Each day, the Sun bathes the Earth in clean and practically infinite energy. However, we rely on other ways of generating the energy we need to power our civilization. Unfortunately, all of them leave residues that pollute the atmosphere, water, and soil — poisoning our habitat and increasing global temperatures.
However, a new project aims to recreate the physical mechanisms that take place inside the Sun. The UK government recently announced the construction of a nuclear fusion power station in Nottinghamshire. The project is scheduled to start its activities in 2040. If it is successful, this reactor could provide us with an almost unlimited source of energy. What’s more, the work could save our species from the climate cataclysm it is currently headed for.
The science and other stuff to know
Nuclear fusion is a physical process that occurs on an atomic scale. It takes place most often in the hearts of massive stars. There, atoms encounter extreme pressure and temperature and are fused together, creating a heavier atom. This unification is also accompanied by an abundant release of energy.
The nuclear reactors we have today obtain energy from the reverse process: fission. Massive atoms, such as uranium or plutonium, undergo fragmentation processes (fission) due to their structural instability, emitting energy during the split. Although it is highly efficient energy, it generates radioactive waste that poses a logistical problem.
The plant to be built in the UK will be financed and managed in the first instance by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and powered by Totamak Energy. Its purpose is to produce energy to supply the English population. However, if things go well, it may be scaled to other areas.
Compared to the other forms of energy that humans exploit, fission is the cleanest. It generates much more energy than toxic waste. But the risks of nuclear accidents or pollution due to mismanagement of residues is a concern that plagues nuclear energy systems.
Fusion power still presents huge logistical challenges. The ITER laboratory located in the south of France is the first “artificial Sun” built to produce energy from nuclear fusion processes. Although it is an experimental project — the produced energy is not marketed, and it currently consumes more energy than it produces — it is laying the methodological and engineering foundations for the construction of future reactors. Advancements currently taking place there will likely be integrated into the work that will take place in the UK.
ITER researchers argue that there is still much to learn about the nature of nuclear fusion and many challenges to overcome in designing a safe, efficient reactor capable of producing more energy than it consumes. Even so, the development of these technologies supposes a promising future climatic and ecological scenario. Ian Chapman, CEO of UKAEA, said: “The merger has great potential to deliver almost unlimited clean energy for future generations. This new agreement with Tokamak Energy will benefit both organizations and help advance our collective ambitions because together we are stronger.”