What if there was a source of energy that had the potential to supply almost infinite amounts of clean energy, making our reliance on foreign oil and concerns surrounding fossil fuel emissions obsolete? Public enthusiasm behind this technology would be immense, right?
Unfortunately for magnetic fusion energy, this is not the case. We can see this lack of support through funding cuts proposed by the Obama Administration, which could force some of the leading fusion programs in the country to close. A systematic effort using public and private partnerships over the next few decades could make fusion the solution to some of the greatest challenges of the 21st century such as climate change and energy security. Therefore, it is vital that we make fusion part of the public discourse surrounding our inevitable transition away from harmful fossil fuels.
What is fusion?
Fusion energy is a process that facilitates our very existence. By fusing hydrogen atoms to produce vast amounts of energy, the sun and the stars are examples of the fusion process at work. Based on Einstein’s formula of E=MC2, the process can be replicated by physicists here on earth through magnetic fusion.
Magnetic fusion uses hydrogen isotopes commonly found in nature: deuterium, found in seawater; and tritium, which can be bred from lithium. Unimaginably hot plasma (the fourth state of matter) is then used to circulate these atoms through a tokamak – a doughnut-shaped magnetic casing with superconducting coils – to help fuse them together and release vast amounts of energy.
Some of magnetic fusion’s benefits can help solve the biggest issues we face in the 21st century.
America’s energy needs are expanding rapidly, and by 2035 we will need a further 25% in energy output to meet demands. The world will still need more. Our transition away from fossil fuels will be the largest energy decision we will make since the Industrial Revolution, so it is essential that we consider all options available. Fusion should be one of those options.
Fusion is clean.
It would provide almost unlimited amounts of clean energy. This means zero harmful emissions which would greatly reduce our impact on climate change. A world powered by fusion would be significantly more sustainable.
Fusion would be accessible to all
This is important because we are already seeing conflicts across the globe arise over scarce resources. The civil war that led to the partitioning of Sudan last year is on example of a conflict exacerbated by resource control. All states would have access to an almost inexhaustible amount of energy, reducing the likelihood of these types of conflicts.
Fusion is safe
Aside from the benefits of zero emissions, fusion does not require uranium which can then be enriched to make nuclear weapons. The risk nuclear proliferation would be significantly reduced and states like Iran would no longer be able to use nuclear fission energy programs to veil the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Fusion would boost the economy
Job creation is at the forefront of most voters’ minds and fusion would help alleviate unemployment. Fusion will create a sophisticated supply chain of jobs, particularly in construction and manufacturing.
What needs to be done?
The United States is falling behind in fusion at a time when it is being developed rapidly in the rest of the world, particularly in East Asia. The Fusion White Paper released by ASP highlights our need to push forward with fusion, noting that China already has looked to fast-track development with a goal of possible net power demonstrations in its facilities in the next decade. Relative U.S. decline in fusion, an area it has historically dominated, is also being exacerbated by internal pressures such as budget cuts.
The ASP is currently working diligently with some of the world’s best fusion experts to make fusion part of the energy policy debate. Making the public aware of fusion is an important first step. A total investment of $30-40 billion over 15 years would be required to develop a fusion power demonstration. This sum is less than one-third of the Apollo program’s cost and only about 10% of the cost of bank bailouts after the global financial crisis; short-term expenses would be dwarfed by the long-term ancillary benefits of feasible fusion.
Fusion should be a regular fixture in future discussions on energy policy.