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Fusion Energy

Friday, February 01, 2019

Fusion: The process of combining two or more distinct entities into a new whole.

Today’s Friday Pearl is for those who have faith that global scientists will be able to address climate change with new, and safer sources of energy. Awareness is the key to requiring that our elected officials and the U.S. government support fusion energy research, since it's a viable candidate for ensuring continued life on planet earth.

What is fusion energy?

The prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Plasma Science Fusion Center (PSFC) describes it this way, "Fusion is the process of combining light elements like hydrogen into heavier ones like helium. It releases enormous amounts of energy, creating the light and heat of our sun and all the other stars.

"Scientists are trying to harness the energy of fusion here on earth. The goal is to build power plants, which would have an unlimited supply of fuel and have less environmental impact than any other source of energy. Achieving this goal will not be easy because fusion only occurs at extremely high temperatures, a condition where all matter is in the form of plasma – superheated, ionized gas.

"In a star, the enormous pull of gravity heats and confines the hot plasma. Without that help, scientists must turn to other methods."

MIT is pursuing two alternate approaches: The first uses the force that strong magnetic fields can exert on charged particles; the second employs powerful lasers to compress and heat plasma. If researchers succeed, they will be able to draw power from a man-made star for a planet with rapidly growing energy needs.

Why fusion?

According to MIT, "Fusion is the power source of the universe, since it is the process producing energy at the center of all stars, including our own sun. Inside star's temperatures above 10 million degrees allow for the hydrogen, the main constituent of stars, to fuse together to produce another element, helium.

"Stars can produce fusion energy for billions of years, because hydrogen, its fuel, is by far the most abundant element in the universe, and because each fusion process releases staggering amounts of energy, about 10 million times the energy released in standard chemical reactions. It is precisely these features that make fusion so attractive as an energy source here on Earth.

"The fuels are so abundant in ordinary seawater as to make it effectively inexhaustible. The fusion process requires such high temperatures, and does not rely on a chain reaction, that it is inherently safe because intrusion from the outside world immediately eliminates the possibility of any further fusion. 

"The fusion reaction itself produces no long-lived radioactive products – only helium. But like fission, it can produce large amounts of power in compact central plants, meaning that it can be deployed at a scale that would impact our energy portfolio in a decade timescale."

How is the PSFC contributing?


The PSFC response: "Making clean and economical fusion for society is a grand challenge of 21st century science and engineering. The PSFC, along with global research partners, seeks to answer this challenge by exploring innovative ways to accelerate the pace of fusion’s development.

"The PSFC is an interdisciplinary research center, because fusion requires an approach that folds in the majority of the engineering and science disciplines found at MIT: physics, nuclear science and engineering, mechanical engineering, chemistry, and material science, to name a few. Our mission is to identify and understand how cutting-edge advances in science and technology can provide fusion energy 'smaller and sooner'.

"The PSFC hosts a wide variety of experimental facilities at the Albany Street corridor on the campus of MIT, including plasma devices, powerful superconductor magnets, and high-energy accelerators. In parallel, novel measurements are developed for the very challenging fusion environment, which are then are compared to leading-edge theory and simulation. This research mission is completely integrated with the training and mentoring a new generation of multidisciplinary fusion scientists and engineers."

All in all this makes the PSFC a vital and important contributor to the fusion energy mission. Anyone looking for a bright side in the climate crisis will want to learn more about a potentially revolutionary research project that could help redefine energy as we know it.

Ellen Troyer, with Spencer Thornton, MD, David Amess and the Biosyntrx staff

PEARL:  Fusion vs. fission. Fusion is what powers the sun. Both fission and fusion are nuclear reactions that produce energy, but the applications are not the same. Fission is the splitting of a heavy, unstable nucleus into two lighter nuclei. Fusion is the merging of separate elements into a unified whole that releases energy.

According to the European Fusion Education Network, "Fusion is a beautiful process, not only for physicists but also a potential energy source, as it has distinctive advantages over traditional methods of energy production. The fuels are abundant; deuterium is found in seawater, and tritium can be generated from lithium inside the reactor. 

"There is a low risk of harming natural resources in harvesting and transporting these fuels, compared to oil, coal, or even windmills and hydropower. There are no CO2 or other harmful atmospheric emissions from the fusion process, and it does not create any long-lived radioactive nuclear waste." 

We invite our Friday Pearl readers to join us in keeping a focused eye on fusion science. We highly recommend following Seeker.