Somerset Times

A Nuclear Fusion of Scientific Minds

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Somerset Times Edition

Week 5,
Term Two, 2016

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The world is currently evaluating other energy sources to replace fossil fuels as they will eventually run out, as well as to reduce the devastating impact it will have on climate change. Our current options include nuclear power, solar power, and hydroelectricity just to name a few.

However, what if there is an energy source as powerful as nuclear energy, but doesn’t have the same catastrophic risks. The answer to this alternate power source lies in the stars – literally.

Kenta Arichi and Catherine Gerrard, Academic Captains, with Dr Michael Brohier, Deputy Headmaster

Nuclear fusion is what allows stars such as our sun to release huge amounts of energy by binding light elements such as Hydrogen and Helium together. This releases a huge amount of energy, providing heat and light energy, both of which radiate to Earth. If such power could be harnessed on Earth, it could produce clean power with no greenhouse gas emissions and no catastrophic accidents. While radioactive waste is produced, it is of a very low level. In fact, with our current technology we would recycle a nuclear fusion power plant within 100 years of shutdown. So why is this different to nuclear energy? Well, nuclear power plants employ nuclear fission, which splits atomic nuclei of heavy elements like uranium into lighter nuclei. This happens rapidly and can be harnessed to generate electricity as well as radioactive waste which has a long half-life (it will remain radioactive for thousands of years).

So this begs the question, why aren’t we using nuclear fusion? Well, physicists haven’t exactly achieved stable nuclear fusion yet because of the difficult conditions required to sustain such a reaction. Luckily, we are continuing to make progress in this field, especially with the construction of the ITER reactor in France. Costing over US$20 billion dollars and funded by seven nations, the reactor is the largest science project on the planet. Its objective is to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion power for peaceful purposes such as energy production. The ITER is expected to begin its experiments in 2027, which is a while away but it does not make it any less exciting that the experiments carried out will inform future designs of fusion reactors. It truly is a time to be alive as we are on the cusp of further scientific breakthroughs and hopefully this is the solution to our energy and environmental crisis that we could face.

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