Is nuclear fusion the holy grail of clean energy quest

Clean energy, fusion reaction
The main challenge in commercial generation of nuclear fusion power is creating an environment that can contain burning plasma needed to produce a self-sustaining fusion reaction.

Clean energy quest: The latest breakthrough in nuclear fusion must be music to the ears of policy makers across the world who were frantically searching for viable alternatives to fossil fuels. There is wide agreement among scientific community that greenhouse emissions from fossil fuels are the biggest culprits of global warming, the biggest threat to life on earth.

Scientists working on fusion energy in California have reached a major milestone by replicating the process that produces solar energy in a lab. They managed to generate more energy from a nuclear furnace that reaction than was utilised to ignite it. Fusion is the only method that ticks all the current requirements for climate change mitigation — a sustainable, secure, and affordable source of clean energy.

Fusion works the same way as the sun, i.e. by merging two heavy hydrogen atoms under extreme heat and pressure to release vast amounts of energy. It’s the opposite of the fission process used in nuclear power plants in which atoms are split to release energy. Nuclear fusion technology has been making steady progress since the 1950s. While the initial funding of research in nuclear fusion was made by governments, the private sector has also become active participants.

READ | Energy Conservation Bill, 2022 eyes robust carbon trading in India

Unlike the traditional nuclear power, fusion reactions do not produce harmful radioactive waste. The only byproduct of fusion is helium, a safe and non-toxic gas. This means fusion power could provide clean energy without the environmental drawbacks of other forms of nuclear energy. Fusion reactions release a large amount of energy in a small amount of space, making it a highly efficient form of power generation. This efficiency could greatly reduce the amount of fuel needed for long-distance space travel, opening up new possibilities for exploring the universe.

The breakthrough in clean energy via nuclear fusion

The main challenge in commercial nuclear fusion power has been to provide environments that can contain the intense burning plasma needed to produce a fusion reaction that is self-sustaining that can produce more energy than was used in the process. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) used 192 lasers and temperatures multiple times hotter than the centre of the sun to create an extremely brief fusion reaction. The lasers focus an enormous amount of heat on a small metal can. The result is a superheated plasma environment where fusion can occur.

Sustaining nuclear fusion at scale has the potential to produce a safe, clean, almost inexhaustible power source. In fact, scientists have dubbed nuclear fusion as the future of clean power. The most optimistic of the lot have been of the view that fusion will one day be able to produce nearly limitless carbon-free energy, and replace fossil fuels and other conventional energy sources.

The current progress is especially heartening considering earth is falling short of non-renewable energy sources such as coal and crude, not to mention the vast amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the environment upon burning these resources.

Nuclear fusion vs fission reaction

Both these processes are ways to generate energy. Fission occurs when a neutron slams into a larger atom, forcing it to excite and split into two smaller atoms, also known as fission products. This creates a tremendous amount of energy and uranium and plutonium are most commonly used for fission reactions. On the other hand, fusion occurs when two atoms slam together to form a heavier atom, like when two hydrogen atoms fuse to form one helium atom.

The major difference between fusion and fission reaction is that while fission reaction creates toxic byproducts, the same is not the case with fusion, hence making it a clean source of energy.

While fusion is lucrative, the governments and policymakers must not move away from other renewable sources of energy. In fact, it is pertinent that investment in fusion is not at the cost of other forms of renewable energy and the transition away from fossil fuels. Current renewable energy technology such as solar, wind, and pumped hydro must also be kept in mind while developing next-generation solutions for electricity generation.

Fusion reactions are currently extremely complex and expensive which does not make them viable to be brought in the market. Governments across the world need to collectively pool their best talent and technology so that every country can benefit from the breakthrough. Despite the promise of fusion power, there are still significant challenges to be overcome before it can be implemented on a large scale.