New major breakthroughs have brought mankind one step closer to the dream of unlimited and clean nuclear fusion energy
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Given this incredible power and longevity, there seems to be no better way to generate energy than by using the same nuclear processes that occur in stars, including our own sun.
The purpose of nuclear fusion reactor is to reproduce this process by fusing hydrogen atoms to create helium and then releasing energy in the form of heat. Maintaining this process on a large scale has the potential to produce a safe, clean, almost inexhaustible supply of electricity.
This exploration began decades ago, but a long-standing joke that nuclear fusion always starts 30 years later will it soon become obsolete?
Some people hope so, because a major breakthrough has been made in a nuclear fusion experiment at the end of 2021. This was carried out at the Europa nuclear magnetic fusion equipment (jet) research facility in Oxfordshire, England, which is a huge circular machine – tokamak.
It produces superheated gas called plasma — in which nuclear fusion takes place — and contains charged particles held in place by a powerful magnetic field. The temperature of this plasma can reach 150million degrees Celsius, which is 10 times the core temperature of the sun.
During the five second burst, researchers from the eurofusion alliance released a record 59 megajoules (MJ) of fusion energy. This is almost three times the record of 21.7mj created at the same facility in 1997. The result is known as the clearest demonstration of the potential of fusion energy to provide safe and sustainable low-carbon energy in 25 years.
These results provide a major impetus for the development of the next stage of nuclear fusion. A larger and more advanced version of jet, called ITER (which means “road” in Latin), is being built on a 180 hectare site in Saint Paul L è s durance in southern France.
ITER was jointly built by 35 countries, including EU countries, to further consolidate the concept of nuclear fusion. As one of the most complex machines in history, it plans to produce the first plasma in 2025, and then enter high-power operation around 2035 – although the researchers of the project expect some delay due to the pandemic.
The results of jet represent an important milestone. Professor Tony donn é, the project manager of eurofusion project, said that the project is a large consortium composed of 4800 experts, students and facilities in Europe. He said: “this is a huge milestone — the biggest milestone in a long time. It confirms all the modeling, so it really increases people’s confidence that ITER will work and do what it wants to do. Although the energy generated in jet lasts only a few seconds, the goal is to raise it to a sustained response to generate energy.”
Professor donn é pointed out that one of the key developments since 1997 is to change the inner wall of jet containers.
In the past, the inner wall was made of carbon, but it proved too reactive with the fuel mixture of deuterium and tritium. It is reported that these are two heavier isotopes of hydrogen — or variants — used in fusion reactions. This led to the formation of hydrocarbons and locked the tritium fuel in the wall.
In order to reduce the retention of tritium, in the reconstruction work involving 16000 parts and 4000 tons of metal, carbon was replaced by beryllium and tungsten. Eventually, the team was able to double the amount of trapped fuel, contributing to the success of the recent fusion shooting.
In preparation for the next phase of the epic journey of nuclear fusion, the upgrade of jet ensures that its configuration is consistent with ITER’s plan. In the future, the next step beyond ITER will be a demonstration power plant called demo, which aims to transmit power to the power grid, thus making the nuclear fusion power plant a commercial and industrial reality.
Professor donn é said: “ITER is a device that can create 10 times more fusion energy than the energy used to heat plasma. But because it is an experimental facility, it will not transmit electricity to the power grid. For this reason, we need another device, which we call demo. This will really bring us to the foundation of the first generation of nuclear fusion power plants.”
Professor donn é continued: “jet has now shown that nuclear fusion is credible. ITER must prove that it is further feasible, and demo will need to prove that it is indeed effective. ”
Professor donn é believes that it is realistic for demo to be put into operation around 2050. It will provide up to 500 megawatts (MW) of power to the grid.
However, there are other key challenges to overcome on the way to start and operate nuclear fusion. Most importantly, although deuterium is abundant in seawater, tritium is extremely scarce and difficult to produce.
Therefore, the researchers plan to develop a method to generate tritium in Tokamak. They will use a “incubation blanket” containing lithium. It is understood that the idea is that high-energy neutrons from the fusion reaction will interact with lithium to produce tritium.
Professor donn é said that nuclear fusion could prove to be a key green and sustainable energy in the future. He said: “I want to say that this is essential. I don’t believe that we can only use renewable energy to achieve the transition of carbon dioxide by 2050. We need other things.”
Although the method of creating nuclear energy through fission is becoming safer and safer, nuclear fusion has its key advantages. ITER supporters talked about the benefits such as no meltdown risk, adding that nuclear fusion will not produce long-term radioactive waste, and reactor materials can be recycled or reused within 100 to 300 years. “It must be much safer,” said Professor donn é.
Referring to LEV artsimovich, known as the “father of Tokamak”, Professor donn é said: “artsimovich always says that nuclear fusion will occur when society really needs it. If we let nuclear fusion work, we really have a very safe and clean energy, which can provide us with energy for thousands of years.”