Friday, 15 November 2013

It has been heralded as the solution to the decline in fossil fuels, the solution to global warming and the power source of the future. But is nuclear fusion really the best option for us to pursue?

Nuclear fusion works by harnessing the same reaction that occurs in the sun. Atoms of hydrogen are fused together to make helium, releasing huge amounts of energy in the process. On Earth, scientists believe that we could achieve this using sea water, which would provide over 30 million years of fuel.

Fusion also produces high amounts of output energy from low amounts of input energy: the current record of gain is .7, meaning that the energy put in is returned, plus 70% more. The aim of fusion researchers is to create a reactor that can run without any input energy: a self-sufficient fusion plant. Producing no carbon dioxide or radioactive waste products, fusion is unlike fossil fuels and nuclear fission stations, such as the recently approved Hinkley Point C power plant, in that it is a clean source of power.

But is nuclear fusion the way forward? The ITER facility, currently under construction in southern France, is expected to inspire a transition from traditional energy production to an age of commercial fusion reactors. However, the cost of this facility alone is very high: as of July 2013, it is expected to cost €15 billion. Some scientists and politicians believe that the cost of fusion research is too high to justify what is, in essence, an experiment. There is no guarantee that these projects will even achieve their goal of making this experimental technology viable for public use. The question we must ask ourselves is simple: is it worth spending so much money on research projects that may or may not yield results?

The costs come not from the fuel, but from the reactors themselves. Fusion reactors use rings of incredibly strong electromagnets to pinch and squeeze the hydrogen gasses in order to produce the temperatures required for the process to take place (200m degrees.) This hi-tech equipment not only costs millions to produce, but is also unreliable and must be maintained in order to keep the reactor running safely. Even if commercial fusion reactors were developed, each one would cost potentially billions in order to build and maintain. However, many people believe that these costs are a necessary sacrifice in order to future proof our energy industry against the inevitable demise of fossil fuels.


Post a Comment