It all began in 1920, when an astrophysicist from England named Arthur Stanley Eddington, wrote an essay called “The Internal Constitution of the Stars.” In this piece of literature Eddington referred to stars as being ‘vast reservoirs of energy,’ a resource that one day could be harnessed. While, the science behind much of our universe is yet to be discovered, what we do know, is that if we can emulate reactions happening in stars on our planet, we could generate a vast amount of energy. This energy is produced in a process known as nuclear fusion.
What is nuclear fusion?
In the centre of these millions upon millions of stars a reaction is taking place. We refer to this as fusion. It is when two or more nuclei (centre of atoms) fuse together. When these nuclei atoms crash into one another bursts of energy are released.
This energy created by stars is what sustains our entire universe.
It is worth noting, that this reaction is the opposite of nuclear fission which is what happens in nuclear power stations. Nuclear fission splits nuclei apart to harness the release of energy. This results in hazardous radioactive waste, creating a plethora of controversies and issues. The main concern being safety, making fission highly expensive.
Nuclear fusion on the other hand produces no harmful waste. The only by-product is small amounts of helium, which is not toxic or harmful to the environment.
So, how can we harness nuclear fusion on earth?
We have been trying since 1920 to extract energy from nuclear fusion. It is no easy feat.
In essence we need to heat two types of hydrogen atoms at 100 million degrees Celsius. This is even hotter than the center of the sun - 15 million degrees Celsius. To maintain these temperatures the reaction is contained within a magnetic field.
Conducting nuclear fusion is highly complex due to the extreme temperatures, magnetic fields and forces required. We still have a way to go before it can be used to create energy on earth.
However, once the technology has been developed it could have the capability to meet our global energy demands.
How could nuclear fusion help us combat climate change?
To combat climate change we need to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels (according to the IPCC). One way to do this is by decarbonising our global energy supplies. We need to deviate away from heavily polluting fossil fuels.
Nuclear fusion provides a clean, low-carbon, safe, reliable alternative.
However, we only have eleven years to combat climate change and this technology might not be developed soon enough.
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