The quest to harness nuclear power on an industrial scale has barely begun. Since the late 1950s, scientists have been perfecting the technology of fusing atoms to produce energy. Today, there are more than 60 commercial nuclear reactors in operation around the world. But despite these successes, fusion energy—the process of smashing two or more atomic nuclei together to release huge amounts of energy—remains prohibitively expensive and difficult to commercialize. The main barrier is cost. The construction and maintenance costs for nuclear power plants are extremely high compared to fossil-fuel generating stations, which makes it difficult for companies and governments to justify financial outlays in advance. Fortunately, scientists are developing techniques that could reduce the upfront costs associated with fusion energy by as much as a hundredfold. If these efforts succeed, we may one day see massive factories stretching across entire continents churning out clean electrical power at an affordable price. Let’s take a closer look at this promising field and its main challenges…
The Basics of Nuclear Fusion
The sun is the center of a massive fusion reaction that propels our solar system. The next big fusion leap will likely come from nuclear fission, the same process that powers today’s nuclear weapons. Nuclear fusion is the process by which the nuclei of atoms are joined together to form larger nuclei, releasing energy in the process. Like the sun, a fusion reactor would contain a plasma of hydrogen atoms that are held together by nothing more than their mutual electrostatic attraction. Researchers have tried for decades to harness this natural fusion reaction, but the key to success is to heat the hydrogen plasma to temperatures hotter than the Sun. At these temperatures, the hydrogen atoms fuse and release energy. If researchers are successful, nuclear fusion could generate huge amounts of clean, safe, renewable energy that’s almost “free” as well. It could solve the global energy crisis while simultaneously removing carbon emissions from the atmosphere. If fusion reactors were scaled up to produce massive amounts of energy, nuclear fusion could even be used to generate “green” power in areas where it’s currently unavailable.
Private Funding and Research Drives Fusion Advancement
For the first few decades of the field’s existence, fusion researchers were largely funded by the governments of the world. This is where the field was born, however, and private companies have since become increasingly interested in the technology. Private entities have also become increasingly interested in funding research as well, with corporate donations playing a growing role in funding fusion research. Today, private companies continue to invest heavily in fusion research and development, and many prominent firms have even set up dedicated research centers. SoftBank’s $50 million contribution to the Center for Fusion Energy at the University of Texas at Austin, for example, is a clear sign of the growing interest in fusion research. Research is also happening at several other institutions around the world, to develop a commercially viable fusion reactor by the early 21st century.
Experts Say We’re Getting Closer to Commercial Fusion Energy
Scientists have been trying to harness nuclear fusion for more than 60 years. Since the 1950s, researchers have been perfecting the technology of fusing atoms to produce energy. And yet, despite this massive investment in research, commercial fusion power has been tantalizingly out of reach. The most powerful fusion reactors in the world today produce energy at a tenth of the temperature required for a fusion reaction to take place. And although it’s possible to produce electricity with these reactors, it’s not possible to charge our batteries or produce the clean, abundant energy that the world desperately needs. If scientists can overcome these hurdles and make fusion reactors cost-effective enough to be viable, they could solve many of the world’s most pressing problems. But the fusion field is making huge gains, with experts saying we’re now “closer” to commercial fusion energy than ever before.
The Road Ahead Will Be Long, and There Are Obstacles to Overcome
The main challenge facing fusion researchers is cost. The upfront costs associated with nuclear power are extremely high compared to fossil-fuel generating stations, which makes it difficult for companies and governments to justify financial outlays in advance. Fortunately, scientists are developing techniques that could reduce the costs associated with fusion energy. If these efforts succeed, we may one day see massive factories stretching across entire continents churning out clean electrical power at an affordable price. Like any new technology, though, the road ahead will be long and fraught with obstacles. Governments, researchers, and private companies will have to overcome several significant challenges before fusion reactors are commercially viable. The most daunting challenge will be overcoming the huge temperatures required for fusion reactions to occur.
When it comes to harnessing the power of the sun, the race is already on. But this time, scientists aren’t trying to recreate the process of fusion in laboratories—they’re trying to harness nuclear fusion on an industrial scale, and the prize is a limitless supply of clean, safe energy. This quest for clean energy is one of humanity’s most pressing challenges, and it’s also one of humanity’s greatest opportunities. If scientists are successful, nuclear fusion could generate “free” energy that’s almost “free” as well. It could solve the global energy crisis while simultaneously removing carbon emissions from the atmosphere. If fusion reactors were scaled up to produce massive amounts of power, they could even be used to generate “green” power in areas where it’s currently unavailable. The potential benefits of nuclear fusion are vast, and they’re only getting closer.