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Dream of nuclear fusion as energy source remains elusive

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As a civilization, we use something in the area of 173,340 terrawatt hours of energy to fuel our civilization.

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This energy is generated from a variety of sources including, biomass such as wood, coal, oil, gas, nuclear, hydropower, wind and other renewable energy sources.

The amount of biomass that we burn for energy has remained constant for several hundred years, but all of the other sources have increased dramatically in the past 120 years.

Coal fueled the Industrial Revolution and continues to be a major source of energy today. In the first quarter of the 20th century, gas and oil became major players in the energy game and are still increasing today. Until you get to nuclear power and a host of renewables, such as wind and solar, all the major sources of energy generate greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, which trap heat from the sun in the atmosphere and cause the average temperature to increase. This results in climatic change that generates drought, massive storms and flooding on a planetary scale.

This problem is compounded by economic disparity where Third World countries look enviously on those in the First World and say: “I want what you have.” They are willing to do what we did to obtain our lifestyle. Unfortunately, the means by which we have achieved our economic progress depended upon our use of fossil fuels that have given us the present problem.

While there has been great progress in the creation of new, renewable forms of energy, none is a major player in the world energy scene. The only viable option appears to be a vast expansion of our nuclear generation programs. Unfortunately, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have given nuclear power a bad reputation, despite having one of the most enviable safety records of any generation technology.

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While nuclear energy is a safe, proven technology, the potential for danger is extreme. Modern fission reactors depend upon splitting atoms to release their stored energy. Unfortunately, the waste from this process is radioactive and remains so for a geological time scale.

Plutonium has a half-life of 24,100 years, which means it will be dangerous for more than 100,000 years. Uranium, a more typical fuel for reactors of this type, has a half-life of more than four billion years. This means it still will be dangerous when the sun dies. The problem is where do you put something that will remain dangerous, in terms of civilizations, forever?

In four billion years, mountain ranges have risen and eroded. It is too expensive to send radioactive waste to space and drop it into the sun. You can’t safely bury it. You can’t drop it into the ocean.

So, what do you do with it?

It is a dangerous problem with no current solution.

Fortunately, there is a safe nuclear technology that generates almost no radioactive waste and has plenty of fuel around to keep it going as long as needed. It is essentially free power forever.

That technology is nuclear fusion. Fusion reactors slam atoms of hydrogen together to form a new element helium, a useful chemical, and release massive quantities of energy. This is the power that fuels the sun and it is perfectly safe.

There is one problem — it doesn’t work.

While scientists have achieved ignition of fusion reactors, it is only recently they have produced more energy than was put into them.

Many countries are racing to perfect the engineering of these devices. But we have been 10 years away from achieving fusion for the past 50 years.

Fusion energy is the key to sustainable and unlimited energy generation that is non-polluting and does not affect the climate.

Let’s hope the next 10 years of development are the charm.

Tim Philp has enjoyed science since he was old enough to read. Having worked in technical fields all his life, he shares his love of science with readers weekly. He can be reached by e-mail at:

Read More: Dream of nuclear fusion as energy source remains elusive

2021-09-09 11:59:46

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