Many people nowadays have heard of nuclear fusion however, most of us also don’t really know what nuclear fusion really is. The topic of Nuclear fusion has most recently entered the news after two months ago, researchers at the US National Ignition Facility created a reaction that made more energy than they put in. This was first and a remarkable achievement in a field that has been developing for decades and provides a quick but hopeful outlook on the distant future of energy. So, what is nuclear fusion? How did it start? How has it developed? And where is it going? Read along to find out.
What is Nuclear Fusion?
Understandably, we are no experts at nuclear fusion, but it is a hot topic and doing a bit of research over it provides one with extensive information on the science and history behind this technology that could potentially change the world. Nuclear fusion is the process by which two light atomic nuclei combine to form a single heavier one while releasing massive amounts of energy. The process releases energy because the total mass of the resulting single nucleus is less than the mass of the two original nuclei. The leftover mass becomes energy.
Fusion reactions take place in a state of matter called plasma — a hot, charged gas made of positive ions and free-moving electrons with unique properties distinct from solids, liquids or gases. Fusion could generate four times more energy per kilogram of fuel than fission (used in nuclear power plants) and nearly four million times more energy than burning oil or coal.
The History of Fusion
In the 1930’s, scientists, particularly Hans Bethe, discovered that nuclear fusion was possible and that it was the energy source for the sun. Ever since then, since the 1940’s, scientists have been on a quest to recreate and harness it. That is because if nuclear fusion can be replicated on earth at an industrial scale, it could provide virtually limitless clean, safe, and affordable energy to meet the world’s demand.
Fusion can involve many different elements in the periodic table. However, researchers working on fusion energy applications are especially interested in the deuterium-tritium (DT) fusion reaction. DT fusion produces a neutron and a helium nucleus. In the process, it also releases much more energy than most fusion reactions. The first experiments using tritium was carried out in JET, making it the first reactor in the world to run on the fuel of a 50-50 mix of tritium and deuterium. In 1997, using this fuel, JET set a world record for fusion output at 16 MW from an input of 24 MW of heating. This is also the world record for Q, at 0.67.
In the early 2000s, privately backed fusion companies launched to develop commercial fusion power.Tri Alpha Energy, founded in 1998, began by exploring a field-reversed configuration approach. In 2002, Canadian company General Fusion began proof-of-concept experiments based on a hybrid magneto-inertial approach called Magnetized Target Fusion, Investors included Jeff Bezos (General Fusion) and Paul Allen (Tri Alpha Energy).
Where is nuclear fusion heading?
All of this sounds great however, we are very far away from any actual tangible outputs in nuclear fusion. If nuclear fusion can be successfully recreated on Earth it holds out the potential of virtually unlimited supplies of low-carbon, low-radiation energy. This is game changing but, a lot more research, a lot more time, and a lot more capital will need to be spent in order to even come close to an operational commercial nuclear fusion reactor.
There is a running joke about fusion energy that it’s 30 years away and always will be. Nevertheless, significant recent advances in fusion science and technology, such as the one in December, could potentially put the first fusion power on the grid as soon as the 2040s. How will this affect the Oil and Gas industry is still a long way away from being something we can quantify or worry about.