Nuclear fusion is one of the most promising options for generating large amounts of carbon-free energy in tomorrow's power stations. It is the process where atomic nuclei collide and release energy, the process that heats the Sun and all other stars. The energy carried by the neutrons will be released as heat, and the heat will be converted into steam to drive turbines and put power on to the grid.
The advantages of fusion are many, such as:
- No carbon emissions - the only by-products are helium, which will not add to atmospheric pollution.
- Abundant fuels - Deuterium, extracted from water, and tritium, produced from lithium, are easily found and will last for millions of years.
- Energy efficiency - One kilogram of fusion fuel provides comparable energy of 10 million kilograms of fossil fuel.
- No long-lived radioactive waste - Only plant components become radioactive and are safe to recycle or dispose of conventionally within 100 years.
- Safety - The small amounts of fuel used in fusion devices negates any possibility of a large-scale nuclear accident.
- Reliable power - Fusion power plants should provide a baseload supply of large amounts of electricity, at costs that are estimated to be broadly similar to other energy sources.
While nuclear fusion is promising, the date that will occur on a commercial basis is unknown, as fusion has a high research and equipment price tag. An international fusion project in France called ITER, thought to be the best chance to show the world fusion is possible, has a projected price tag of $14 billion and is behind schedule, expecting to be completed in 2027.
There are smaller research projects. A joint project of the Los Alamos national Laboratory and HyperV technologies Corp. are looking at 'plasma guns' that shoot hydrogen plasma into a collapsing, heat-intense sphere, followed by heavy gases. This creates a short burst of energy before dissipating.
The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) houses a stellarator, a device used to confine hot plasma with magnetic fields in order to sustain a controlled nuclear fusion. The work done has been a useful contributor to the Germany-based Wendelstein 7-X project. PPPL is also involved in a different kind of fusion experiment called a tokomak. Atoms are heated and pressurized into hot plasma that is contained by a magnetic field which keeps it away from the machine walls. The combination of two sets of magnetic coils creates a field in both vertical and horizontal directions, acting as a magnetic 'cage' to hold and shape the plasma. Research on the tokomak will play a role in the ITER project.
While the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris last year emphasized the need for energy technology, the shale energy resources in the US along with an increasing budget deficit has not provided on optimistic outlook for fusion research. Researchers feel the best way to move U.S.-based fusion projects forward is through private sector investment opportunities. Smaller scale activities may be more adaptable to developing and commercializing energy technology rather than going through governmental hoops and budgets.