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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Despite Mounting Fears, Our Future is Nuclear Fusion: Point and Counterpoint

Nuclear fission reactors are building up quite a bad reputation at the moment.  Instead of dissecting the flaws and strengths of our current nuclear power plants, I like to focus on the near future, perhaps as close as the 2030's, where nuclear FUSION plants might reign.  With fusion technology, nuclear plants vastly different than the current fission nuclear plants will produce essentially no waste, and remove the global reliance on fossil fuels.  There's an overwhelming safety advantage in fusion reactors.  In case of emergency such as in Japan after the tsunami, stopping the fusion process is as easy as flipping a switch. 

The snowballing chance of nuclear meltdown that we're currently dealing with in the case of Japan's fission plants is only inherent with fission reaction, and not applicable with fusion.

Fission is the splitting of an atom's nucleus, where as fusion is literally fusing two separate nuclei into a single heavier atom.  This phenomenon is the same phenomenon that the Sun and other stars employ, causing them to shine.  The process releases a truly tremendous amount of clean energy.

A clear and succinct idea of the fission process can be found quoting from the Institute of Particle Physic's Michael Dittmar in his scientific paper on arXiv, "The Future of Nuclear Energy: Facts and Fiction: An update using 2009/2010 Data" Cite:See Bottom

Dittmar on Fission:
"Nuclear energy is released by the neutron induced fission of the uranium isotope U235, 0.71% of natural uranium, and the plutonium isotope Pu239. The released energy per nuclear fission reaction is about a hundred million times larger than in any chemical molecular reaction. The released fission energy is carried by the fission products and is then transferred to water molecules by elastic collisions within the reactor. The resulting heated water is used, similar to fossil fuel
power stations, to produce electric energy..."

Investment in fusion power plants is an investment in the holy grail to the energy crisis.  To quote the video posted below,
"As little as 2 liters of water and 250 grams of rock are enough to cover a European family's demand for electrical energy for an entire year."

Mind you, streamlined and finalized fusion plant technology is not quite there yet.  However, when it comes, it will be here to stay.  Research and development are making strides, but funding is causing problems.

Dittmar speaks negatively on a leading project in the field, the ITER plasma physics project:
"The 2009 and 2010 news about the ITER plasma physics project, known also as the path to commercial nuclear fusion energy, a multi billion dollar/euro dream project of all larger countries, demonstrates that it is becoming nothing short of a financial nightmare for high level powerful bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels and elsewhere."

Variety of Projects:
As he points out though, there are other projects running with the same basic goal.  Different developing technologies employ an interesting variety of resources, from extraction of materials from simple water and stone found everywhere, (which you will see in the video posted below) to the extraordinarily rare Helium 3, found most plentifully on the moon of all places.

Dittmar has little faith in nuclear fusion.  The paper focuses on fission reactors of many different flavors and corresponding analysis of input/output.  In regards to fusion, he provides a cynical counter-opinion to mine:
"We can thus safely predict that the belief in commercial nuclear fusion on our planet will end once the younger generation of scientists sees that plasma fusion research is a dead end career path and turns its talents to other research projects."

With optimism for fusion's potential, this 10 minute video by the German Institute for Plasma Physics shows the research in progress and explains a great deal.
After watching it, it's hard to imagine Dittmar's vision of our future scientists adopting a defeatist attitude toward the technology.

Video Credit: Institute for Plasma Physics, Germany. | YouTube user stevibd1

Mounting fear is rising surrounding nuclear technology.  In coming years, we will have to educate the public in the phenomenal difference between fusion and fission in order for politics and funding to continue with confidence and turn the vision of this new technology into a reality.

If all goes right...
Bye bye fossil fuel!  Bye bye nuclear fission!
Hello Nuclear Fusion!
Let's stride forward.  Our future is as bright as the sun!

Michael Dittmar (2011). The Future of Nuclear Energy: Facts and Fiction: An update using
2009/2010 Data arXiv arXiv: 1101.4189v1

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  1. What in gods name will happen when we run out of water and rocks?

  2. Especially when all the cars run on hydrogen and fuel-cells.

  3. Imagining poor children trying to drink from exhaust pipes of executive cars in the year 2050.

  4. Just want to raise a finger of caution.

    Aww, the horror!

  5. It is difficult to have confidence in a technology that has been about 30 years from being applicable for around the last 50 years, it is understandable why after funding projects into fusion for so long funding agencies are getting nervous about continually investing in a dream that has continuously failed to deliver an outcome on envisioned timelines and must wonder how much money needs to be invested, especially at a time when the fiscal status of the world appears to be poised on a knife-edge.

    I agree with the dream of fusion as a future power source, but fission is needed to plug the energy gap until reliable fusion is actually achieved. To that end we need newer and safer reactors to replace the existing and ageing current reactors, I feel this should really be the lesson of the current problem with the plant in Japan. A more responsible Western media that points out how amazing it is that this old reactor has actually managed to survive a natural disaster than it was ever designed to withstand would be nice, but instead we get constant scaremongering and talk of "nuclear explosions" instead of gas explosions at a nuclear power plant.

  6. I agree with you. It's definitely hard to invest in this. It's a dream that could pay out in a big way; but right now it's still just that, a (costly) dream of the future. I see here American media giving few solid facts about Japan and employing lots of scare tactics. I'm afraid that the word nuclear is, before our eyes, becoming a negatively emotionally charged buzzword. CERN and Fermilab's accelerators are technically doing nuclear research involving neither fission nor fusion for the purpose of energy production. Will current events generate pressure to stop these projects? Unfortunately, I have little faith that potential investors will maintain an objective viewpoint after such a tragedy as the current situation in Japan.


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