THE DAWN OF A QUANTUM LEAP: NUCLEAR FUSION
The term ‘sustainability’ is now no longer a word which finds its seat only in meetings of international summits like COP-26 and Earth summit. It is now an issue so popularised that our actions are subconsciously nursing the wounds of the environment. Consequently, one of the biggest agenda of think-tanks world-over, is to find alternatives to fossil fuels, especially in the sector of electricity generation. It has become a common realisation that conventional sources of energy like coal, which are being depleted at an alarming rate, would not sustain the needs of the swiftly growing population in coming generations. Non-conventional sources of energy are in vogue these days. But nothing comes as a God’s gift. Dams bring innumerable social problems at our palms, while wind energy too does not offer a perfect solution. With these uncertainties, wouldn’t it look like a candle in darkness if a source of energy that produces 4 million times as much heat energy as coal could be used in the near future?
The Power of Nuclear Fusion
A source that produces energy for longer and at a moderate rate when controlled, is extremely
efficient. Nuclear fission, wherein a large atom breaks up into smaller atoms converting mass into enormous energy (by Atomic Mass Defect), comes under non-conventional sources for electricity generation. 1 kg of Uranium-235 can provide energy for 2-4 years at a stretch, but major issues surrounding this technology include risks of reactor meltdown and those of non-renewability of the source. But nuclear fusion, 10 times more powerful than fission, is just different…
Instead of splitting a large nucleus, nuclear fusion involves combining 2 or more small nuclei into a bigger nucleus, just the opposite of fission. Hydrogen, possessing the lightest nuclei, is used for this purpose. Pretty much like energy generation in the Sun’s core. But nuclear fusion does not carry with itself the heavy tag of being ‘nuclear’.
Advantages of Fusion Over Fission
Unlike Uranium, Hydrogen is not non-renewable. There is a virtually limitless possibility of expanding the fusion technology. Furthermore, the product in the reaction i.e. Helium, is neither radioactive, nor is it an environmental pollutant like CO2, SO2, and other oxides produced on combustion of fossil fuels. Nuclear fusion is thus a clean source of energy, providing a sustainable solution to the problem at hand.
Besides this, another major advantage of nuclear fusion is that it is incredibly inexpensive to create once set-up. This makes fusion a much better alternative to nuclear fission, a technology which is now being discontinued by nations like Germany ahead of the issue of sanctioning of the pipeline for natural gas.
The Flip Side of The Coin
As mentioned earlier, there exists no perfect fuel when it comes to meeting our needs. The biggest, and perhaps the most evident flaw of this technology is that nuclear fusion is still theoretical in nature. Controllable nuclear fission has resulted as commercialisation of the plants. But such a plant is not expected to come any time before 2050, if the current rate of development proceeds. Moreover, once set-up, nuclear fusion poses another 2 major problems. While minor cons of the technology can be resolved, the problem lies in the following:
I. Starting of nuclear fusion reaction: Since two atoms are to be combined instead of being split, a huge amount of energy is needed as input for starting a reaction. And due to this, the power output of fusion is only marginally greater than that of combustion o
f fossil fuel. Nevertheless, scientists and researchers are not apprehensive of the issue, and believe that technology would be further developed to combat this boulder in the path.
II. Controlling the heat generated: While there are no radiations in fusion technology, heat can also be as lethal as radiations. Nuclear fusion can only proceed as a chain reaction in a minimum temperature range of 10-15 million Kelvin. Assuming that the first problem is solved, there is still no guarantee for the commercial use of fusion, simply because there currently exists no material that can withstand such high temperature besides being sufficient in quantity.
III. Lastly, some researchers also point out that there being no significant risk of helium to our knowledge as of now, does not imply that Helium is completely non-toxic. Accounting for the concentration of the inert gas once plants are set up, there might still be a possibility of some forms of mutation in genetics, or chances of cancer, that are currently beyond our knowledge.
The Ray of hope
As history speaks, at a point in time, fire, to our ancestors, was no less than nuclear fusion to us. Studies and experiments are going on all over the globe for the use of this miraculous source of energy. But what might be needed is government funding in developed countries who use a significant amount of energy from non-conventional sources, to provide incentives to scientists for the commercial use of nuclear fusion, which after all, is just taking its first steps in the present, but would be running marathons in a future not so far away.
-Shashvat Rastogi 10A