Nuclear Fusion Power

Nuclear Fusion power is a proposed kind of energy production that uses heat from nuclear fusion processes to generate electricity. A fusion reaction occurs when two lighter atomic nuclei fuse together to generate a heavier nucleus while simultaneously releasing energy. Fusion reactor is a technology that is designed to exploit this energy.

The topic has a very high probability of being asked in IAS Prelims exam as a Science and Technology Question or as a Current Affairs Question, as it has been in the news recently as a result of the latest breakthrough on nuclear fusion energy by JET laboratory.

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About Nuclear Fusion Energy

To form a plasma wherein fusion can occur, fusion procedures need fuel and a constrained environment with suitable temperature, pressure, and containment duration. The most prevalent fuel in stars is hydrogen, and the gravitational pull allows for exceptionally lengthy confinement durations that allow for the generation of fusion energy. Heavy hydrogen isotopes like deuterium and tritium (and particularly a combination of the two) are commonly used in hypothesised fusion reactors because they react more readily than protium (the most common isotope of hydrogen). The majority of designs try to heat their fuel to over 100 million degrees, which is a difficult task to accomplish.

Nuclear fusion is projected to have numerous advantages over fission as a source of energy. Decreased radioactivity in operation and low high-level nuclear waste, adequate fuel supply, and improved safety are among them. Another difficulty that impacts common reactions is the management of neutrons emitted during the reaction, which damage many common materials that are used in the reaction chamber over time.

What is Nuclear Fusion?

Fusion reactions take place when the nuclear force drawing two or more atomic nuclei close enough for long enough overcomes the electrostatic force driving them apart, to make them fuse into heavier nuclei. The electrostatic repulsive force among nuclei acts over larger distances than the strong force, which works exclusively over small distances. The fuel atoms must be supplied with enough kinetic energy to make them approach each other sufficiently close for the strong force to overpower the electrostatic repulsion in order to initiate fusion. This energy can be obtained by either speeding up atoms in a particle accelerator or heating them to extremely high temperatures. The electrons in an atom are stripped away when it is heated over its ionisation energy, leaving only the nucleus. As a result, a plasma is formed, which is a heated cloud of ions with free electrons that were previously bound to them. Plasmas are both electrically and magnetically controlled because the charges are separated. This is used in a lot of fusion devices to keep the particles contained while they’re being heated.

Methods of Nuclear Fusion

Following is the list of most common nuclear fusion methods used in proposed reactor designs:

  • Plasma behaviour
  • Magnetic confinement
  • Inertial confinement
  • Magnetic or electric pinches
  • Inertial electrostatic confinement
  • Muon-catalysed fusion
  • Beam fusion
  • Magnetised target fusion

List of Current Affairs Articles for UPSC

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Fuel for Nuclear Fusion Reaction

All the fuels explored for fusion power were light elements such as hydrogen isotopes protium, deuterium, and tritium. The deuterium and helium-3 reaction necessitates the use of helium-3, an isotope of helium that is so rare on Earth that it will have to be mined from space or created through other nuclear processes. Researchers want to employ the protium/boron-11 reaction in the future because it does not yield neutrons directly, but side reactions can.

Safety and Environment

Accident Potential

Fusion reactors do not have the potential for a catastrophic meltdown. To produce net energy, it needs precise and controlled heat, pressure, and magnetic field conditions, and any damage or lack of control would quickly extinguish the reaction. At any given time, fusion reactors require seconds or even microseconds of fuel. The reactions will instantly stop if active refuelling is not done.

Magnet Quench

A magnet quench is a type of abnormal magnet operation which can happen for a variety of causes. As a result, the reactor heats up, resulting in an explosion.

Effluents

The fusion process produces a small amount of helium gas, which is non-toxic to living beings. It’s challenging to entirely retain dangerous tritium. Tritium is continuously emitted during regular functioning. Due to tritium’s short half-life (12.32 years) and quite low decay energy, as well as the fact that it does not bioaccumulate (it cycles out of the body as water, having a biological half-life of 7 to 14 days), the health risk posed by a release is far smaller than that posed by most radioactive pollutants.

Advantages of Nuclear Fusion Energy

Fusion power promises to offer more energy per unit of fuel than any other contemporary fuel-consuming energy source. The fuel (mainly deuterium) is abundant in the ocean: deuterium makes up about 1 in every 6,500 hydrogen atoms in seawater. Seawater is abundant and easy to acquire, meaning that fusion might satisfy the world’s energy demand for long periods of time. Fusion energy could also be used for ‘deep space’ propulsion inside the solar system as well as interstellar space travel where solar energy is unavailable, such as via antimatter-fusion hybrid engines.

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