Energy – limitless, abundant and clean. That is the goal of scientists trying to create new energy sources.
Nuclear power has for a long time been the centre of much controversy. Although it doesn’t create the pollution associated with fossil fuels, it does leave us with an almost unimaginable period of radioactive waste, Radioactive isotopes eventually decay, or disintegrate, to harmless materials. Some isotopes decay in hours or even minutes, but others decay very slowly. Strontium-90 and cesium-137 have half-lives of about 30 years (half the radioactivity will decay in 30 years). Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years.
So whilst nuclear power might provide a short term fix to pollution problems it can also create other problems which might last longer than modern man has existed. That’s why so many people are so worried about it.
But a tantalising possibility has been raised by nuclear scientists to create a form of nuclear power that provides almost limitless power with few side effects. This nuclear power is based on fusion. Traditional nuclear power stations are based on fission. The difference may sound little more than the replacement of a few vowels – but that is very misleading.
Fusion nuclear power is a world away from the fission power we know today and it involves creating a bit of the sun right here on earth.
The race is now on to design a fusion reactor. In France, they’re building one of the largest machines the world has ever seen. .
Burn one kilo of fusion fuel, it will generate the same amount of energy as ten million kilos of fossil fuel.
The problem is that nuclear fusion has for years been held up as a possible solution to our energy problem. It has always been the next big thing, but it’s never been the thing. However, there now does appear to be a critical mass of scientists, a new generation of brains determined to crack the problem.
So here is how it works. At the moment all of our nuclear reactors rely on nuclear fission. This process relies on the ability to split atoms to produce lots of power, but also, lots of radioactive waste.
A fusion reactor will join atoms together. It’s likely to be Hydrogen to form helium, like our sun. Any radioactive waste, they say will be relatively short-lived.
And the fuel? Well hydrogen is found readily in water, abundant the world over.
The proponents of fusion power have for years been promising us a plentiful and relatively safe form of new energy – well here at ITER in France they are starting to make good on that promise.
Over 200 experimental reactors have been built worldwide. But to date they’ve all consumed more energy than they produce. In other words they can make fusion happen but it takes so much energy to make it happen, that its pointless. You put in more energy than you get out.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, hopes to turn this situation around.
It is an enormous project. It’s going to cost at least 15 billion euros. It involves 35 nations and when it’s done they say it will be the largest experiment ever conducted by man.
It will be a 23-thousand tonne nuclear laboratory. Three times heavier than the Eiffel Tower.
The man heading up this remarkable scientific test bed is Bernard Bigot, ITER’s director general.
I asked him on the grand scheme of human innovation and science, how significant he thought this project was? His answer was unequivocal. “It is one of the most striking change in the history of technologies.”
That’s quite a claim. He and the other supporters of this project believe it could transform the world’s relationship with energy. He believes it will happen within the next 40 – 60 years. It’s not quick but science that might change the world never is.
The journey to a new energy source – is our Horizons programme this week. Do watch it and tell me what you think on Twitter at @adamshawbiz