Fusion generators have the potential to create massive amounts of clean and renewable energy. However, despite decades of work, significant design challenges have prevented the development of commercial-scale models.
This situation may be starting to change. In the past few years, there have been some breakthroughs that may have brought us closer than ever to commercial fusion.
What are fusion generators and how are they used?
Fusion generators, like most other power sources, generate energy that is used to heat water, create steam and spin a turbine, producing electricity. What sets fusion generators apart from other energy sources — which mostly use chemical or physical processes — is that they use nuclear forces to create power.
Fusion generators create plasma and confine it in a magnetic field, where it is put under immense amounts of pressure. This process causes smaller atomic nuclei, like the hydrogen isotope tritium, to fuse into larger ones, like helium atoms. This process of fusion generates large amounts of power and is also how the sun and other stars create energy.
Fusion is one of the cleanest potential power sources, as it uses hydrogen for energy and produces mostly helium, an inert gas, as a byproduct. It also creates additional hydrogen isotopes that can be radioactive, but they are mostly fed back into the fusion reaction. These byproducts are also fairly short-lived compared to the radioactive waste produced by nuclear fission plants and are confined entirely to the power plant.
Projects that may lead to operational fusion plants
Several significant challenges have prevented the creation of commercial-scale fusion reactors. Any reactor would need to be built out of material that can stand up to the intense heat of plasma, which would need to be kept at extremely high temperatures under massive pressure for months at a time. The radiation generated by fusion, while mostly contained to the reactor, can also weaken the plant over time — requiring extra maintenance.
While breakthroughs in fusion are made with some regularity, they tend to reveal that there's much about fusion power we still don't know.
There are a few projects in development, however, that may tackle these challenges and launch operational fusion generators. The ITER project, established in 2006 in France, will be the largest plasma physics experiment in the world once it is up and running. It was announced in November of 2019 that the goal to achieve First Plasma was more than 65% to complete. While the organization planned to reach this objective by 2025, they claim the ability to remain on schedule is at high risk.
ITER is expected to generate a maximum of 500 megawatts of power. This is about the production of an average coal-fired power plant, but more than 140 times greater than the power output of the average wind turbine, which produces around 3.5 megawatts. The ITER project's power output will also be much more consistent than that of a wind farm or solar array.
Several other projects, like MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center, are also investigating paths to commercial-scale fusion. ITER, however, is the most advanced and well-funded. The U.S. Department of Energy is also offering an award of up to $30 million to research fusion energy — providing extra resources for companies working on practical fusion.
Recent advancements, like the use of powerful permanent magnets, may also help speed up and simplify the development of fusion generators.
Fusion will reshape energy production — eventually
We are still multiple decades away from commercial-scale fusion. If made possible, the technology could revolutionize energy production. Fusion could solve some of the major problems of renewable energy sources, like the current need for grid-scale energy storage technology, which doesn't exist yet and may not be practical. At any rate, the future of this power source looks bright.