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The path- A game-changer?

- June 8, 2022

Haripriya Latheeshan/ Bahrain ,June 8

Energy- A conserved, quantitative property-, is, in the simplest of terms, the capacity to do work. The energy possessed by an object in motion is called kinetic energy. The energy possessed by a body due to its position in a field or its state of strain is called potential energy. The energy which an electromagnetic wave carries is light energy and heat energy.

Energy is essential for all the life processes to happen on the Earth. Regardless of the source, its demand is growing with the growing population and also due to the improved standards of living. Eighty percent of the world’s energy production is from fossil fuels, namely coal, oil and gas. As humankind has known for decades, reserves of oil and gas depositories across the globe are getting depleted at an exponential rate due to massive expansion and growth. However, this problem isn’t even close to the biggest issue faced by users of fossil fuels. The biggest issue is the unparalleled damage that is being inflicted upon the environment due to the use of fossil fuels, again a fact well known to humankind. So, it is imperative to shift to clean energy.

Switching to renewable energy sources with low carbon emission could be a great step in the right direction. Renewable energy sources such as solar energy, wind energy, hydroelectric and tidal could be a great choice. Solar panels can collect heat and light directly from the sun, without any additional fuel requirement and minimal environmental impact. However, the availability of this source is subjected to changes according to the time of the day, weather conditions and location.

Wind energy on the other hand, which is highly unreliable, needs a greater area of land for generating a power comparable to that generated via solar cells. Hydroelectric energy seems like a better option now. Unfortunately it is not possible to set up dams in every country and they may flood the surrounding area, displacing humans and other living beings alike, not to mention, destroy entire landscapes in situations of uncontrolled water release.

All of these sources of clean energy hold great promise, but all of them come with their own set of constraints and limitations, many of which can be linked to climatic conditions, time or location. Interestingly, there is one source that is completely unaffected by these external factors and could, potentially, even be inexhaustible. What is this source? Again, something mankind has known for decades, a source that is feared as much as it is admired, nuclear energy. In recent times a much more sustainable form of this energy has been increasingly experimented on, to be specific, nuclear fusion energy.

Conventional nuclear energy involves a process called nuclear fission, in this process a heavier nucleus splits into lighter nuclei with the release of an enormous amount of energy. It is the difference in mass which is converted to energy according to Einstein’s equation E = mc2 . There is no carbon emission during the process and also, since it can operate 24 hours, there can be more total annual energy. However, it is not free of challenges, even in the safest of plants, accidents can happen, the most known of them being the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters. Even if accident occurrences can be reduced and damage mitigated, disposal of radioactive waste (a byproduct of the process) is an almost insurmountable challenge

Coming to the process of Nuclear fusion, two lighter nuclei fuse together to form a heavier nucleus with the release of an enormous amount of energy, which again comes from the difference in mass. So mass gets converted to energy. If it can be executed in a controlled environment in a sustained manner, it could possibly solve all of our energy problems. It could, in theory, literally become our inexhaustible source of energy. But, is sustained nuclear fusion possible?

In the south of France, about 37 miles north-east of Marseille, a group of extraordinary individuals are working on this same question. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor or ITER (iter in Latin means the way or the path) will be the world’s largest nuclear fusion experiment when completed. The project was initiated officially in 1998, as a collaboration of 35 nations with seven key members, known as ITER members. They are China, European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States.

Their idea is to fuse together isotopes of hydrogen -deuterium (available in seawater) and Tritium (found in nature) in order to release energy. For the nuclei to collide, the large force of repulsion (due to the similar polarity) must be overcome.

To achieve this, a very high temperature and pressure environment must be created. Scientists and engineers at ITER expect to achieve these conditions in the vacuum chamber of an experimental machine called the tokamak, the heart of the nuclear fusion reactor. The positive ions of the gases, which will be in plasma state once temperatures rise to the required levels, are confined by magnetic coils placed around the tokamak. The reactor can then be used to heat steam, same as most types of power generation systems, which will then drive a turbine coupled with a generator, thereby generating electricity.

Its first set of experiments are set to begin in 2025 and full version tests by 2035. Once achieved, it would also be the world’s largest magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment. Its long-term goal may be the generation of electricity, but the implications of these experiments may be beyond what we can comprehend right now.