In 1919 a New Zealander conducting research in Manchester was playing around with the Nitrogen Atom, his name was Ernest Rutherford. Over the next 10 years, there was much that was learned about the structure of the atom. While Rutherford, Einstein and Bohr did not arrive at a solution to the problem of unlocking the power of an Atom; it was Enrico Fermi who figured it involved bombarding heavier elements.
It was actually two German scientists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman, living in Nazi Germany working at the University of Berlin, collaborating with a Jewish refugee Lise Meitner, who had escaped to Sweden, that showed that Nuclear Fission was possible by bombarding Uranium. Despite the Second World War, the scientific publications were working rather well and the news of the experiments got around to the US.
Robert Oppenheimer was hired to build an uncontrolled nuclear fission chain reaction device. No sooner was it built, America dropped it on Japan.
Nuclear Fission uses heavy atoms such as Uranium because they are unstable. These atoms are bombarded by a neutron which affects their stability and causes them to undergo decay into lighter but more stable atoms (relatively) along with the release of a lot of energy and three more neutrons. Those neutrons can trigger more reactions and that is what makes the chain reaction possible.
In the meantime, there was another kind of nuclear reaction that involved combining light atoms such as Hydrogen which was being studied in 1920. When two Hydrogen atoms are subjected to a lot of energy (heat), they fuse together to produce a heavier atom, Helium. This is also accompanied by a tremendous release of energy. It was known for a long time that stars produce their energy through Fusion. It was not until 1950, with the consistent input of several scientists building on Ernest Rutherford’s experiment that the principle and the execution of Nuclear Fusion were understood.
Fission is inherently a chain reaction. You just need to control the chain reaction with the removal of the extra neutrons that are being generated. This is usually done by inserting rods made of lead or carbon that absorb the extra neutron. But the by-product in the case of Fission is even more radioactive and needs to be disposed of safely. Not to mention, the fuel, Uranium is hard to find, very rare and hard to handle.
The accidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima have shown that the cost of losing control of a Nuclear Fission plant can be catastrophic. At Chernobyl, the control rods were pushed in a little late, this kept the reactor from turning into a bomb but caused the container to rupture which has left the entire area radioactive even today.
In the case of Fusion, the reaction is harder to start and sustain. The by-product apart from Energy is relatively safer. Also, the input, Heavy Hydrogen is quite easily available in our seas. As one scientist put it, a reaction that powers the sun sounds really dangerous but it is easier to put out than a match.
I pushed a black button. A purring noise began. “That’s the sound of the vacuum draining the air from the glass tube,” Mumgaard said. He turned a valve, releasing a tiny bit of hydrogen gas into the tube. A hot-pink glowing light appeared, nested within the glass tube like a matryoshka doll. The magnetic field that contained the pink plasma was visible in the form of empty space between the glass and the glow. “That pink is the superheated plasma,” Mumgaard said. “It’s at least a thousand degrees. But touch the glass.” The glass was cool. “Now touch the copper wires.” They were warm, but not hot. The warmth of the copper wires was not on account of their proximity to the superheated plasma but, rather, because copper is not a perfect conductor; some of the energy running through it is lost in the form of heat. Superconductors lose almost no heat—which is energy.
It seemed impossible that the pink plasma inside the tube, which was as hot as lightning, wasn’t in some way dangerous. Couldn’t some of it leak out of the magnetic bottle, with catastrophic consequences? As an answer, Mumgaard twisted a valve to let a tiny bit of air into the glass tube; the plasma vanished. “People think of fusion like they think of fission, as this overwhelming reaction, but, really, it’s such a delicate process,” Whyte said. “It’s like a candle in the wind. Anything can blow it out. Even a single human breath.”
Source: New Yorker Magazine
Nuclear Fusion is considered the holy grail of energy research. If we could create our own small sun that can power our energy requirements, would that not be just amazing.
So why have we not done it?
For starters, the reaction required, need us to produce temperatures in excess of 150 million degrees. Don’t need to bother with the units, just know that it is insanely hot. This has been created thus far using lasers which heat up air into plasma.
The second issue is ensuring that it can keep the reaction going in containment. Unlike the Fission reaction where the risk is of turning the reaction into a bomb, here the challenge often is that the reaction will fizzle out and stop if not enough heat is being produced. The Sun is a huge magnetic bottle. That magnetism contains the reaction within it. Makes it possible for the temperature and the reactions to sustain and perpetuate.
To solve the issue of containment, most devices use powerful magnetic fields to suspend the plasma in midair to prevent the scorching temperatures from melting the reactor walls. Looking something like a giant doughnut, these “magnetic containment devices” house a ring of plasma bound by magnetism where fusion will begin to occur if a high enough temperature is achieved. Russian physicists first proposed the design in the 1950s, although it would be decades before they actually achieved fusion with them.
Source: Discover Magazine
Also money. This kind of work requires a lot of iteration and therefore a lot of money. Can you imagine the power bill you will run up trying to create a plasma heated to 150 million degrees?
Creating a magnetic field or magnets that can hold the fusion in containment where it can continue to perpetuate has been the biggest challenge that has plagued scientists though.
In 1976, the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration published a study predicting how quickly nuclear fusion could become a reality, depending on how much money was invested in the field. For around 9 billion a year in today’s dollars—described as the “Maximum Effective Effort”—it projected reaching fusion energy by 1990. The scale descended to about a billion dollars a year, which the study projected would lead to “Fusion Never.” “And that’s about what’s been spent,” the British physicist Steven Cowley told me. “Pretty close to the maximum amount you could spend in order to never get there.”
Estimates of the cost of the Manhattan Project, which produced atomic weapons in four years, vary, but it is commonly said that the scientists were given a “blank check.” This year, the U.S. government will spend some 670 million dollars on nuclear fusion. That’s a lot of money, but 650 billion—the amount the I.M.F. estimates that U.S. taxpayers spent on fossil-fuel subsidies last year—is quite a bit more.
Source: New Yorker Magazine
Fusion has had a tough time getting the support that it requires.
Now there is a lot of funding chasing it!
Helion Energy, a clean energy company committed to creating a new era of plentiful, zero-carbon electricity from fusion, today announced the close of its $0.5 billion Series E, with an additional $1.7 billion of commitments tied to specific milestones.
The round was led by Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI and former president of Y Combinator. Existing investors, including co-founder of Facebook Dustin Moskovitz, Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital and notable sustainable tech investor Capricorn Investment Group also participated in the round. The funding includes commitments of an additional $1.7 billion dollars tied to Helion reaching key performance milestones. Round-leader Altman has been involved in the company as an investor and chairman since 2015.
Yes! That is Billion, not Million.
Zap Energy, a pioneer in fusion energy technology, today announced that it has raised $27.5 million in Series B funding. The round was led by Addition, with participation from Energy Impact Partners, GA Capital and Fourth Realm, as well as existing investors Chevron Technology Ventures and LowerCarbon Capital. The new financing comes just nine months after closing a $6.5 million Series A funding round, following the achievement of a major scientific milestone in late 2020 that brings Zap Energy closer to energy breakeven.
The fusion energy field just keeps getting hotter. British Columbia’s General Fusion on Tuesday said that it has raised $130 million in funding to develop its ambitious clean energy technology.
And the announcement teased to the promise of more cash to come, stating that this was merely “the prelude to a large financing round being prepared for 2022.” The latest round brings the funding total to approximately $300 million.
Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos is a longtime backer of General Fusion and his VC arm Bezos Expeditions participated in the round.
And then the largest agricultural landowner in America, who would not allow the scientists in Cambridge to release the formulation for the COVID vaccine because his philanthropy ‘incubated’ them and whose recent philanthropy to humanity has been the Omicron – Bill Gates – has been investing in the space for a long time through a fund called Breakthrough Energy. He along with the man who ensures that his employees wear adult diapers to work because time is money and has so much money that going to space is the only way he can blow it up – Jeff Bezos – are investing together. This one is definitely going to be a winner.
Sorbom did make it work: He got the job, and 12 years later, Sorbom has his doctorate from MIT and is co-founder and chief scientific officer of Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a rapidly growing company spun out of Sorbom and his co-founders’ research. CFS aims to commercialize fusion, a safe and virtually limitless source of “clean energy,” to combat climate change. The company is funded by the likes of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates by way of energy innovation investment fund Breakthrough Energy.
Fusion Energy seems to be closer than ever.
Fusion scientists often speak of waiting for a “Kitty Hawk moment,” though they argue about what would constitute one. Only in retrospect do we view the Wright brothers’ Flyer as the essential breakthrough in manned flight. Hot-air balloons had already achieved flight, of a kind; gliders were around, too, though they couldn’t take off or land without a catapult or a leap. One of the Wright brothers’ first manned flights lasted less than a minute—was that flight? An A.P. reporter said, of that event, “Fifty-seven seconds, hey? If it had been fifty-seven minutes, then it might have been a news item.”
In 1901, the chief engineer of the United States Navy wrote, of heavier-than-air flight, “A calm survey of natural phenomenon leads the engineer to pronounce all confident prophecies for future success as wholly unwarranted, if not absurd.” At the time, the Wright brothers were studying aerodynamics in a makeshift wind tunnel; after one particularly disheartening summer at Kitty Hawk, Wilbur confided to Orville his feeling that “not in a thousand years will man fly.” Two years later, they flew their plane for twelve seconds; not too many years after that, they were flying for hours, performing figure eights for large crowds. In response to a report that President Theodore Roosevelt intended to fly with Orville soon, Orville said that, though he wouldn’t turn down a request from the President, he did not think it wise for the President to take such chances.
Source: New Yorker Magazine
It may arrive sooner than most people think!