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Nuclear Fusion, the Ultimate Power?

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There are two types of nuclear power: fusion and fission. Nuclear fusion is the method of power generation which happens on the sun. If we could harness this, we would be able to produce huge amounts of power.

Nuclear fission is what we use in nuclear power stations. It works by smashing a neutron into a uranium nucleus – the middle of the atom. This then splits into smaller nuclei, and some more neutrons are thrown out. These neutrons all then hit more uranium nuclei, which split apart, release more neutrons, etc. From this chain reaction, energy is produced, which is harnessed; hence the nuclear power station is born.

The problem with this sort of power generation is that it creates toxic waste. It also needs to be under surveillance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as if something goes wrong, the effects could be devastating.

Nuclear fusion works in a very different way. It occurs by fusing (hence the name) two atomic nuclei, to make a larger nucleus. This produces massive more amounts of energy than fission. Our sun and other stars use this process, however we cannot currently control it, meaning it is not a useful power source.

Because of the way it works, nuclear fusion is a much cleaner method of power generation. It produces less toxic waste, which decays faster than nuclear fission waste does. In the grand scheme of things, you could even argue that it is more clean than using coal, oil or gas – the dirty fossil fuels.

It seemed impossible not so long ago, for the idea of nuclear fusion power stations, as it seemed to be impossible to ever control. However, some recent breakthroughs in technology mean that some scientists are predicting that we may have some nuclear fusion power plants by as early as 2020. That is just a very rough prediction, providing the correct technology advances.

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  • A rather sketchy article. In outlining the advantages of fusion power you miss one of the most important: just about anything can be used to produce the necessary reaction, including water. So we’re looking at an essentially inexhaustible supply of fuel.

  • Thanks very much for your opinion Dr Dreadful, it has been noted! Please note this is only my first article, but all the same you are right, I did forget to mention that.

    Thanks very much.

  • John Wilson

    We can benefit from the Big Nuclear Fusion Reactor In The Sky simply by employing the beneficial rays that fall on our earth every day. Using current technology PV panels it would require an array in the Nevada desert about 90 miles on a side.

    Even simple plants have developed and deployed the method, so we can too.

  • Completely true John Wilson, currently that is defiantly our best option of harnessing the energy of nuclear fusion.

    And on the idea of plants, that is also quite a bit of food for thought as plants have been doing it for billions of years, and yet its only in the last few years that we have learnt to use this as a method of generating energy.

  • 1k2k3k

    The guys at ITER said it would take 70 years for nuke fusion to become commercially available. That really doesn’t like its gonna be in my life time. Unless this article speaks the truth.

  • 1k2k3k when did ITER say that? As I found an article on some recent advance, which predicted possible within the next ten years.

  • It needs mention to aneutronic nuclear fusion, a type of fusion that does not emit neutrons as a byproduct.

  • I was intending on giving an overview of the topic, as I could have gone into detail on aneutronic nuclear fusion, cold fusion etc, however this would probably be best done in another post.

    Thanks for the comment.

  • Totally agree, and feel rather sorry for you and the environment.

    Nuclear FUSION is green and produced lots. That’s the problem with other green fuels, they don’t produce that much, in comparison to fossil fuels.

    Oil is done done for 100%, its not needed for power any more, as vehicles can run on other fuels, and power can be generated in other ways. That just leaves us trying to find out new ways to package things! Although there are alternatives.

    Anyway… thanks all for the comments, keep them coming!

  • satellitejam

    Massive quantities of neutrons are produced during fusion reactions. These neutrons will eventually cause the reactor chamber and housing to become high level nuclear waste.

    Even fusion that has been labeled “aneutronic” still produces neutrons via unwanted, uncontrollable fusion side reactions. Enough neutrons are generated by side-reactions to constitute an extreme radiological hazard. Hydrogen/boron “aneutronic” fusion releases so much of its energy as x-ray and gamma ray production that very little thermal energy is available to do meaningful work. The energy required to power the fusion start-up laser is more than the usable energy released.

    Neutrons are arguably the most potent radiological threat to living systems.

  • maine41

    Satellitejam has injected some reality into the fusion fantasy. The high level of radioactivity will not allow any maintenance once the reactor has started, and since this is essential due to severe erosion, the reactor is a non-starter. In addition, you cannot spend billions of dollars on a reactor without testing the array of materials. This is impossible without a fusion reactor, so it will never happen.