While industries are harnessing solar, hydroelectric and geothermal energy to solve the world’s energy problems, many have thought for some time that the ultimate source of unlimited clean energy will be nuclear fusion.
Fusion reactors replicate the power and process of the sun here on Earth by creating plasma, the fourth material state, within a controlled device that harnesses the heat emitted as energy to convert it into electricity.
Now a couple of private companies, one near MIT and one in England, are developing what could be described as a “portable” fusion reactor, using super rare minerals and some of the most powerful magnets ever made.
If companies could solve a long list of some of the most complex technological problems imaginable, coal and oil could stay underground, there would be no need to risk another Fukushima, the huge inefficiencies with renewables could be forgotten. and all those engineers and technologists could lend their talents to other areas of the economy.
“It really is every engineer’s dream to have a project that is technically challenging, requires developing new technologies and solutions to difficult problems, but is also simultaneously important to the world,” said Dr. Greg Brittles of Tokamak Energy, British firm. developing a new fusion reactor, he told the BBC.
Unlike other physical equations, the fusion reactor theory is quite simple to explain. Hydrogen atoms enter the reactor, an immense pressure causes them to fuse and turn into helium. Some of this mass of hydrogen is converted into heat, which can be used to generate electricity. Easy.
The difficulty comes with the process. For fusion to occur on Earth, scientists like Brittle must heat hydrogen isotopes to hundreds of millions of degrees, at which point they break apart and form a plasma.
The sun has its gravitational field to contain the plasma inside. Lacking an object 330,000 times the mass of Earth, Tokamak Energy and other companies plan to keep the plasma controlled with super-powerful magnets.
Herein lies the problem: how can you build a device that can heat and contain matter to such extremes that it not only uses more energy than it generates?
For five years Brittles has helped develop a series of power magnets wrapped in layers of superconducting tape, to be placed in a spherical or apple-shaped fusion chamber called a tokamak.
As the magnetic forces interact with each other, the pressure in the chamber increases to an incredible level, about twice as intense as at the deepest point in the ocean. The superconducting tape draws enormous amounts of energy from tokamak, allowing the reactor to produce more than it consumes.
“It will be a set of many, many coils that generate forces that interact and pull each other to form a balanced set. This has to be controlled or the forces could become unbalanced, ”he said. explains to BBC.
A race to the top
More of this Tony Stark-like tech, this time from America Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) is also working to solve the problem of inefficiency. With a D shape large enough for a human to fit into it, powerful magnets are wrapped with 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of superconducting tape made of barium oxide and copper.
This tape has taken decades to develop, and when cooled to 253 ° C, which a house-sized refrigerator used to carry, it draws nearly all of the 40,000 amps that go through the tokamak at once.
18 of CFS’s magnets will be placed in this donut shape, similar to a particle accelerator, and its research and development team boasts that its reactor will be able to turn a glass of water into a human’s electricity consumption for the entire duration. his life.
Government funding has gone to fusion reactors before, tens of billions of dollars in fact, but so far this has not solved fundamental problems. For example, the international nuclear fusion research project ITER, which GNN has reported and funded dozens of countries, is years late.
The metal and magnet leviathan that all of these nations are building in France may one day produce fusion, but it will be in a facility that requires many employees, with components that require more rare earth minerals, and it will be completely immobile, not to mention. that mankind might need more than one of those reactors.
This kind of private innovation, this “race,” as Kingham calls it, conducted with limited resources, produces the most innovative technologies. There is no reason to make a jet that weighs and costs as much as a cruise ship if you can make it the size of a phone booth.
ENERGIZE your friends’ feeds with innovative news …