Fusion energy: a realistic alternative?
Last year, when asked to name the most pressing scientific challenge facing humanity, Professors Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox both gave the same answer: producing electricity from fusion energy.
When eventually achieved, the result will be colossal: a near-limitless, pollution-free, cheap source of energy that would power human development for many centuries to come.
But on Earth, scientists have to try and replicate a star’s intense gravitational pressure with an artificial magnetic field that requires huge amounts of electricity to create – so much that the National Grid must be notified beforehand.
The fusion reaction occurs when the fuel (two types, or isotopes, of hydrogen known as deuterium and tritium) combines to form a super-hot plasma which produces, alongside the helium, neutrons which have a huge amount of kinetic energy.
The goal of plasma physicists is to harness the release of these neutrons and use their abundant energy to drive conventional turbines to generate electricity.
With costs already rocketing and politicians across Europe expressing concern, demand has grown for budgets to be capped. Fusion energy also has its environmental detractors. When the initiative announced in 2005, Greenpeace said it “deplored” the project, arguing that the money could be better spent building offshore wind turbines.
Arguably, if fusion offers such glorious bounty, it prompts the question – given, say, our concerns over climate change and the global political instability caused by the pursuit of oil – why the world isn’t concentrating much harder on delivering it as fast as possible. Yes, €15bn is a lot of money to be spending building ITER. But, by comparison, the global cosmetics and perfume industry is worth some $170bn a year. And, in 2010, the US’s military budget was $663bn. If the motivation was there, the global community could find the money to fund 10 rival fusion projects to fast-track the process of finding the optimum design. So, why haven’t we seen a Manhattan Project-style push for fusion such as we did during the second world war when it was deemed by the allied forces that they must beat the Nazis in the race to build the first atomic bomb?
Edited extract from: Guardian/Leo Hickman