Fusion Power for Beginners

Light source. Heat source. Object of worship. The sun is all of these things to humanity. Since 1920, it has been the starting point for theories about fusion power and is even a natural fusion reactor. Fusion power is a type of energy generation that is still in development, but is getting close to being ready for commercial use.

Fusion power is the generation of energy by nuclear fusion. Or, in simpler terms, is the combining, or fusing, of two lighter materials together to form a heavier material. When this material combines, it releases energy in accordance with Einstein’s E=mc2 formula as some of the materials’ mass is converted into energy. Like making hamburger patties with two different meats, and the resulting patty shrinks when cooked. Only instead of fat, grease, and steam coming out of the patty, the materials release plasma, a cloud of ions and electrons that can be used to heat water for steam turbines.

Theoretically, any material, or more specifically the atoms making up the material, can be used in fusion. However, like making burger patties, the pressure of combining the two materials and temperature needed to cook it are hard to achieve. In fact, modern power plants are currently limited to using the lightest of elements, such as hydrogen.

Don’t we already use nuclear fusion in nuclear power plants? The answer is no; the reaction used in those plants is nuclear fission, which may cause you to then ask, what is the difference? Well, there are a number of them actually. To keep things simple here are the key ones.

To start with, the basic process used in each, as already mentioned fusion combines atoms to produce a larger one like making a burger patty. Fission on the other hand, does the opposite, and splits the nuclei of atoms in an immense burst of energy, rather like tearing up a loaf of bread.

Now for the conditions and energy needed to produce reactions from each process. Continuing with the bread metaphor, fission needs very specific conditions to produce a reaction, like the baking of bread. Even a slight mistake could cause the reaction to fail, or the loaf not to rise or taste right. All fusion needs is the right amount of pressure and temperature. That said, a fission reaction requires very little energy, while fusion requires a large amount to force the materials together and contain the reaction.

This may cause some to wonder, why bother with fusion if it takes some much energy to produce a reaction? This is because the energy generated by fusion is three to four times greater than the energy produced by fission. To put that in perspective fission, or nuclear power, provides about a 15% of all power in Canada, despite Canada only having 19 nuclear plants.

Another key difference is the fuel used by fusion and fission to generate energy. As previously stated, fusion can theoretically use any atoms for fuel to generate plasma. However, due to current limitations, the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium are being used in experiments. Fission though, is a bit of one note wonder as uranium is used due to how common it is.

Finally, the by-products, or waste, fusion and fission produce are the last big difference between the two. The by-products produced by fusion are relatively few: small amounts of helium, which is harmless, tritium, which is radioactive but dissipates in only 12 years and does not accumulate in the body, and the fusion generator will be made radioactive by the reaction, but only dangerously so for about 50 years.

Fission unfortunately produces quite a bit more: waste is produced when enriching, or purifying, uranium so that it can be used for fuel in nuclear reactors; paper, clothing, and tools, that contain small amounts of radioactivity, but dissipates fairly quickly; the reactor and structural material, that contains larger amounts and lasts longer; and finally the spent fuel rods, that can remain dangerously radioactive for thousands to millions of years.

That’s what fusion power is; a method to generate energy the same way the sun does. It’s a way to generate more than fission while producing less waste. And hopefully, it will be ready soon as new best way to power the world.

Photo Credit: Chris Bickel                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Video Credit: US Department of Energy (Documentary Tube)


Derek Glew is a student at Algonquin College in the Professional Writing program. He aspires to be a professional fiction writer, likes to play video games both new and old, and loves a good story in any form of media. A bit of an introverted dreamer, he hopes to be published some day.

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