If all goes well according to plan, the United States will eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from its power sector by 2035-an ambitious goal set by President-elect Biden, relying to a large extent on the dramatic increase in wind and solar power. This plan may soon be driven by nuclear fusion, which is a powerful technology that has only recently appeared out of reach.
The nuclear fusion reactor developed by the researchers can generate more energy than it consumes. A series of recent papers show that their design should work, which makes people feel optimistic that this clean, unlimited power source will have Help alleviate the climate crisis.
Although the new reactor is still in the early stages of development, scientists hope that the reactor will start generating electricity by the end of the decade. Martin Greenwald, one of the senior scientists on the project, said that one of the main motivations for the ambitious schedule is to meet the energy needs of global warming. He said: “Integration seems to be a possible solution to free yourself from the coming climate disaster,”
Nuclear fusion is the physical process that powers our sun. It occurs when atoms are pushed together under extremely high temperature and pressure, causing them to release a lot of energy by merging into heavier atoms.
Since the first discovery in the last century, scientists have been seeking to use fusion technology. Fusion is an extremely dense form of energy whose fuel-hydrogen isotopes-is abundant and replenishable. In addition, fusion does not produce greenhouse gases or carbon, and unlike fission nuclear reactors, there is no risk of melting.
However, the use of this form of nuclear energy has proven extremely difficult, requiring heating a tablespoon of subatomic particles (called plasma) to hundreds of millions of degrees, which is too hot for any material container to withstand. To solve this problem, scientists have developed a ring-shaped chamber with a strong magnetic field passing through it, called a tokamak, which suspends the plasma in place.
Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an affiliate, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, began designing a new reactor in early 2018, which is more compact than its predecessor and will begin construction in the first half of next year. According to researchers and company officials, if their schedule goes according to plan, the reactor called Sparc will be able to generate electricity for the grid by 2030. This will be much faster than the current major fusion power plan.
The existing reactor designs are too large and expensive to actually generate electricity for consumers. By using cutting-edge super-strong magnets, the teams at MIT and Commonwealth Fusion hope to create a compact, efficient, and expandable tokamak reactor. Greenwald said: “What we really want to do is to combine existing science with new materials to open up huge new possibilities.”
A research paper published in September proved that the Sparc device can theoretically generate more energy than it needs to operate. The next step is to build a reactor, and then a pilot plant that will generate electricity to the grid.
Scientists and entrepreneurs have long promised that integration is coming, but they have encountered insurmountable problems. This makes people reluctant to invest in it, especially when wind, solar and other renewable energy (although not as powerful as fusion technology) become more efficient and cost-effective.
But the tide is changing. In Biden’s $2 billion plan, he named advanced nuclear technology as part of his decarbonization strategy. This is the first time that Democrats have recognized nuclear energy since 1972. There is also a large number of private sources of investment, including some major oil and gas companies, and integration is a better long-term hub than wind and solar.
Commonwealth nuclear fusion chief executive Bob Mumgaard (Bob Mumgaard) said that the purpose is not to replace solar and wind energy with fusion, but to supplement it. He said: “Some things rely on renewable energy alone, and industrial-scale things are difficult to accomplish, such as powering large cities or manufacturing.” “This is where integration can enter.”
The plasma science community is generally enthusiastic about the development of Sparc, although some people have questioned the ambitious timetable due to engineering and regulatory obstacles.
Daniel Jassby, a research scientist who has worked at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory for 25 years, doubts whether fusion reactors such as SPARC will provide viable alternative energy sources. He said that Spa is one of the hydrogen isotopes used by Sparc as fuel. It is not naturally occurring and needs to be produced.
The MIT research team suggested that this substance will be continuously regenerated through the fusion reaction itself. But Jasby believes that this will require a lot of electricity, which will make the reactor price too high. He said: “When we consider free access to solar and wind energy, it is foolish to rely on fusion reactions.”
Mangard admits that the challenges ahead are daunting. But he is still full of confidence.
He said: “Recognizing the importance of climate and the need for everyone to work together is a widespread trend.” “We have encountered this problem technically, but in the integration, there is a great opportunity for technology to solve this problem.”