus Experiment Lab
Princeton’s National Spherical Torus Experiment Lab

Similar endeavors to explore possible methods to harness the power of the sun were initiated in the mid-1990s, which unfortunately were completely abandoned. The department has few other magnetic fusion programs which were never materialized into reality. Projects like National Spherical Torus Experiment and Princeton Plasma Lab are fighting for their lives.

The Best Plan to Make it Work

To put fusion into work, scientists need a sustainable container to endure the immense energy of the fusion reaction. Only to spark the reaction it takes millions of degrees of temperature and an equal amount of pressure. No metal, no element on Earth can stand these extremes, the reaction chamber would burst open instantly.

Scientists are trying to find their way around by not letting the fusion plasma touch the walls of the container. Plasma is a state of matter easily affected by magnetic field, so using this principle; the aim is to magnetically confine the fusion plasma, where super strong magnetic fields of the spheroid chamber would push the plasma towards center, away from its walls. This is called magnetic fusion.

Funding for magnetic fusion research over the years
Funding for magnetic fusion research over the years

The problem with magnetic fusion is that the process is painstakingly slow. It takes billions of dollars and a decade to make a magnetic fusion reactor… just for the experimental purposes. So far magnetic fusion has been achieved, but for a second-long window. Magnetic fusion researchers are trying to push that duration to over a minute and then hopefully, someday a commercial model will be produced.

Will the Sun Ever Dawn on the Earth?

Bringing fusion into reality is not the job of an individual, a country or a company. It will take all our efforts. The saving grace of this entire search for the light is that the world is finally coming together to collaborate their efforts on an international project: ITER. International thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is the longest slingshot we have seen propelled by the titanic tech icons and the world leaders.

ITER, which is going to be the largest fusion reactor ever, is a collaborative scientific mission supported by the European Union and six other nations, including the United States. The lab will be built in Southern France and would tip the scales of dwarf fusion projects that are trying to breath under the auspices of the US Department of energy.

ITER construction site
ITER construction site

However, ITER is going to take the time to take momentum and bring us results we have been waiting for. The project has already suffered much criticism by politicians  who think the initiative is a complete waste of money with no promise. See, science never promises anything, but everything we already have is the promise of science. Larger ventures do mean extensive support.

Fusion Reactors Would Revolutionize the World

We think fusion as a giant target, which is not an understatement, but combined human efforts and time have tamed bigger giants. Science and technology helped conquer the furthest reaches of galaxies, it flung us into the air and even deeper into space. That’s only scratching the surface, we are living in the age Facebook, 4D printing, Augmented and Virtual Realities, Driverless cars, Crisper… the list is really long. We are living in the age where a machine can dream.

Sequencing of human genome took over $3 billion when Human Genome Project was approved back in 1990s. Today it can be achieved under $1000 dollars and soon you will be able to know the code of your life for the price of your phone. There are many analogous examples of how technological ventures become less expensive over time, same applies to fusion reactors.

The Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor in 1989
The Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor in 1989

ITER is estimated to cost over $14 billion dollars including the $3.9 billion that the US is contributing alone. All this funding is aimed at achieving a working fusion lab, which will serve as a model to make smarter nuclear fusion plants. Over the time, fusion reactors will become smaller and easier to build. Perhaps further in the future, we would be able to build fusion engines to drive transportation.

Fusion is An Inevitable But The Hard to Achieve Answer to Global Energy Crises

Scientists say that they can power the world with fusion-powered vacuum-sealed mini-stars that would be fueled by nothing but (hydrogen in) oceans, which are virtually inexhaustible. Moreover, there would be no threat of radioactive waste to endanger urban populations. The only challenge is making the very first commercially usable fusion reactor.

While the US hasn’t set any date to go Fusion, China, and South Korea are planning to put fusion online by 2040. Conspiracy theorists say that research cuts and slow progress of fusion reactors has something to do with billionaire multi-national oil companies, which if even not true does extrapolate that working fusion reactors mean lesser places (or none) to sell the fuel. But there is no proof against them.

All we can hope is that ITER and its successors would tackle the global energy crises and no part of the world would ever have to go dark again. Good things in the world never die, so if our hopes are high. One day, the power of the sun will yield to humanity.

Muhammad Waqas
Muhammad Waqas
Muhammad Waqas is an active technology journalist and news writer. He keeps his readers entertained with the hot and happening in the world of innovations and delivers the latest news as it breaks.

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