The Future of Sustainable and Clean Energy – Nuclear Fusion

Humanity has always been evolving, and a major factor indicating the evolution of humans as a species is the amount of energy we consume. In the early stone ages, we used to manually do everything for ourselves. Then came the discovery of fire, which lead to the proper cooking of food. We then started coming up with simple machines, until the Industrial Revolution, which then leads to the invention of machines like, boring machines, cranes, and then we discovered the process of splitting atoms, which lead to Nuclear Fission. Our Population has always been growing and is estimated to be 9.7 Billion by 2050, which will increase the demand for better and sustainable sources of energy. Our next best bet, towards sustainable energy, is Nuclear Fusion.

We already know how atoms are split to obtain energy. The energy obtained by splitting atoms is known as Nuclear Fission. The Process of Nuclear Fission is to take a heavy atom, mostly Uranium-235 (U-235) is split in half by shooting neutrons at the atom. This, therefore, excites the nucleus of the Uranium atom, releasing a burst of kinetic energy and also energy radiated through gamma rays. The average energy that is produced by a fission reaction of one atom of U-235 is 200eV. Since there are trillions of atoms inside one kilogram of Uranium, there is a whole boatload of energy that can be obtained. On the other hand, as of 2017, U-235 is only 0.72 percent of all isotopes of Uranium present on the earth, I.e. there is only 44226.72 tonnes of Uranium present on earth, and some of that is already in Nuclear Reactors and weapons.

We know that the Sun shines at the energy of a trillion nuclear bombs per second. This energy is obtained due to Nuclear Fusion. Nuclear Fusion bombs are already being made, and humans have realized how useful Nuclear Fusion is. An average Nuclear Fusion between 2 Hydrogen Atoms can release the energy of >400keV. Despite the fact, that fusion can release tremendous amounts of energy, Nuclear Fusion is safer than Nuclear Fission. If a fission reaction goes out of control, it might harm us and cause dangerous amounts of damage. Instead, if a fusion reaction goes out of control, then the plasma inside the reactor cools down, therefore terminating the reaction. The Tricky Part about fusion is, that it is hard to conduct a reaction because of the immense temperatures needed to commence the reaction. Fusion Reactions start at a point known as Fusion Ignition Temperature, once this temperature is obtained, the fusion reaction becomes self-sustained. The Fusion Ignition Temperature at the core of the sun is 15 million Kelvin or 27 million degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature is really tough to reach since, the amount of pre-requisite energy to increase the ambient temperature so high, is higher than the estimated energy output.

 

Currently, a lot of companies, institutions, and organizations are trying to harness the power of nuclear fusion. Currently, 2 main confinements are going to be experimented with for Nuclear fusion.

  1. The Magnetic Confinement
  2. The Inertial Confinement

 

  1. The Magnetic Confinement

The magnetic confinement is donut-shaped confinement which is going to use electric fields to direct the plasma inside the confinement in a certain direction at phenomenally high speeds. The approximate temperature inside the confinement is going to be 150,000,000 degrees Celsius. The confinement is going to be externally cooled with liquid helium to prevent the overheating of the current-carrying wires, as strong magnetic fields need high currents passing through them. The Helium is going to be cooled to 2-3 degrees above absolute zero. This experiment is going to feature one of the highest temperature gradients in the universe. ITER, T-15, WENDELSTEIN, HSX, and LHD are all fusion experiments involving magnetic confinement.

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  1. The Inertial Confinement

The Inertial Confinement consists of a Hohlraum, or small confinement for the fuel pellet and that pellet is going to be bombarded with strong UV(ultra-violet) rays and infrared rays, imploding the pellet and increasing temperatures high enough for fusion to take place. NIF, HiPER, Z-MACHINE, QIANGGUANG are experiments involving the Inertial Confinement.

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In the Inertial confinement, the fuel pellet is also known as the fusion target. Laser beams or laser-produced x-rays rapidly heat up the surface of the fusion target and form a surrounding envelope of plasma. The Pellet is then compressed by the rocket-like blowoff of the hot material. Due to the compression, the fuel core reaches the density 20 times that of lead, and due to such high pressure, it only ignites at 100 million degrees celsius. After that, the pellet implodes, causing a thermonuclear burn to spread throughout the compressed fuel, and yields energy.

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Nuclear Fusion is a very important part of our plans for exploring space and establishing a multi-planetary presence. It might also get us to level 1 on the Kardashev Scale*. Gryphon Technologies and many other companies are currently working on developing a nuclear propulsion system, which can be used in the future to propel rockets that have capabilities larger than our current rocket engines. Nuclear Fusion is going to be very important for us to develop as a species. Nuclear Fusion might give us the ability to generate enough energy to do a lot of things that we are currently, incapable of. Once we can control a nuclear fusion reaction, a cup of water can give as much energy as a whole barrel of oil we use currently. All of our current experiments are going to be conducted with a stellarator** configuration.

*The Kardashev Scale is a scale used to measure the technological advancement of a species based on the energy they can use. The Scale was made by a Russian Astronomer Nikolai Kardashev. The Scale has 3 main levels. The first being the planetary civilization, indicating the ability of a species to use and store all of the energy of their respective planet. The second being the stellar civilization, that indicates the ability to use and store all the energy of their respective planetary system, and level 3 being the ability to store and use all the energy of its entire host galaxy. Humanity is still at level 0.7 on the scale.

**A stellarator is a plasma device that relies primarily on external magnetic fields to confine the plasma. Plasma is one of the 4 main states of matter. It is Solid-Liquid-Gas-Plasma.

The Sun and its Humongous Habits – Coronal Mass Ejections

The Sun is the most majestic body in our solar system. It is violent and also a graceful celestial body. The Sun is considered to burn with the energy of a trillion nuclear bombs per second. It also releases huge flares of plasma that travel throughout the solar system at very high speeds. This article talks about Solar Winds and CME’s that are released by Sun.

In a nutshell, Solar Winds are charged particles released by the sun that permeate the solar system. These Winds are polarized and thus these winds are influenced by the magnetic fields of the planets and other celestial bodies. These winds travel at speeds of 250-750 km/s. The solar winds travel as far as the Kuiper Belt. The heliosphere is where the influence of these solar winds are felt. When surpassing the Heliosphere, the momentum of the wind reduces. The Heliosphere is formed because of what is considered as a termination shock. 

(Termination Shock: Don’t get overwhelmed by the word, ever went to the basin in your bathroom and opened the tap and watched how there was a shock created at the ends of the circle. Here is an image to help you understand)

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The above image is an example of a termination shock. The same phenomenon occurs in space forming the heliosphere.

Thankfully, due to the magnetic fields on earth, we don’t have to worry about extrasolar radiation. If there were no magnetic fields, we might not even have an atmosphere.

 

The Process of nuclear fusion, which fuses atoms in combination to create usable energy, occurs in the Sun to create heat. This phenomenon only occurs inside bodies that have exceptionally high pressures, which is present at the Sun’s core. Under such high pressures, matter ionizes to form plasma and creates magnetic fields. This process can sometimes create extremely large effects on our atmosphere through a Coronal Mass Ejection – where plasma waves generated can lead to high energy protons flood towards the direction of the waves. This is usually called a Solar Particle Event (SPE), or simply known as a ‘solar storm’. These waves are so strong that they usually compress other celestial bodies’ magnetic fields. It changes the shape of the field into somewhat a teardrop and forms a long tail at the end of the field. If the energy contained in the field is too large for the field to sustain, it breaks and the plasma particles head straight towards the body. If it happens on earth, it is known as a geomagnetic storm.

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This image shows how the magnetic field of the earth is compressed by the wind, and the formation of a tail behind it.

Nuclear fusion is currently being researched as a means of sustainable energy. The Sparc reactor, developed by MIT(w/mit.edu) and a Massachusetts tech company called Commonwealth Fusion Systems (w/cfs.energy) have researched the influence of nuclear fusion upon our atmosphere. 

These geomagnetic storms cause no harm to humans but cause a lot of harm to electronics. We all know that wherever there is electricity there is magnetism also. These CME’s can destroy the transformers we have that we depend on to generate current leading to a huge failure in power which might take years to set back up. Fortunately, engineers nowadays have already prepared for these kinds of events, and scientists watching the sun say that it takes a CME a few hours before it reaches the earth. Researchers say that a CME just went a very few kilometers away from the earth and we were fortunate to have missed the storm. Predictions say that it could lead to a loss of 2.6 trillion dollars worth of objects in America Only and an estimated time to set back all things is 4-10 years. 

We have already seen a few solar storms hittting earth. The most dangerous one is the 1989 Quebec Blackout. The geomagnetic storm was so strong that it caused a half day power failure in Quebec, some satellites were tumbling out of control in space, the US had over 200 power grid failures within minutes of the storm beginning. Quebec lost its entire power system in 92 seconds, USA had failed GSU’s and additional transformers failed due to load rejection. This was the strongest solar storm we have ever witnessed.

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The above is a small gif showing the entire solar storm, that occurred on March 13, 1989.

In Conclusion, the Sun releases huge solar flares every second and thus forms solar winds. When these flares get large they become CME’s. These winds travel at high speeds and push all protons in space with its momentum. These protons are what form the beautiful auroras. Luckily, CME’s occur only once in approx. 100 years. 

Currently, engineers are developing other methods of parting electric current flowing from transformers, to other sources and let the other sources hold the current. Once the solar winds have passed the planet, these sources will be allowed to release the electricity and getting everything back to normal.  Another method engineers have found out, is to just cut out the power supply, a few hours before the coronal mass ejection reaches the earth, and after it passes the earth, the power supply can be turned back on. Our engineers have constantly been helping humanity come up with effective and practical solutions to real-life problems using science. The only catch is, there is a very high chance of a Coronal Mass Ejection occurring between 2020 and 2050 and is going to be much more powerful than the previous ones. This time, there are much more satellites put up in orbit, and we have all our facilities only because of these satellites. If our engineers, don’t come up with a solution to save our satellites, we might incur much more losses just because of the sheer cost of those satellites, and also lose Internet, and Electric service for a long time. We to date trust our engineers, and now our lives are in their hands. All we can do is hope that engineers can save, billions of dollars of wreckage and losses, and come up with better solutions to escaping a Mass Ejection.