Fusion Energy: Futuristic or Frivolous?
Two hydrogen isotopes smash into each other at unfathomable speeds. The resulting energy powers all life as we know it. Fusion Energy powers every sun and star, but could it power human energy needs on Earth as well? Nuclear fusion, the process by which two atoms with lighter nuclei merge to form a heavier nucleus, releases energy because the mass of the one atom is less than the mass of the two atoms that fused together to create it (1). This is proven by Einstein’s general relativity equation, E = mc^2 (E = energy, m = mass, and c = the speed of light). This equates mass and energy, so the leftover mass in a fusion reaction dissipates into energy.
Fusion generates the enormous energy that powers the sun. With temperatures up to 30 million degrees and pressure 330,000 times higher than that on Earth, the sun facilitates the process of nuclear fusion. Such a reaction would be impossible under most other conditions (2). But at such high temperatures hydrogen becomes a plasma, a mixture of positively and negatively charged particles, in which hydrogen atoms can overcome their electrostatic repulsion and fuse together (3).
Evident from a quick glance at the sun or the nighttime stars, the power of fusion energy is immense. This begs the question; can humanity harness fusion energy for use on Earth? It is certainly a challenge given that the conditions of intense heat and pressure of those in a star are difficult to replicate. However, in February, the UK JET laboratory broke the world record for the amount of energy extracted by fusing two forms of hydrogen (4). While the experiment yielded double the output of an earlier one in, it still yielded only 59 megajoules of energy, enough to boil a modest 60 pots of water (5). Despite holding great promise as a source of energy that does not emit greenhouse gasses or generate radioactive waste, nuclear fusion has yet to be applied on a large scale.
Climate change demands immediate change in energy generation methods, and fusion energy is not reliable on a large scale to replace carbon emitting sources of energy. If humanity wants to replace greenhouse gas sources of energy in the next few decades, it cannot look to fusion for help. It is simply too expensive and the technology is not advanced enough to produce energy in large enough quantities. Though incredibly promising as a completely clean energy source, fusion is impractical and will not be developed quickly enough to mitigate the effects of climate change. Humanity is better served by investing in other forms of renewable and alternative energy to combat climate change.
- DOE Explains…Nuclear Fusion Reactions. Energy.gov. (n.d.). Retrieved April 22, 2022, https://www.energy.gov/science/doe-explainsnuclear-fusion-reactions#:~:text=Nuclear%20Fusion%20reactions%20power%20the,The%20leftover%20mass%20becomes%20energy.
- “What Is Plasma?” What Is Plasma? | MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, https://www.psfc.mit.edu/vision/what_is_plasma.
- “Sun.” NASA, NASA, 19 Apr. 2022, https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/solar-system/sun/overview/.
- Amos, Jonathan. “Major Breakthrough on Nuclear Fusion Energy.” BBC News, BBC, 9 Feb. 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-60312633.
- “Fusion Energy Record at Jet ‘Huge Step’ Forward.” Fusion Energy Record at JET ‘Huge Step’ Forward : New Nuclear – World Nuclear News, https://www.world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/Fusion-energy-record-at-JET-huge-step-forward.