Harnessing the Sun
“If our nation wants to reduce global warming, air pollution and energy instability, we should invest only in the best energy options. Nuclear energy isn’t one of them.”
– Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson
It is undeniable that the United States is approaching a crisis. As our country’s population continues to increase, energy demand across the nation skyrockets. Meanwhile, those who provide this energy are struggling to keep up. The staple of our transportation industry, oil, is estimated to run out very quickly: “Total world proved oil reserves reached 1687.9 billion barrels at the end of 2013, sufficient to meet 53.3 years of global production.” (Dudley, 2013). To combat this, we have turned towards alternative forms of energy. Many have declared nuclear fusion as the champion of future energy. However, nuclear fusion is not a good choice for investment because of its dark history and its unrealistic heat requirements. Instead, the world should focus its efforts in other forms of clean energy and health affairs.
In order to understand how fusion could be applied in reactors for energy, one must first understand the basics of fusion. Scientists have long known nuclear fusion as what keeps a star burning. All stars, even our own Sun, burn by a process known as H-H fusion. In this, two Hydrogen atoms fuse together to form deuterium and a positron and neutrino:
11H + 11H= 21H + ++ v where is the positron and v is the neutrino
A positron is a subatomic particle that has the same mass as an electron, but the opposite charge (+1). A neutrino is another type of particle that has neutral charge and extremely small, but non-zero mass. Keep in mind that this is just one reaction that could be used in a fusion reactor. In reality, there are hundreds of different reactions that physicists are studying. The equation above is one that occurs constantly within the core of the Sun and most stars in our universe. But how is energy produced during this reaction? To understand this, physicists and engineers use Albert Einstein’s special relativity equation, E=mc2. To calculate the amount of energy (Joules) that is produced in this reaction, all that is required is some simple arithmetic. The mass of Hydrogen has been experimentally tested to be roughly 1.00794 amu while the mass of deuterium, an isotope of Hydrogen with one neutron instead of zero, is measured at around 2.0141 amu. The masses of the positron are so small that they are negligible in our calculations. Subtracting the mass of the two Hydrogens from the deuterium (2.0159 amu – 2.0141 amu = .00178 amu) there is a difference of .00178 amu. This mass, although miniscule in our minds, can be massive when added together with a lot of other atomic reactions, like what is happening on the Sun to produce huge amounts of energy in a small amount of time. “A tiny fraction of the time, one-in-10×1027 times, that diproton will decay to deuterium…” (Siegel, 2017). Because of this insane estimate, it would appear to our eyes that these Hydrogen protons are fusing almost instantaneously. Physicists call the difference of mass we calculated as the mass defect of a reaction. Substituting this mass into Einstein’s equation, we can calculate the amount of energy released during this reaction. .00178 amu is about 2.9558×10-30 kilograms, multiplied by the speed of light squared (9×10 16) will give us 2.66×10-13 Joules produced from this single reaction.
As evident from this calculation, when applied to an industrial scale, Nuclear fusion theoretically has the potential to produce massive amounts of energy. In the 1950’s, America was at the peak of its “nuclear craze”, with billions of dollars being poured into research by the government and other private entities. However, the majority of this money was spent in the hopes of stomping out Communism:
“The USSR, which threatened Europe along the Iron Curtain, and communist China, which threatened S. Korea and S.E. Asia, both had armies that were enormously larger than the army of the USA…By generously funding scientific research, the U.S; military kept these professors ready to contribute to a future war effort, and encouraged universities to expand physics and engineering departments.” (Standler, 2009).
In the 1970’s and 80’s, there was a lot of activism on campuses urging their schools to refuse to accept money from the Department of Defense. This was due to the continuation of unpopular wars, like in Vietnam. The research of fusion began solely for warfare purposes. If we rejuvenate the spirit of nuclear research again, I fear what new, deadly tools government might engineer from it.
It was not until recently that scientists began speaking on how good nuclear fusion can be as a source of energy. Some benefits they speak of is its lack of hazardous byproduct. All that is leftover from most fusion reactions is Helium. Although not a greenhouse gas, the large amounts of gaseous Helium produced will still require containment and disposal. If there is a leak in the containment system, it will put the workers and nearby community at risk of asphyxiation from the lack of oxygen in the air.
In addition, current ideas for fusion reactors are ridiculously expensive and difficult to construct. The fundamental problem that scientists are struggling with is how to initiate the fusion. The repulsive forces of the positive nuclei are so great, it requires massive amounts of energy to get them close enough to one another to begin the reaction. This can only occur when temperatures are high enough, which, if we use our Sun as an estimate, have to reach to at least 27 million degrees Fahrenheit! As you can imagine, this is very difficult to do. Scientists are currently experimenting with X-Ray lasers that could achieve these temperatures safely, but each requires billions of dollars to construct. Some in the industry are beginning to declare nuclear fusion energy a pipe dream, “We are not much closer to fusion than we were in the 1950s. Technology has improved…Despite billions of dollars…recent progress has been incremental, and spectacular failures are still the norm.” (MacDonald, 2016). This is staggering knowledge, knowing that billions of dollars has been spent on research that we really have nothing to show for. Meanwhile, according to Feeding America, over 41 million Americans struggle with hunger daily. It is about time that we stop unnecessary government spending, and seek to improve the lives of our citizens before it is too late. The additional money leftover should be saved for tax credits for individuals who pursue the building of wind farms or solar panels on their property.
Nuclear energy has been one of the most hotly debated topics for nearly the last century. Massive disasters like in Chernobyl and Fukushima has resulted in a general public wary of the inherent dangers nuclear power brings. Nuclear fusion provides a safer, cleaner solution to the typical risks of nuclear power, but at an extreme costs. With no fusion reactors currently functioning and decades of failed designs behind us, we ought to turn our attention to more pressing matters. The United States government must invest more internally, to our citizens and social programs, in order to provide a healthy life for all citizens.