Researchers may be closer than ever to achieving energy from nuclear fusion, with some experts projecting success with commercial fusion power as early as 2030, according to a report from NBC News.
Nuclear fusion seeks to create energy by joining atoms of hydrogen, an abundantly available material, offering numerous advantages over nuclear fission, which works by splitting atoms of less common substances such as uranium. While nuclear fission offers clean energy more reliably and in greater quantity than wind and solar power, it presents several problems, such as nuclear waste and the potential for accidents such as Fukushima, Chernobyl, or Three Mile Island.
Through 60 years of research, projections for achieving fusion power have generally continued to indicate the technology is several decades away from becoming a reality. But now, success at the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) in southern France is pointing to substantial progress on a more immediate timeline. With international backing, and projections of success as early as the 2040s, ITER is one of the most promising fusion projects. With roots in the 1980s, construction of the ITER recently reached the halfway mark. Engineers are working on challenges such as the need for reactor walls that can endure temperatures as high as 150 million degrees Celsius, ten times hotter than the sun’s core, and creating superconducting materials to produce magnetic fields strong enough to confine the fusion reaction.
While the ITER project is focused on experimentation and research, smaller commercial operations in the US, UK, and Canada are aiming to provide fusion generated electricity to power grids as soon as 2030.
In the US, Lockheed Martin is working towards a compact fusion reactor that contains the fusion reaction with magnetic fields instead of the massive ring-shaped reactor of the ITER. These reactors could replace fission reactors on submarines and warships, and could be brought on trucks to areas where it is needed. According to Lockheed, they could generate power for 100,000 people.
In the UK, Tokamak Energy is also working on a smaller, commercial fusion project, as is General Fusion in Canada.
In Germany, the Wendelstein 7-X fusion reactor shares a research mission similar to the ITER, and also enjoys international support.
Any of these projects could be the first to finally achieve nuclear fusion. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, and with the threat of climate change becoming ever more pressing, it’s a development that could not come too soon.