Part 7: How Nuclear Fusion Works


Team Ostrom


A clock icon


Mins read

Nuclear fusion is a process that occurs when two atomic nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus, releasing a tremendous amount of energy in the process. This process is the same one that powers the sun and other stars, and scientists have been working for decades to harness this energy for use on Earth.

One of the main benefits of nuclear fusion is that it has the potential to provide a virtually limitless source of clean energy. Unlike fossil fuels, which produce greenhouse gases when they are burned, nuclear fusion produces no harmful emissions or pollutants. This makes it an attractive option for addressing the climate crisis, as it could provide a way to generate electricity without contributing to global warming.

Nuclear fusion also has a number of other advantages over other forms of energy production. For example, it produces relatively small amounts of nuclear waste, which can be easily managed and stored. In contrast, fossil fuels and nuclear fission (the process used in most nuclear power plants) produce much larger amounts of waste that can be difficult and costly to dispose of.

So, how does nuclear fusion work? Essentially, the process involves heating and pressurizing a gas, such as hydrogen, to extremely high temperatures and pressures. At these conditions, the hydrogen atoms are ionized, meaning they lose their electrons and become positively charged. When the ions are close enough together, they can fuse to form a heavier nucleus, releasing a large amount of energy in the process.

To achieve these conditions, scientists use a device called a fusion reactor. There are several different designs for fusion reactors, but one of the most promising is the tokamak. A tokamak is a donut-shaped device that uses powerful magnetic fields to confine and heat the hydrogen plasma (the ionized gas) to the required temperatures and pressures.

The tokamak works by using electromagnets to generate a magnetic field that surrounds the plasma and keeps it confined within the device. The plasma is heated using a variety of techniques, such as injecting high-energy particles into the plasma or using microwaves to heat the plasma directly.

Once the plasma reaches the required temperatures and pressures, the fusion reaction can begin. The fusion process releases a tremendous amount of energy, which can be used to generate electricity. In a fusion reactor, the energy is typically extracted using a steam turbine, just like in a traditional power plant.

There are still many challenges to be overcome before nuclear fusion can be used as a practical source of energy. For example, scientists are working to develop materials that can withstand the extreme temperatures and pressures of the fusion process. They are also trying to improve the efficiency of the process, as it currently requires more energy to sustain the fusion reaction than is produced by the reaction itself.

One of the main challenges in achieving a sustained fusion reaction is maintaining the plasma at the required temperatures and pressures for an extended period of time. The plasma is extremely hot and turbulent, and it is difficult to keep it confined within the device for long periods of time. Scientists are working to develop new techniques for controlling the plasma, such as using external magnets to shape the plasma and stabilize it.

Another challenge is finding a way to extract the energy from the plasma in an efficient and practical way. One promising approach is to use high-temperature superconducting magnets to generate the magnetic fields that confine the plasma. These magnets are much more efficient than traditional electromagnets, and they could help to significantly increase the efficiency of the fusion process.

Despite these challenges, many experts believe that nuclear fusion has the potential to revolutionize the way we produce electricity. If scientists can overcome these challenges and find a way to sustain the fusion reaction indefinitely, it could provide a virtually limitless source of clean energy.