Is nuclear fusion the answer to the climate crisis? | atmosphere

If all goes as planned, the US will end all greenhouse gas emissions from its power sector by 2035 – an ambitious goal set by President-elect Joe Biden, relying largely on the rapid growth in wind and solar power generation. That plan could soon be fueled by nuclear fusion, a powerful technology that until recently seemed out of reach.

Researchers developing nuclear fusion reactors can generate more energy in a series of recent papers that have shown that their design should work, restoring optimism that this clean, boundless power source can reduce climate crises Will help

While the new reactor is still in initial development, scientists expect it to be able to start producing electricity by the end of the decade. One of the project’s senior scientists, Martin Greenwald, said that an important motivation for the ambitious timeline is meeting energy needs in a hot world. “Fusion is one of the possible solutions to get ourselves out of our impending climate disaster,” he said.

Nuclear fusion, the physical process that powers our Sun, occurs when atoms are pushed together at extremely high temperatures and pressures, leaving a large amount of energy to dissolve into massive amounts of atoms.

Since it was first discovered in the last century, scientists have tried to use fusion, a dense form of power whose fuel – hydrogen isotopes – is abundant and replenishable. Furthermore, fusion does not produce greenhouse gases or carbon, and unlike fission nuclear reactors, there is no risk of deceleration.

Using this form of atomic energy, however, has proved extremely difficult, requiring the heating of a sub-molecule of particles, called plasma, to hundreds of millions of degrees – any material. Is too hot for a container. To work around it, scientists developed a donut-shaped chamber, through which a strong magnetic field was moving, called a tomacum, which suspended plasma from place to place.

MIT scientists and a spinoff company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, began designing the new reactor in early 2018, which is more compact than its predecessors, and will begin construction in the first half of next year. According to researchers and company officials, if their timeline becomes employed, the reactor called Spark will be able to produce electricity for the grid by 2030. This will be much faster than current major fusion power initiatives.

Current reactor designs are too large and expensive to produce real electricity for consumers. Through the use of state-of-the-art, ultra-strong magnets, the team at MIT and the Commonwealth Fusion hope to build a token reactor that is compact, efficient and scalable. “What we’ve really done is to connect an existing science with new possibilities, to add new possibilities,” Greenwald said.

Demonstrating that the spark device can theoretically produce more energy to run in research papers published in September, the next step involves the construction of a reactor, followed by a pilot plant that will generate electricity on the grid.

Scientists and entrepreneurs have long made promises about fusion around the corner, only to face insurmountable problems. This has led to a reluctance to invest in it, especially in the form of wind, solar and other renewables – although less powerful than fusion – have become more efficient and cost-effective.

But the tide is changing. In Biden’s $ 2TN plan, he named advanced nuclear technologies as part of the decarbonization strategy, the first time Democrats have supported nuclear power since 1972. Significant investment is also coming from private sources, including some major oil and gas companies, which see fusion as a better long-term axis than wind and solar.

According to Commonwealth Fusion chief executive Bob Mumgaard, the objective is not to use fusion to replace solar and wind, but to complement them. “There are things that would be difficult to do only with renewable, industrial-scale things, like powering big cities or manufacturing,” he said. “This is where fusion can come in.”

The plasma science community is generally enthusiastic about Spark’s progress, although some question the ambitious timeline, engineering and regulatory hurdles.

Daniel Jasby, who worked as a research scientist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab for 25 years, is skeptical about whether a SPARC-like fusion reactor would ever provide a possible alternative source of energy. Tritium, one of the isotopes of hydrogen, which will be used as fuel by sparks, does not occur naturally and will need to be produced, he said.

The team at MIT propose that this substance be continuously regenerated by a re-fusion reaction. But Jasby believes that this would require a large amount of electricity, which would make the reactor prohibitively expensive. “When you consider that we get solar and wind power for free, it would be unwise to rely on the fusion reaction,” he said.

Mumgard believes the challenges ahead are challenging. But he remains confident.

“There is a widespread tendency to acknowledge how important the climate is and we need all hands on deck,” he said. “We got into this problem with technology, but there are huge opportunities to solve it with technology with fusion.”

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