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Nuclear Holy Grail

Our last nuclear topic:


How it works:

Nuclear plants use fission to produce energy. Basically, fission is splitting apart atoms. You break a bit of matter, which gets converted into energy through Einstein’s e = mc2 and presto! you have a bunch of energy.

Fusion, however, is when you combine atoms. You still get a bit of matter getting converted into energy, it just comes from a slightly different place.


Fusion is a proven energy source. Earth gets all of its energy from it; life wouldn’t be able to exist without fusion. Stars use fusion. In the Sun, gazillions (not a real number, but you get the point) of little hydrogen atoms are constantly smashed together into the twice as big helium atom. This nuclear fusion is what makes the sun produce light and heat. Earth captures a tiny bit of this streaming energy, and powers life.

Also, hydrogen atoms are the most common atom in the universe, not to mention on our planet. If we could harness fusion, we would have a virtually unlimited supply of energy. Including if we ever start going out into space.


If fusion is so hot (grin), why don’t we use it? Well, fusion doesn’t really work on Earth (at least not yet). What is the main difference between Earth and the Sun?


Fusion needs to get to a certain temperature to get going. Once it hits this temperature, fusion can keep going indefinitely as long as it is supplied with hydrogen atoms. The problem is, this temperature is several million degrees (using any temperature scale). At that temperature, the hydrogen atoms are no longer a gas–they are in the fourth state of matter, plasma. It is rather difficult to contain plasma at several million degrees–most containers melt at such temperatures.

Additionally, an enormous amount of energy is needed to heat anything to several million degrees. The reactor is useless if you produce less energy than it takes to start it up, so a fusion reactor would need to have enormous reactions to produce more energy than it uses. The reactor would basically have atomic bombs blowing up constantly inside of it. How many containers can control an atomic bomb? How about an atomic bomb every second constantly for 50 years? You can see the problems with controlling a fusion reactor. Either you have small reactions that cost more to start up than they produce, or else you have large reactions that blow up your power plant.

It seems the useful versions of nuclear energy are all impossible to use. Nuclear energy has such enormous potential, but so little research. But it doesn’t hurt to hope. If international relations could be smoothed out, and money actually spent towards research, perhaps one day nuclear energy will fix our energy crisis once and for all (or at least a few thousand years).

This wraps up nuclear energy (for now). Tomorrow I’ll talk about something else. Maybe wind energy. I heard Germany is having some problems, and it triggered a memory of something interesting I read a year ago.


FYI: You may have heard of the term “cold fusion”. This refers to nuclear fusion that occurs at room temperature, as opposed to the millions of degrees in normal fusion. Cold fusion would solve the energy crisis instantly, with abundant energy with nearly no start up cost, except for the fact that cold fusion is generally regarded as a pathological science: a science that is fake but wishful thinking among a few people keeps it alive. Cold fusion has no substantial evidence supporting it.


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