On Saturday 3rd March, TEDxWarwick held their tenth annual conference: this year, themed ‘Dare to Defy’. GLOBUS’ correspondents were invited to cover the event. This piece will comprise the first in a series commenting on the various presentations made by the conference’s prestigious speakers. We begin by considering the case for nuclear fusion as presented by Dr. Melanie Windridge, physicist and Communications Consultant at Tokamak Energy, a company positioned at the cutting-edge of commercially-viable fusion technology research.
Nuclear fusion is an in-development form of energy source far more powerful than its so-called ‘opposite’, nuclear fission. Where fission consists of splitting atoms to release energy in the form of heat, nuclear fusion involves the heating of hydrogen atoms to extreme, until they join to become helium – and thereby release heat.
Nuclear fusion already exists naturally in our solar system. In the sun, specifically, intense gravitational forces serve to keep together a vast chain reaction of fusion combinations. The heat released in each process of joining provides the energy to engender the next.
The process has also been created artificially on Earth within experimental fusion reactors. However, due to the immense heat – in the form of superheated plasma – generated by the process, conventional materials alone are unable to contain the process: huge electromagnets, with intensely powerful magnetic fields, are required to suspend the materials inside the reactors. In all cases to date, more energy has, consequently, had to be put in to the experiments than has been derived from the reactions. This result is not altogether helpful, given that the process is intended for use in electricity generation.
Such a set of results might lead some to conclude that viable electricity generation from nuclear fusion is impossibile, let alone a commercially viable. As a prospect for investment, however, fusion energy is rife with opportunity: it generates very few emissions, is (almost) entirely renewable, and is able to produce vast amounts of energy. In the fight against fossil fuels, nuclear fusion power might potentially provide a constant, plentiful supply of electricity that does not compromise on environmental goals.
Nuclear fusion is not a silver bullet, however: construction of generation facilities is expensive and time-consuming. Opponents also argue that concentrating energy production in fewer, more powerful facilities might present more physical security problems than it solves in energy security.
At present, perhaps exploiting the opportunity is out of our technological and scientific reach. The industry estimates that commercially viable technology will not be available until 2030.
Yet, as the proverb goes: everything is impossible… until it’s not.
Header Image: CC0 license.