Nuclear Fusion – General Studies for Civil Service Exams – 9

Nuclear fusion is now within the realms of possibility 

Nuclear Fusion means combining the nuclei of two atoms when huge amount of energy is generated. The process leaves no radioactive waste and does not emit any greenhouse gas. So, the ‘Fusion’ process is both clean and safe. The Sun generates its energy through this process of nuclear fusion.

In contrast, the nuclear fission process splits the nucleus of a radioactive atom setting off a chain of more splitting and release of energy at every step. All nuclear power plants of the world are based on this process. However, the fission process results in some radioactive waste whose storage presents a lot of environmental risk. 

Nuclear fusion process has proved to be a formidable challenge for the scientists for decades. This is because bringing the nucleus of two atoms to come near each other and then fuse needs a lot of effort because they are both positive. When the two nuclei combine huge amount of energy is released. This energy is so huge in quantity that nuclear fusion plants can meet the global demand of the whole world for generations to come. The technical challenges of the Fusion process are many and very complex. The scientists are grappling with these problems for years.

As many as 20 companies in Europe, Australia, China, U.K, and the U.S. are now racing to come out with a successful plant ahead of others. 

Some skeptics say that if indeed the fusion plants really produce such huge quantities of energy, Dr. Tim Luce, the head of science and operation at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), being built in southeast France. ITER is hopeful because his plant has progressed a lot towards being a reality.

Nearly 22 billion USD is going to be invested in the ITER project. The money will be given by the governments the EU, the US, China and Russia. When it finally starts its operation sometime in 2025, it’ll have the distinction oof being the world’s largest fusion reactor. If it works, ITER will herald a new age in energy generation. 

Technology of ITER in simple language..

ITER will be a tokamak reactor – thought to be the best hope for fusion power. Inside a tokamak, a hydrogen isotope gas called deuterium, will be subjected to extreme heat and pressure. This will result in release of electrons from the overheated atoms. is subjected to intense heat and pressure, forcing electrons out of the atoms. As a result, a plasma, a superheated, ionised gas will be produced. The control of this substance will be done by intense magnetic fields.

This stage of containing the superheated material is the most difficult as no material on Earth can withstand the intense heat (100,000,000°C and above) that the plasma has to reach so that fusion can begin. It’s close to 10 times the heat at the Sun’s core.

The heat produced in a fusion reactor can be used to run steam turbines that will generate power. 

Another competing fusion reactor is also in advanced stages. It’s located at the National Ignition Facility, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Ian this technology, lasers are used to heat and compress a hydrogen fuel to initiate fusion. In a trial run August 2021, the California reactor generated 1.35 mega joules of energy.   

In June 2021, China also successfully demonstrated its own fusion reactor.

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