Could Fusion Energy Eventually Reach Cars?

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Is it possible for fusion energy to get beyond the experimental stage and eventually reach automobiles?

Many individuals are opposed to electric vehicles since our power infrastructure is not environmentally friendly enough, with fossil fuels accounting for 60% of our electricity generation. Renewable energy (mainly wind and hydroelectric) and nuclear fission account for the majority of the remaining energy. The latter has been steadily declining since the 2011 Fukushima tragedy, although there was encouraging news in February about nuclear fusion technology, which is far more environmentally benign and renewable than conventional nuclear energy.

In late 2021, the Joint European Torus (JET) laboratory in the United Kingdom beat the global record it established in 1997 for the amount of energy extracted by fusing isotopes of hydrogen to generate helium—16.4 kWh of energy in 5 seconds—breaking its own record set in 1997.

That’s only enough to get you approximately 50 miles in an electric vehicle, and even if you exclude the energy required to start the reaction, the gadget invests three times the amount of energy produced during the process. There will be no “Mission Accomplished” flag flown over the building, but 5 seconds is an eternity in the world of fusion reactions, and this finding has convinced experts that longer energy-positive events are achievable. Let us have a look at how fusion energy works.

Most atoms lighter than iron (atomic number 26) can fuse at the temperatures and pressures required to fuel fusion in stars such as our sun, releasing energy in the process as a byproduct. Fusing two isotopes of hydrogen (atomic number 1) to make helium (2) occurs at lower temperatures and releases more energy than fusing heavier elements, which is why current nuclear fusion energy research concentrates on fusing the H2 isotopes deuterium and tritium to produce helium (2).

When comparing the two, the former has one neutron and one proton in its nucleus, whereas the latter contains two neutrons and a proton. When fusing, a little amount of mass is lost along with the extra neutron, and in order to maintain the balance of Einstein’s equation E=mc2, energy is released along with the mass.

The sun’s intense gravitational pressure allows this reaction to take place at a relatively cool 10 million degrees Celsius, but here on Earth we must raise the temperature to more than 100 million degrees. Because of the high temperatures, the hydrogen gas atoms break down into positively and negatively charged particles known as plasma (a lightning bolt is plasma).

Because no substance can withstand such high temperatures, the reaction must take place in a vacuum, with the fuel being “contained” by a powerful magnetic field during the process. Because the vacuum chamber and magnetic field are shaped like the interior of a donut mold (a torus), these superheated molecules are able to zip around in circles as they are electrically or magnetically heated until they collide into one other and merge with one another. (For further information on these magnetic containers, look up the terms “tokamak” and “stellarator.”)

The reaction at JET, which was driven by two 500-MW flywheels, barely lasted 5 seconds because it took that long for the copper electromagnets in charge of maintaining the powerful containment field to overheat and shut down. Supercooled magnets, on the other hand, will be used in the much bigger International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is now under construction in Cadarache, France.

The purpose of this device is to demonstrate the viability of long-term, net-positive nuclear fusion energy production. The recent JET experiment confirmed the calculations that show ITER will be a success when it begins fusion trials in 2035, as predicted by the computations.

What makes fusion a safer option? First and foremost, there is nothing in the reaction itself that has to be regulated in order to avoid a meltdown on the scale of Fukushima.

If the containment field becomes unstable, the reaction simply comes to a halt. The amount of radiation involved is far smaller. Tritium fuel is somewhat radioactive, although it is only used in small quantities, and the radiation it emits is swiftly expelled from the human body. Nuclear reactions involving highly intense neutron emissions produce some radioactivity, although it is easily confined and decays fast. The fuel is totally used, resulting in the production of harmless helium and the elimination of all dangerous waste.

There is hardly little need for mining. A natural element, deuterium can be found in seawater (it accounts for one out of every every 5,000 hydrogen atoms), and although tritium is rare in nature, it can be produced by exposing lithium to the energetic neutrons emitted by the nuclear reaction. As a result, a functional reactor can generate its own tritium on-site.

How soon will we be able to use fusion to power our automobiles? Despite the fact that most of the research is being supported by the government, a recent spike in private-sector financing gives me reason to believe that timetable can be shortened—much like what happened in the field of mRNA vaccines. Isn’t global warming a far more serious issue than COVID at this point?

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