ENERGY OF THE FUTURE
How It Works
Fusion occurs when the nuclei of two atoms join together to become one. The results: energy, a heavier nucleus, and a free nucleon. A nucleon is an elementary particle that can exist in either a neutral (as a neutron) or a positively charged (as a proton) state.
Researchers have found that the most useful elements for fusion are the hydrogen isotopes deuterium (one proton and one neutron) and tritium (one proton and two neutrons).
Fusion Reactors: Magnetic Confinement
“Tokamak” is a Russian acronym for “toroidal chamber with axial magnetic field.”
“There are two ways to achieve the temperatures and pressures necessary for hydrogen fusion to take place:
Magnetic confinement uses magnetic and electric fields to heat and squeeze the hydrogen plasma. The ITER project in France is using this method.
Inertial confinement uses laser beams or ion beams to squeeze and heat the hydrogen plasma. Scientists are studying this experimental approach at the National Ignition Facility of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in the United States.
Let’s look at magnetic confinement first. Here’s how it would work:
Microwaves, electricity and neutral particle beams from accelerators heat a stream of hydrogen gas. This heating turns the gas into plasma. This plasma gets squeezed by super-conducting magnets, thereby allowing fusion to occur. The most efficient shape for the magnetically confined plasma is a donut shape (toroid).”
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Fusion creates a lot of energy, a huge benefit in a world increasingly demanding more power to operate both low-tech and high-tech machines.
The product of fusion is helium gas, which is not radioactive. This means that there are no radioactive wastes to store, or wastes that can be used to make weapons. There may be some very short-term radioactivity as the fusion products react with the container walls, but any fusion power plant would be designed to meet safety standards. Researchers believe that a decommissioned plant, one that no longer operates, would remain radioactive for 50 to 100 years. This is a much shorter period of time than for nuclear fission reactors.
Unlike nuclear fission, fusion reactions cannot run out of control. Any unusual event in a fusion reaction causes the plasma to extinguish itself.