Nuclear fusion energy is a major area of scientific research in these modern times. The purpose of the present sample research paper is to discuss the nature and prospects of fusion energy in some depth. The essay will proceed through five parts.
- The nature of fusion energy
- Major fusion research facilities
- Recent developments in fusion energy research
- Prospects for the future
- Potential moral implications of research into fusion energy
Fusion power in modern society
In truth, fusion energy already exists in the universe. This is because it is in fact nothing other than fusion energy that powers the stars of the sky, including the Earth’s Sun. As Mann has written:
“Deep in our sun’s belly, hydrogen atoms slam into one another at high speed, getting mashed together to form helium atoms and releasing copious amounts of energy. Creating viable fusion energy here on Earth has been a dream since the dawn of the Atomic Age” (paragraph 3).
In a way, then, scientists have taken inspiration from a naturally existing phenomenon. Fusion energy cannot be considered “unnatural” in any way since nature itself has already made considerable use of this power source.
When scientists develop fusion research facilities, they are essentially trying to more or less replicate the conditions that exist within the hearts of stars, so that they will be able to manually produce the same energy that stars produce as a result of their very nature. This generally involves producing extreme temperatures and high speeds of collision between atoms.
Introducing the hydrogen atom
At the chemical level, a hydrogen atom has one proton within its nucleus, and a helium atom has two protons within its own nucleus. So, if one proton were to fuse together with another proton, then this would produce an atom with two protons within its nucleus: that is, it would produce an atom of helium since chemical elements are defined by the number of protons within the nucleus. One helium atom, however, requires far less energy to exist than two hydrogen atoms.
A considerable amount of energy is released when the fusion occurs (World Nuclear Association). However, in order to make this happen, it would be necessary to create highly energetic conditions. This is because hydrogen atoms naturally tend to repel each other and are magnetically averse to the prospect of fusion. In order to overcome this aversion, it would be necessary to produce conditions that resemble the inside of a star. Nuclear fusion research facilities tend to utilize high-powered lasers and other technologies in order to work toward making this happen.
Major Fusion Research Facilities
The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Fukushima was one of the world’s largest nuclear power plants until the March 2011 disaster that left much of the facility inoperable. Now the top nuclear power facility resides n England. The National Ignition Facility is part of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in England. The name of the facility is presumably a reference to the fact:
“the point where fusion becomes self-sustaining is known as ignition. The fusing hydrogen atoms at the fuel center send out helium nuclei, which knock into other hydrogen atoms, setting off a cascading chain-reaction of expansion fusion that should produce more energy than the entire experiment consumers” (Mann, paragraph 5).
One of the main objectives of the National Ignition Facility is, in fact, to experimentally achieve ignition. The facility has also made some progress toward this end, which will be discussed further below. Overall, it is a little behind its established experimental timeline, although this is probably to be expected in such a novel field of research.
Recent developments in nuclear energy
One of the most important recent developments in fusion research took place in late 2013, when researchers at the National Ignition Facility were:
“finally able to get the hydrogen to give off as much as 1.7 times more energy than it had taken in” (Mann, paragraph 5).
This is groundbreaking because prior to these results, the hydrogen atoms had always taken in more energy than they had released—which, of course, would be energy inefficient. The principle that hydrogen atoms engaged in fusion should be able to give off more energy than they take in is at the very heart of the entire pursuit of fusion energy.
Scientists have now managed to achieve this. There is, admittedly, still a long way to go for scientists to actually achieve ignition or the creation of self-sustaining fusion reactions. But what is nevertheless true is that a threshold has clearly been crossed: the threshold from the negative to the positive, so to speak. Now it is just a matter of radically enhancing the magnitude of the positive.
Construction of the ITER facility
Another major development is the construction of the ITER facility itself. This is still underway:
“the current timetable does not involve a switch-on until 2020, and there will not be a working plasma in the tokamak [inner chamber of the reactor] before 2022. The all-important fusion reactions are not likely to occur before 2027” (paragraph 10).
Nevertheless, this project is a massive collaboration involving six international partners, including the United States. Once this facility goes live, it can surely be expected to produce remarkable results and bring the human species significantly closer to fusion energy. It is unlikely than any radical developments in fusion energy will occur over the course of the next few years. However, it is very much likely that such developments actually will occur over the course of the next several decades. That is, they could at least theoretically be expected to occur before other energy sources run out and leave the human species in the lurch.
Prospects for the future of fusion energy
Fusion energy has widely been lionized as the “perfect” source of power. As Cowley, for example, has written:
“Sea water provides millions of years of fusion fuel. Fusion reactions are safe, they emit neither radioactive waste nor greenhouse gasses and fusion reactors would take up relatively little space” (paragraph 7).
In all these respects, nuclear fusion energy can be meaningfully contrasted against nuclear fission energy. These are categorically not the same thing. Nuclear fission involves the splitting apart of atoms. This produces radioactive waste; it has the risk of turning into a devastating “runaway” reaction; and it does not naturally occur within the universe.
Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, involves the coming together of atoms; it produces very little waste of any kind and conceptually cannot create a reaction that exceeds the energy put into the system in the first place; and again, it occurs naturally within the hearts of stars (Diffen). Fusion energy can thus be seen as superior in every respect to fission energy.
Moreover, the fact that the benefits of fusion energy have been widely recognized by the international community bodes well for the feasibility of actually developing the necessary technologies for converting the theoretical possibility of fusion energy into an empirical reality. As Mizouni has written:
“The world-changing repercussions of controlled fusion were acknowledged at the Geneva summit of November 1986…Following the sophisticated design of the tokamak, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor was born after the Geneva Convention of 1986” (paragraphs 2 and 7).
As has been discussed above, ITER is now being pursued by an international collaboration including six diverse stakeholders: the United States, the European Union, Russia, China, India, and South Korea. In other words, some of the most powerful nations in the world, whatever their other differences may be, would seem to be in agreement that pursuing fusion energy research is in the best interests of the human species. Clearly, this kind of consensus constitutes a remarkable state of affairs.
Considering the moral implications of nuclear power
The empirical possibilities that may be opened up by fusion research are clearly exhilarating. At this point, though, perhaps it would be appropriate to sound a note of moral caution. Some researchers argue against the production of fusion nuclear energy. As Jha has put it, the scientists at ITER:
“want to recreate a star in a box on Earth” (paragraph 2).
Depending on one’s perspective, this statement could be read as either inspirational, horrifying, or perhaps both. On the one hand, this kind of ambition—and the possibility of actually bringing it to fruition—speaks volumes about the raw powers inherent within the human mind.
On the other hand, the ambition also speaks volumes about the perennial human tendency to succumb to hubris or dangerous and excessive pride. The belief that human beings can create a star could easily be read as a challenge waged against God, or whatever power is responsible for the existence of the universe as people presently know it.
In summary, this essay has consisted of a discussion of nuclear fusion energy, providing a general overview of the nature of this energy, the current state of research and development in this area, and prospects for the future. The essay has also reflected on the pursuit of fusion energy from a moral perspective. Essentially, the moral ambiguity of this project can be summarized by the idea that human beings are trying to create a star. On the one hand, this reflects the nobility of the human mind; on the other, it also reflects the hubris of the human mind. It is clearly necessary to proceed, then—but with care.
Cowley, Stephen. “Nuclear Fusion Is the ‘Perfect Energy Source’.” CNN. 12 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Jul. 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/12/opinion/fusion-nuclear-energy-future//
Diffen. “Nuclear Fission and Fusion.” Diffen, n.d. Web. 29 Jul. 2015. http://www.diffen.com/difference/Nuclear_Fission_vs_Nuclear_Fusion.
Jha, Alok. “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The Guardian. 25 Jan. 2015. Web. 29 Jul. 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/25/iter-nuclear-fusion-cadarache-international-thermonuclear-experimental-reactor-steven-cowle.
Mann, Adam. “We’re One Step Closer to Nuclear Fusion Energy.” Wired. 12 Feb. 2014. Web. 29 Jul. 2015. http://www.wired.com/2014/02/fusion-power-not-yet/.
Mizouni, Kat. “Could Controlled-Fusion Usher In a New Era of Clean Energy.” EarthTechling. 4 May 2015. Web. 29 Jul. 2015. http://earthtechling.com/2015/05/could-controlled-fusion-usher-in-a-new-era-of-clean-energy/.
Werblowsky, R. J. Z. Lucifer and Prometheus. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.
World Nuclear Association. “Nuclear Fusion Power.” Oct. 2014. Web. 29 Jul. 2015. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Current-and-Future-Generation/Nuclear-Fusion-Power/.