Nuclear Fusion: Future or Failure?
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Nuclear Fusion: Future or Failure?

By Andy Yang

Currently, 84.3% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels. However, the fossil fuel industry is responsible for significant health and environmental risks, like climate change. With the severity and frequency of natural disasters and political conflicts around fossil fuels increasing every year, nations have been scrambling to find alternative and renewable sources of energy. Nuclear fusion is one possibility.

Nuclear fusion—the same process that fuels the stars—involves heating matter to a state of plasma (over 100,000,000° C) that fuses hydrogen atoms together. This process results in helium, radiation, and incredible energy. Unlike fossil fuels or current nuclear fission reactors, nuclear fusion is the safest energy alternative that humans can achieve; it creates minimal emissions and nearly no nuclear waste, while also being more reliable than solar or wind energy. Unlike current nuclear fission reactors, an error in the fusion process will simply cause the reaction to stop without the possibility of a nuclear meltdown. In addition to safety, nuclear fusion is four million times more effective than fossil fuels and it easily has the highest potential out of any energy source. Unlike solar and wind energy, fusion can be used under any natural conditions.

Despite the incredible potential of nuclear fusion, this new technology has its challenges. Currently, it is very hard to sustain nuclear fusion for sufficient periods of time to ensure that the energy output is greater than the input. What’s more, a single fusion reactor can cost at least $22 billion and widespread commercialization is not expected until thirty to sixty years from now.

There is hope. At the end of 2022, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California were able to finally “break even” by producing a fusion reaction that was able to generate more energy than was originally used to produce the reaction. Along with recent breakthroughs in machine-learning AI technology that could aid the fusion process, commercial nuclear fusion energy might not be as far off as we think.


References

Chang, K. (2022, December 13). Scientists Achieve Nuclear Fusion Energy Breakthrough in the US. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/13/science/nuclear-fusion-energy-breakthrough.html

Greenwald, J., & Feibush, E. (2017, December 15). Artificial intelligence helps accelerate progress toward efficient fusion reactions. Princeton University.

https://www.princeton.edu/news/2017/12/15/artificial-intelligence-helps-accelerate-progress-toward-efficient-fusion-reactions

Katwala, A. (2022, February 16). DeepMind Has Trained an AI to Control Nuclear Fusion. WIRED. https://www.wired.com/story/deepmind-ai-nuclear-fusion/

Nuclear Fission and Fusion – Difference and Comparison. (2016). Diffen. http://diffen.com/difference/Nuclear_Fission_vs_Nuclear_Fusion

Osaka, S. (2022, December 12). What you need to know about the U.S. fusion energy breakthrough. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2022/12/12/nuclear-fusion-breakthrough-benefits/

Ritchie, H., & Roser, M. (n.d.). Energy mix. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/energy-mix

Kluth, L. (2023). Atomic Fusion Illustration.