Fusion Energy: The Hype, Build-up, and Future

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Written By David Jay
A future med student, I write to learn.
The inner structure of the JET Tokamak, a large device used in fusion experiments in the UK (Source: CNN World)

Electricity is one of the most essential resources for the human populace. In 2022, global electricity consumption reached approximately 25,500 terawatt-hours, according to the Statista Research Department. The International Energy Agency’s Electricity 2024 Report stated that the world’s demand for energy will increase by an average of 3.6% until 2026 due to the rising usage of technology in various commercial sectors, namely artificial intelligence (AI), cryptocurrencies, and energy-intensive data centers.

As many countries have adopted new renewable energy plants worldwide, they have encountered some issues, such as efficiency, public or governmental opposition, and high maintenance and building costs. To counteract the bottleneck in energy production, research groups have been finding innovative solutions to the incoming energy crisis, one of which is fusion energy. The International Atomic Energy Agency claimed that this form of energy production is highly sustainable in terms of fuel, energy output, and environmental impact.

Table of Contents

What is Fusion Energy?

A depiction of a nuclear fusion reaction in fusion power plants (Source: BYJU)

The United States Department of Energy stated that nuclear fusion is a nuclear reaction in which “two light nuclei merge to form a single heavier nucleus,” resulting in the formation of one or more subatomic particles (neutrons or protons) and the release of energy from leftover mass. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity states in part that mass and energy can convert into each other, validating phenomena.

The fusion reaction occurs in nature in many ways with different materials and conditions, such as star formations, stellar reactions, and Earth’s core. In nuclear fusion plants, scientists utilize two isotopes (variations) of hydrogen, which are deuterium and tritium, in the fusion reaction within the tokamak, a vessel designed to encapsulate the extreme temperature and pressure of the reaction. Moreover, there is a magnetic field surrounding the vessel to ensure that there is no plasma leaking out and to transform the gaseous matter into plasma.

Fusion Reactions in a Controlled Setting

The ITER Institute described the process of fusion energy generation. When the isotope is introduced to the tokamak, it is electrically charged by the magnetic field surrounding it; it breaks down electrically and transforms into plasma, a phase of matter in which particles become ionized, meaning that it has an electrical charge. As the particles gain charge, they start colliding with other molecules, producing 150-200 million degrees Celsius of heat. In this state, particles will begin the fusion reaction; helium, a neutron, and an immense amount of energy formed from the reaction. Then, helium and other byproducts are ejected from the facility to make room for incoming fuel.

Fusion reactions are the opposite of fission reactions, which are nuclear processes that involve nuclei splitting and forming smaller nuclei and energy, forming a radioactive leftover and energy. However, both processes are used to heat a fluid, usually water, resulting in steam, which turns the turbine and generates electricity.

Why All the Hype?

Many countries are interested in building research tokamaks, such as South Korea’s KSTAR within the Korea Institute of Fusion Technology. (Source: NewScientist)

Unlike nuclear fission, fusion energy does not produce any radioactive material nor greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide; it only produces helium, an inert, non-toxic gas according to ITER. On the contrary, fission reactions often produce radioactive waste hazardous to the environment and humans; the Nuclear Energy Agency stated that it takes approximately ten thousand years to decay completely within secure underground storage.

Deuterium and tritium are also commonly found in the Earth’s ocean and lithium deposits. This allows the usage of this type of energy production to continue for a long period. Furthermore, the reactions release less radiation and are more controllable, improving the safety of fusion power plants. Since fusion reactions require the combination of two nuclei, should one material be removed from the chamber, it would already cease the ongoing reaction. Many nuclear institutes, such as the IAEA, WNA, and CCFE, regard fusion energy as one of the most sustainable and efficient forms of energy generation.

Moreover, the scientific development of fusion is one of the most anticipated research projects in the scientific community. This is because the breakthrough can be detrimental to future and past research, especially in energy generation, nuclear physics, and environmental science. Therefore, fusion energy research can revolutionize how humanity perceives and rationalizes other phenomena in the realm of science.

Wait, How Will This Affect the Economy?

A chart illustrating the external costs of each type of natural resource in energy production. (Source: Slavomir Entler et al.)

The University of York stated that introducing fusion energy into the power grid can lead to major restructuring of businesses. To build and run a power plant, especially sophisticated ones like fusion reactor plants, an organization requires a huge amount of unskilled and skilled labor to construct and operate a plant smoothly; this provides job opportunities for people from a variety of backgrounds. Partnerships, governmental grants, and investments can boost the research and development of fusion energy, potentially boosting the local and international economies.

With energy more accessible and cheaper to produce, the world would have nearly limitless electricity to solve energy insecurity and crisis issues across the globe, improving people’s quality of life and industrial output. With little to no pollution produced, there would be fewer expenses spent on environmental damage. Higher electricity generation enables the industrial sector to expand and innovate from research in fusion energy, namely in hardware, software, and AI. Furthermore, fusion energy research often results in collaboration between multiple nations, fostering a political and economic bond between countries.

A Bright Future Ahead

While the future of nuclear fusion energy is unclear, there are some plausible assumptions to be made. According to Hayley Dunning and Laura Gallagher, as of February 2024, fusion energy has successfully generated net positive energy in the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California. After the first fusion plant officially begins operation, public and private companies would likely start competing to build a plant of their own with international involvement; this process would result in legislation and regulations regarding fusion energy production to maintain the standards and safety of this form of energy production. 

This mass production of fusion energy would result in heavy development in energy generation, environmental, and material technology, which would have a definitive impact on the global economy with businesses adopting them into their products. As a result, global wealth would slowly rise as people had more access to electricity, which not only upgrades their well-being, it also strengthens their career opportunities, financial stability, and work efficiency.

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