Nuclear fusion is the process that gives the sun and the stars their energy. In nuclear fusion, two light nuclei --- or atoms that don't have electrons --- smash together in plasma. This collision forms one larger nucleus, converting matter into energy. While nuclear fusion could theoretically be a safe and environmentally friendly energy source, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the development of nuclear fusion power technology poses several challenges.
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While fusion is a promising energy source, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, large-scale nuclear fusion techniques have not yet been developed or thoroughly tested. Research facilities are costly because most fusion research is focused on plasma, a superheated gas that must be contained and heated to temperatures greater than 100 million degrees. According to U.S. ITER, adequate research facilities will cost £0.6 billion to £6 billion.
Nuclear fusion facilities require large amounts of energy to create the necessary conditions for fusion. In addition to the energy needed to heat the plasma to the necessary high temperatures, the fuel must be pressurised to about 10 atmospheres. To make commercial nuclear fusion power plants feasible, the energy output of the fusion process must exceed the energy used to create it. Because the technology does not yet exist to generate more energy than is expended, U.S. ITER estimates that the first commercial nuclear fusion power plants won't be built until the 2040s.
Energy Dissipation and Capture
Because so much energy is required to heat plasma, researchers face challenges in finding ways to prevent heat loss. At the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, scientists have discovered that the motion of small currents within the plasma may be one cause of energy dissipation. Another technical challenge in the development of nuclear fusion technology is developing an effective energy capture method. While fusion energy yields increased dramatically during the late 20th century and early 21st, no efficient means of capturing that energy yet exist.
Some of nuclear fusion's most attractive attributes are the lack of carbon emissions and availability of fuel sources, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. In fact, the Department of Energy states that fusion could be powered by such abundant fuels as seawater and lithium. However, researchers believe that fusion will produce small quantities of radioactive waste. While U.S. ITER says that the waste produced won't be high level or long lived, it notes that nuclear fusion facilities will adhere to existing guidelines for the handling and storage of radioactive waste.
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