Is Nuclear Fusion a Reliable Source of Energy?
Current nuclear power plants create electricity through a process known as fission. In this process, an atom of uranium (U-235) is hit by nuclei which split the pellet that is the processed uranium atom.
Splitting the atom creates heat and energy and releases smaller atoms and more nuclei which then create a chain reaction we call a nuclear reaction. This is an efficient energy production method but it carries dangers with it as well.
Radiation leaked to the environment can poison the land for generations. It will also sicken and kill wildlife, livestock and people in its path. A significant leak of radiation materials in the air or water can affect generations of people as it leads to birth defects and mutations in all life forms.
Nuclear fusion as an energy source is sought in the belief it would provide a safer way to use radioactive materials to create electrical power. Creating fusion is extremely difficult and has been a dream of scientists for many years. It is hard to reach the conditions requires to generate fusion. Fusion is an astrophysical event and very difficult to replicate on earth.
Fusion is the energy that powers the stars we see in the sky. It was also used to activate the hydrogen bomb and there are some experimental fusion processes in use for generating electricity. In fusion, two nuclei with mass lower than the mass of iron fuse together an release energy in the process. Nuclei with a mass higher than that of iron absorb energy when fused together.
Nuclear fusion is not the same as nuclear fission but the two are often misinterpreted as the same thing. In fission, the energy is produced by splitting an atom in half. In fusion, atoms with identical charges join to form a larger, heavier nucleus.
Depending on mass, this may create energy through release or absorption. Most of the energy of nuclear fusion today is energy from the sun. The sun is a star and the huge mass of fire that is the sun is the result of energy created by fusion.
The problems encountered in creating fusion are mostly centered on the inability to control the charge of the elements. Often atoms with equal charge repel each other but the goal in fusion is for them to attract and merge. It is believed that if there is a reliable method found to begin a fusion reaction of two particles, the reaction will become a chain reaction just as occurs with fission.
To start a fusion reaction the nuclei must be close together. Heat causes atoms to move faster and applying heat can reduced the tendency of the nuclei to repel each other. When the nuclei bond in the initial fusion created by man, it has been found they heat generated by the fusion then creates an environment of high heat and energy that leads other nuclei to easily bond.
The end result is a reaction that is self sustaining. The problem is finding a way to start such as reaction as the initial heat required for the first fusion of nuclei is extremely high. The first fusion reaction created by man was in the 1950's when scientists in America produced the hydrogen bomb. A mixture of heavy hydrogen isotopes was infused into a fission reaction and the resulting nuclear reaction enhanced the potential for destruction of the bomb.
Why Use Nuclear Fusion?
If a way was found to efficiently begin a nuclear fusion reaction, the electricity produced could replace the depleting supplies of fossil fuels. Nuclear fusion would yield an inexpensive source of power. Nuclear fission used today required Uranium in the form of U-235.
This element is limited in supply and increasingly expensive. Nuclear fusion relies on deuterium as a primary fuel which is more widely available and far cheaper to buy than uranium. Deuterium can be obtained by extracting it from common water sources and this alone makes the process of nuclear fusion an exciting possibility.
The Future of Nuclear Fusion
The problem with nuclear fusion is the technical difficulty of creating the initial fusion reaction. Creating the amount of heat necessary to bond nuclei and override their tendency to repel rather than bond is one problem.
The idea of cold fusion reactions is also examined in labs around the world today where chemical reactions might replace the necessity of high heat to start a nuclear fusion reaction.
In time, we may master the process of using nuclear fusion to generate electricity. Today, nuclear fusion is only possible in highly controlled settings and in small sample reactions.