A plasma generator is a piece of equipment that uses nuclear fusion power to create clean, renewable energy without long-lived toxic byproducts. The idea is to harness the power of the sun, but on a smaller scale, and use it to generate energy for use on earth. If this could be done sustainably, it would eliminate the need for power plants that rely on fossil fuels or nuclear fission.
Energy-Producing Nuclear Fusion
The sun's core is composed of hydrogen gas. The fusion of hydrogen atoms in the core creates helium, and a byproduct of the process is the abundant energy that the sun emits. The reaction occurs between two isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium and tritium. Researchers are trying to replicate this process to develop a new way of generating clean power with an inexhaustible source: the hydrogen naturally found on Earth.
The principle of nuclear fusion, which powers the sun and other stars, is different from nuclear fission that is the source of current nuclear power. In the fusion process, atoms fuse together to create energy, whereas the fission process involves dividing atoms for the same purpose.
With power plants that utilize nuclear fission, there is always the risk of a perilous chain reaction that could result in a nuclear meltdown. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster is one of the most famous and catastrophic nuclear power plant accidents, but there have been others all over the world, including the incident at Fukushima, Japan, in 2011.
In a fusion-based plasma generator, there is no risk of a devastating chain reaction, and no long-lived toxic byproducts are produced, either. Since the 1950s, a common type of experimental plasma reactor has been the tokamak, which uses a magnetic field to contain the plasma and an electrical current to heat it to the appropriate temperature for fusion. There are several notable examples of tokamak reactors:
- Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor in the United States: This reactor, built in the 1980s at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, ran for about 15 years and set several records in nuclear fusion research.
- International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France: This project is groundbreaking because of its international scope. At various times since the early 1990s, ITER has involved collaboration between the Soviet Union, the European Union, Japan, the United States, Canada, France, China, South Korea, India, Australia, Kazakhstan and Russia.
- Korean Superconducting Tokamak Reactor in Korea: Known as KSTAR, this reactor is also a product of international collaboration and is part of the research for ITER.
- Experimental Advanced Superconductor Tokamak in China: This tokamak, also called EAST, was built and put into service in 2006 and is designed to test various materials and operations for ITER.
- Joint European Torus and Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak in the United Kingdom: JET has the distinction of having produced the first controlled fusion power. The project has also pioneered the use of remote handling in its maintenance practices. Both JET and MAST are involved in preparations for the ITER project.
History of Nuclear Fusion and Plasma Generators
It was during the 1930s that scientists first discovered nuclear fusion and understood that it was the basis for the sun's power. Since that time, various organizations have poured resources into developing a process for using fusion to power the world's machinery.
Scientists have been searching for a successful cold nuclear fusion process for decades. Eliminating the need to heat the particles to get them to fuse would immensely simplify the procedure. However, most researchers have given up on this idea and have moved on to using heat from microwaves or lasers to start the reaction.
The implications of sustainable energy through plasma generators are enormous. Although the idea of nuclear fusion is not new, global issues including climate change, energy costs, acid rain and air pollution have driven this technology into the forefront of the quest for renewable energy. The importance of the goal is evident in the international collaboration on plasma generator projects.
Implications of Using Plasma Reactors To Generate Power
Although nuclear fusion technology does not involve the inherent risks of nuclear fission, there are still potential impacts on the environment. Creating large, stable amounts of energy using thermonuclear fusion requires larger facilities than generating the same amount of energy through fission. Therefore, if the fusion process were to become a standard in energy generation, it would involve the building of many large structures all over the globe.
The net impact on plants and animals would most likely be positive. Nuclear fusion power does not contribute to global warming or the creation of acid rain the way current energy-generation technologies do.
Using plasma reactors as a power source would mean a significant reduction in carbon emissions throughout the earth. It would also mean that nuclear fission reactors could become obsolete, eliminating the current risk of long-lived toxic waste and catastrophic meltdowns releasing radiation near nuclear power plants.
The Question of Radioactivity
One of the main reasons that nuclear fusion power is so sought after is because of its promise of clean energy. However, this issue needs to be researched and addressed further. Greenhouse emissions and radioactive waste are two of the major factors propelling the shift toward cleaner energy generation, so it is worth considering whether there is any risk of radioactive contamination in the use of nuclear fusion technology. The truth is, some of the components used to build plasma generators would become irradiated during their service life, creating radioactive waste, but they would not remain so for as long as the wastes from fission reactors. Nuclear fission power, which is currently used to supply industrial and residential energy, creates radioactive waste with a long half-life. When there is an accident at a nuclear fission power plant, one of the ongoing concerns is radioactive contamination of the surrounding area, even if the initial reaction does not result in direct fatalities.
Another worry with regard to plasma generators stems from the fact that they use deuterium and tritium in the fusion process. If tritium were released into the environment, it would quickly contaminate the atmosphere and local water sources. Tritium is difficult to contain, so this is a significant concern. One possible solution is to perfect the process of fusing deuterium with deuterium, eliminating tritium from the equation.
Plasma Generators and the Future
Scientists around the world have been searching for a source of clean, renewable energy for a very long time. If plasma generators eventually become common and reliable sources of power, they could create an almost limitless amount of energy from readily available sources. A cleaner energy generation method could eliminate some of the world's air pollution problems and slow the process of climate change.
You could be affected in several ways if nuclear fusion becomes a common energy source. Aside from the obvious benefits of potentially cleaner air and water, there is a chance that this energy would be more cost-effective in the long run.
In the bigger picture, the hope is that if clean, affordable, renewable energy could be made available to everyone, it would alleviate several global problems:
- Poverty: People around the world live in abject poverty, without access to clean energy. When families burn dung and other dirty fuels, their cooking, eating and living areas become polluted and often cause disease.
- Environmental pollution: Burning dirty fuels, whether in a household setting or at a commercial power plant, affects the surrounding ecosystem. The resulting contamination of air and water is a problem at the local level. Dirty air contributes to health problems such as asthma, and unclean water is hazardous to the health of humans, animals and crops.
- International conflicts: A number of wars have been attributed to energy dependency and fighting over access to fossil fuels. Moving the earth's population away from fossil fuel dependency and toward a source of renewable energy would alleviate these issues as a source of conflict, decreasing the number of casualties worldwide.
Further Research and Experimentation Needed
Although the future of plasma generators and nuclear fusion technology looks promising, more research is needed before it can be built into a large-scale, sustainable model that can generate more energy than it uses. There are several research funds that you can donate to today to develop this technology:
- Benefunder's Clean Energy Impact Fund: This fund raises money for research in the field of clean energy, including solar power, biofuel and plasma energy.
- David Hammer at Cornell University: Dr. Hammer, along with a team of graduate students, explores high energy density fusion, like that found at the sun's core, using pulsed power generators.
- Focus Fusion Society: FFS is a non-profit organization pursuing the goal of aneutronic fusion energy, which would theoretically produce energy with zero radioactive wastes.
- The New Energy Foundation: NEF seeks tax-deductible donations to further its research into cold fusion technology.
Whether you decide to lend financial support to any of these ventures, watch for upcoming developments in large-scale plasma generator enterprises. The ITER project, for example, is projected to switch on in December of 2025 and begin deuterium-tritium operations in 2035. With so many international players collaborating on the technology, the future of energy looks clean, bright and renewable.