Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Fusion Energy: A New Hope?

By Daniel OudolskyPublished November 9, 2014

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In this piece, Daniel explores the potentialities and developments that have recently been discovered in the field of fusion energy. He also provides information on recent breakthroughs announced by Lockheed Martin, and analysis on the difficulties scientists face in actualizing the use of fusion energy.
By Daniel Oudolsky, 11/9/14

In recent news within the scientific world, there has been a major breakthrough in the use of fusion energy. Lockheed Martin recently announced that it is working on a portable fusion reactor that would harness the energy of the sun. The new reactor is being developed by the company's secretive Advanced Development Programs division called Skunk Works. Scientists claim that they would have operational fusion reactors within the next decade. The current objective is to build a 100 megawatt nuclear fission reactor only with the mere dimensions of 7x10 feet, enough to fit the back of a trunk. Lockheed claims that such a small reactor has the energy capabilities to power a small city of 100,000 people. However, despite such claims, Lockheed Martin has offered little scientific data or evidence to back up it's recent claim; and many commentators are taking these news with a dose of skepticism. To better understand this topic, Let's first define what fusion energy is.

So what is fusion, exactly? It is the process by which gas is heated up and separated from its ions and electrons. When the ions reach a sufficiently hot temperature, they can overcome their repulsion and collide, fusing together in the process. This releases a lot of energy­ one million times more than that of a chemical reaction, and 3­4 times the power of a fission reactor of nuclear power plants. In the layman's terms, nuclear fusion is what happens when two or more atoms collide at high speeds and fuse together to form a new atom. This is the same process that causes the sun and other stars to burn energy and illuminate. By contrast, nuclear fission is when an atom is split apart; however unlike fission, fusion energy does not produce harmful or long­lasting radioactive waste. Moreover, the fuel needed to power the fission plant­ two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium is plentifully available and cheap. It produces more energy than is inputed into it. This would produce far less waste than coal­-powered plants, whilst also delivering much more energy. Such a major breakthrough could also reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and subsequently greatly cut down carbon emissions. Basically, fusion energy is powerful, plentiful, cheap and clean. The catch, though, is that producing fusion energy is an significant engineering challenge. The subsequent reaction generates so much heat and pressure that it is impossible to contain at such energy levels. There are no containment vessels devised to handle such energy levels. There is also the issue of cost efficiency of fusion energy­ so far the costs of producing the energy far outweighs the benefits, which is why technological firms are so reluctant to embrace research in this field.

There is no end to the ways such an energy source could radically transform the world and our way of living. But, of course, this all depends on the viability of Lockheed Martin's claims. The scientific community will have to wait on more information and research on the fusion reactor's design before we can know for sure what's ahead of us.