The Other Nuclear in Alberta Pt. 1: What is Fusion?

Today we have the first guest post in ANN’s long, storied history. Ethan Dorward, a former associate of a Dr. Robert Fedosejevs at the University of Alberta working on fusion research, got in touch with me about putting out a series of articles talking about fusion research in Alberta and what the general progress is. I was more than happy to have someone with some insight into this work tell us all a bit more about it. Enjoy!

Fusion is the process that powers the stellar engine at the heart of our solar system: The Sun. It does this by using the compressive force generated by its mass to overcome the resistance of atomic nuclei at its core. These atomic nuclei fuse together into heavier elements. The most common fusion reaction is hydrogen compressed into helium.

Figure 1: The Sun’s composition is 99% hydrogen and helium.

This process produces enough energy and heat to sustain fusion with successively heavier elements until iron begins to accumulate at the core of the star.  Iron resists further fusion, causing it to accumulate over billions of years. Eventually enough material is converted from helium that the star can no longer sustain its massive size and implodes! Heavier elements can be produced when a collapsing star goes supernova. In an instant astronomical forces fuse atomic nuclei into elements like uranium, gold, and mercury and the star explodes with immense amounts of energy, ejecting this material. We know this to have occurred in the past prior to our solar system forming.

In addition to the creation of heavy elements, and of more immediate interest to humans is the energy released during fusion. Massive amounts of radiation energy escape the Sun as light. This light, is the ultimate source of almost every joule, calorie, or watt that drives our global systems. The atmosphere transfers two-thirds of the heat energy absorbed by the planet from Earth’s equatorial regions to her polar regions via convection; we are able to derive wind power in part directly from this convection, wind.

Figure 2: Hadley cells formed as air currents pick up heat from lower latitudes and shift it towards Earth’s poles.

Additionally, incoming energy from the Sun drives the hydrologic cycle, which is dependent upon both the evaporation of water bodies, and redistribution of water vapour by atmospheric currents. The hydrologic cycle fuels our agricultural and  river systems, and energy can be directly derived from it in the form of hydropower.

The hydrologic cycle also pertains to oceans currents which transfer the remaining third of heat redistribution. For instance, the Gulf Stream has a warming effect on the climate of Western Europe. This current is fueled by warm Caribbean water, heated via the Sun’s fusion engine.

Figure 3: The hydrologic cycle powered by The Sun.

Ocean waters also host the phytoplankton which produce an estimated 70% of our biospheres annual oxygen production via photosynthesis. They use photosynthesis to power the more complex ecologies of our oceans when they are consumed by predators and are also responsible for the formation of hydrocarbon deposits. Over the course of millions of years generations of phytoplankton have absorbed the Sun’s energy, died, and been concentrated–transformed into various hydrocarbon products–by geologic forces. Such products include, coals, oils, gases, and various by-products which can be refined into advanced materials such as plastic.

Figure 4: Process of geologic compression and concentration of biomass.

From the food we eat; to the campfires we burn; to the photovoltaic cell, the Sun’s fusion energy is critical to our existence.

The Sun isn’t the only fusion game in town though. In fact, it isn’t even the hottest. That title belongs to a fusion lab built on Earth. Hitting 2.8 billion degrees Celsius, Focus Fusion in Lawrenceville, New Jersey holds the current record (the Sun reaches 15 million Celsius). This reactor is so hot because it lacks the pressure and mass of the sun and compensates with massive injections of energy to fuse the hydrogen isotopes tritium and deuterium into helium.

Figure 5: Hydrogen isotopes fusing. Neutrons in blue, protons in red.

In addition to being a hot topic, fusion reactors also have a multitude of strengths, which will give it an edge over nearly every other power source we have. Fusion is intrinsically safe. Fusion reactions utilize high temperatures but the quantity of fuel used is small, and sustaining the reaction requires active input of energy: without a hamster to drive the wheel, the process naturally stops. Fusion is environmentally sustainable.It utilizes hydrogen isotopes as fuel, which are obtainable in environmentally friendly ways. It also uses comparatively low amounts of fuel, and the by-products of fusion are inert, like helium, or are easily containable and minimally impactful due to this small amount of fuel used. Fusion is a space age technology that will both require and provide opportunities to develop spin-off industries. Intelligent specialization into these spin-off industries has the potential to drive entire provincial or national economies as fusion becomes viable and reaches implementation. Examples include but aren’t limited to:

  • Nanotechnology
    • Computer modelling systems
    • Artificial intelligence
    • Materials engineering
    • Lasers, photonics, and robotics
    • Fuel extraction technologies

     Human well-being has always trended upwards with the development of cleaner, more efficient forms of energy, and advanced technologies have the potential to solve old problems in new ways. Fusion would further this advancement of human quality of life by supplanting fuels which pollute (hydrocarbons), provide intermittent and inconsistent power (renewables), or produce radioactive waste (nuclear).

     Sounds perfect, what’s the catch? Well…  fusion’s potential is just that, potential.

Figure 6: Graph showing progress of fusion experimental    reactors toward net positive energy generation (top dotted line)

It has taken the lifelong work of brilliant minds and immense financial will to push this technology to the cusp of viability. With new projects promising commercial viability coming online in the near future, the window for Canada to invest in the fusion enterprise could be closing. The scientific community of Canada and Alberta has drafted a Fusion 2030 Roadmap for Canada. This guideline is to assist Canadian enterprises, governments and investors over the coming decade in getting Canada on track to have a stake in this technology and its spin off industries.

More to come on Fusion Technology and Canada’s potential in this field. For now, one of Canada’s leading fusion minds:

     Thanks for reading!

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