Nuclear Fission vs Fusion – How These Energy Sources Differ
Clean, sustainable nuclear power may sound like a failed post-war dream, but the modern reality of this energy source is far more complicated. On the one hand, nuclear energy in the coming decades will include not only nuclear fission – the type of reaction that already powers nuclear power plants – but also the far more elusive nuclear fusion.
If scientists can solve the remaining puzzle pieces behind these technologies, nuclear fission and fusion are poised to have a big impact on the world’s energy reserves and green energy efforts in the decades to come. come. But before they do, let’s set the record straight on the real difference between these two similar-sounding power sources.
When you think of nuclear energy, chances are you imagine a process called nuclear fission. To create nuclear fission, atoms of radioactive elements like uranium are shattered with neutrons to release huge amounts of energy. Inside nuclear reactors, this energy is used to create steam, which in turn powers a turbine to generate electricity.
While nuclear fission may be less damaging to the environment than burning oil or coal, this energy source has faced its own crises in the form of radioactive waste pollution and fatal plant meltdowns. aging electricity like Chernobyl and Fukushima. As a result, public opinion on nuclear power in the United States still remains lukewarm today, according a 2022 Pew research survey.
However, it may still be too early to count nuclear fission. In recent years, advances have been made in both the materials (e.g. molten salt instead of cooling water) and the machine learning software built into these plants, making them safer than their predecessors. Additionally, dedicating large complexes to nuclear power plants may become less popular as small modular reactors (SMRs) and microreactors emerge.
From the size of a shipping container to a jet engine, these smaller-scale reactors are designed to be more agile than traditional nuclear power plants. For this reason, it may be easier in the future to operate an SMR in a remote community to create sustainable energy or to power a spacecraft using a microreactor. Companies like NuScaleName, Terra Power and X-Energy are already working hard to bring these possibilities to life.
Unlike its sibling, nuclear fusion has been largely confined to the realm of science fiction until recently. Instead of breaking something apart, nuclear fusion occurs when light atoms are smashed together to create a heavier atom (for example, two hydrogen atoms combine to form a helium atom). This interaction creates a huge burst of energy that is still burning at the heart of stars all over the universe.
Unlike fission, nuclear fusion also has the added benefit of being self-sustaining without creating harmful waste. However, achieving and controlling fusion has been much more difficult for scientists to decipher than fission.
One of the problems facing fusion technology is that in order to create self-sustaining energy (a point called “fusion ignition”), it must be ignited by a massive amount of energy. In theory, after this initial power surge, the fusion reactor should then be able to create and sustain even more power than was initially injected into it. However, getting there is easier said than done.
That said, labs like the US National Ignition Facility (NIF) and France’s International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) have made progress in recent years, with the NIF reporting last summer that their reactor was capable to generate up to 70 percent of its input energy. Startups like Helion Energy are also working towards this goal using magnetic coils to compress the reactor core.
Scientists have been claiming to be on the verge of cracking nuclear fusion for decades, but hopefully that promise may finally come true.
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