General Fusion is a Canadian company based in Burnaby, British Columbia, and it has set itself the goal of building the world’s first commercially viable nuclear fusion reactor.
Renewable energy is often seen as the way forward in terms of creating a green future, while harnessing nuclear power may appear inherently risky, especially given events like the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster (radiation levels were at their highest early this year, six years after a tsunami crippled the nuclear reactor in Japan).
However, despite concerns about incidents like this happening again, there is a race to build the world’s first commercially viable nuclear fusion reactor. We may need nuclear fusion due to issues with renewable energy sources, which make them potentially unsustainable.
For example, as Red Planet has previously pointed out, setting up solar farms requires a huge amount of land, which is problematic, since this would put solar farms in direct competition with farmers. Arable land is running out and food scarcity is a significant global issue, so threatening the agricultural industry is not a sensible way to achieve a sustainable future.
This is one reason why nuclear energy is seen as superior to renewable sources of energy, like solar. General Fusion is leading the way with nuclear fusion technology and the company is keen to highlight its benefits.
The benefits of a commercially viable nuclear fusion reactor
Firstly, it’s worth stressing that the Fukushima nuclear reactor involved the process of nuclear fission, not fusion. This is an important distinction. Nuclear fission is a reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts, releasing a huge amount of energy in the process.
Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, is a reaction in which two or more atomic nuclei come close enough to each other to form different atomic nuclei or subatomic particles. This process generates more energy than does fission. Stars, like our Sun, are nuclear fusion reactors, converting hydrogen into helium.
On its website, General Fusion states: “Fusion energy is inherently safe, with zero possibility of a meltdown scenario and no longed lived waste.” Indeed, Saskia Mordijck – a research assistant professor based at the Computer Science Department at William & Mary – says there is no reason to be anxious about nuclear fusion reactors like people are with nuclear fission reactors. She explained that:
The nice thing about a fusion reaction is that if somehow it would go out of control, it would just stop itself automatically. If a fission reaction goes out of control, it can really go out of control. You can’t stop it and it actually might go into a nuclear meltdown.
Furthermore, in terms of waste created, Mordijck underscores:
In a fission power plant we create a lot of radioactive waste which lasts for a very long time. It lasts longer than most things that we have here on Earth, and so we have to store it somewhere. We cannot clean it any way or form. Whereas in a fusion power plant, the lifetime of this waste is very short. After 50 to 100 years, it will be completely gone and it will not be more radioactive than the surrounding environment and it won’t be able to contaminate anything.
Not only does nuclear fusion require less land than renewable technologies, General Fusion also emphasises that it “produces zero greenhouse gas emissions, emitting only helium as exhaust.” There is also “enough fusion fuel to power the planet for hundreds of millions of years.” A nuclear fusion reactor runs on deuterium and tritium, “isotopes which can be extracted from seawater and derived from lithium”, both of which are in abundant supply. In addition, such a reactor can generate energy on demand and not depend on weather conditions, like solar and wind farms do.
Using nuclear fusion in space
Developing a commercially viable nuclear fusion reactor can also have applications for space travel. The more that the technology is improved, the more relevant it could be for long-duration space missions, like the human mission to Mars.
John Slough, a University of Washington research associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, says that a rocket powered by fusion could make 30- and 90-day expeditions to the red planet, instead of a two-year round-trip.
This is another example of how sustainable technologies on Earth can benefit innovations being developed by NASA, and vice versa.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
Sam is a writer who is especially interested in space exploration, sustainability, animal agriculture, nutrition, wellbeing and smart drugs.