Creating Nuclear Fusion could mean unlimited energy, free of any radioactive by-product or greenhouse gases. It has been the goal of physicists since the beginning of the Atomic Era.
Unfortunately achieving this goal is difficult and dangerous. But a recent breakthrough could bring us one step closer. An article published in Physical Review Letters explains the new method for solving one of the most dangerous problems for fusion reactors.
Mimicking the power of the sun
It requires immense temperatures to get nuclear atoms to combine in a fusion reactor. Enormous pressure plus temperatures in excess of 150 million degrees are required for the tricky process. The aim of fusion is to get hydrogen atoms to collide at such incredibly high speeds that they fuse into helium. The process is how our sun functions and it creates massive amounts of energy.
Catching runaway electrons is the key to fusion power
However, in this process runaway electrons can ‘bounce’ around and could destroy a reactor spontaneously. The recent breakthrough from scientists goes some way to solving this problem.
The new method aims to halt the runaway electrons by shooting heavy ions, like argon and neon into the reactor to collide with the electrons, reducing their energy and thus slowing them down. They hope that by decelerating the electrons their capability for destruction is diminished.
Co-author of the new paper Linnea Hesslow, explains, "When we can effectively decelerate runaway electrons, we are one step closer to a functional fusion reactor."
While this is still only a relatively small step in the massive project that nuclear fusion is, every advancement is important. Hesslow goes further by saying "Many believe it will work, but it's easier to travel to Mars than it is to achieve fusion." We've got a long way to go yet, but eventually (hopefully), we'll get there.”
ITER leading the way in the research
Most of the world's nuclear energy research happens at ITER ("The Way" in Latin). ITER is a collaborative project of 35 nations that are building the world’s largest tokamak. A tokamak is a device that creates a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma in the shape of a torus. It is an essential part for producing controlled thermonuclear fusion power. The ITAR tokamak will prove the legitimacy of nuclear fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free energy source. The research at ITAR is crucial to the development of a functioning nuclear fusion project.
[Image Source: ITER]
The Simpsons provides pop culture background
Nuclear power and particularly nuclear weapons have been a feature in popular culture since the first nuclear weapons were debuted in August 1945 in the U.S led attack on Japan.
The most enduring reference to nuclear power in pop culture is The Simpsons. Bumbling protagonist, Homer Simpson works at a Nuclear Power Plant in his local city. The show makes constant references to the destructive nature of nuclear, although this was reportedly toned down after the writers of the show were invited to tour a San Diego nuclear power plant with the writers getting an insight into nuclear power generation.