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Is nuclear fusion going to become reality any time soon?

In the latest in our series of attempts to answer some scientific questions about how the future of energy could evolve, today we ask:

Is nuclear fusion going to become reality any time soon?

Nuclear fusion is an energy producers’ dream. No carbon emissions, low-level waste, and a near-inexhaustible fuel, and a good role model – the Sun.

The only problem is it isn’t an easy process to deliver.

In simple terms, fusion is firing atoms together at such velocity that they ‘fuse’ together and create huge amounts of energy in doing so.

To recreate this naturally occurring phenomenon that has created and sustained stars for millennia takes a significant amount of preparation. Temperatures up to 200,000,000 degrees are needed, that’s rather hot and so cannot feasibly be in contact with another substance, as a result the plasma form of the fusion fuel is suspended in a vessel via magnetic fields.

By piling energy in, energy comes out, this is known as ‘gain’, historically gain has been struggling to be breakeven i.e. the amount of energy being put into the system was more than was being extracted through the process.

In 2013 however the National Ignition Facility in California created a reaction where more energy was produced than hit the target. Having said that there was still more energy used overall than was produced. However these are big steps into producing a genuine alternative fuel source.

Not only is the fuel source clean, it is also abundant and cheap, in fact some say its cost is immaterial with an estimated 30 million years worth of the fuel in seawater alone!

The biggest challenge however for nuclear fusion and the potential fuel secure future it promises is the existing status quo. There are still plentiful sources of fossil fuels worldwide (although localized issues remain) and as a result it is a significant challenge to persuade governments to divert precious resource to an unproven fuel source that could take many years yet to become economic.

Critically the projects are moving forward however with a goal of proving by 2020 that nuclear fusion is indeed possible. The battle to prove it will be equally economic however has only just begun.

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