The global energy demand will at least double and possibly quadruple by 2100, energy experts project. As we face the dangers of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and pass peak oil production, fusion becomes a very attractive option for supplying this future demand.
Fusion is the process that produces the amazing quantities of energy that pour out of stars, such as our sun. It occurs when light atoms such as hydrogen become so hot that they fuse, into new elements, such as helium, in the process releasing large amounts of energy.
The ingredients for this amazing process are abundant on earth, and no greenhouse gases or long-lived nuclear waste are created by fusion. Once harnessed, fusion power will be a nearly unlimited, safe and climate friendly energy source.
The barriers to creating a burning mixture akin to the sun seemed almost insurmountable fifty years ago. However experiments all over the world now routinely create plasmas hotter than the sun, and are perfecting the fine control required to maintain long experiments. European research has had many successes confining plasmas with intricately designed magnetic fields with split-second control systems. An alternative approach, inertial confinement fusion, is also being explored in the US.
The current generation of experiments mostly explore plasma physics using deuterium (heavy hydrogen) as guinea pig. The next generation of experiments is being pioneered by the giant ITER machine, currently being built in the south of France. ITER will use a deuterium/tritium fuel mix, to demonstrate that power can be produced by fusion – although, as an experimental facility, it will not be connected to the grid. Beyond ITER plans are already afoot to build the first working fusion power station, DEMO.
Under the umbrella of EFDA, Europe’s fusion laboratories coordinate their research towards this common goal of harnessing fusion processes. With substantial funding, the DEMO power plant could be running in 2030 and a first commercial fusion power plant could be ready by 2050.