Earlier this year, a 14-year-old boy in Memphis, Tennessee made global headlines when he became the youngest person in the world to build a working nuclear reactor–in his bedroom.
Jackson Oswalt started building the steel device, made of vacuums, chambers and pumps and small enough to rest on his desk, when he was just 13. It is capable of smashing atoms together to release bursts of energy, and when questioned, his father admitted that his understanding of what his son was doing amounted to “little to nothing”.
While incapable of making commercially viable amounts of energy, Jackson’s creation highlights the direction in which the issue of global energy production needs to progress.
The race is on to develop a nuclear fusion reactor which creates more energy than it uses up, the holy grail of energy technology.
Harnessing the power that fuels entire stars such as our own sun is attractive, especially considering the fact that zero carbon emissions are involved. Just a few grams of hydrogen isotopes are required to initiate the process. This is earth’s most common component, and can be collected easily in just sea water.
One of the challenges facing the world’s best engineers is creating a temperature high enough for fusion to take place. Extreme temperatures and pressure which mimic the core of the sun are required, and since this is impossible to recreate on Earth, temperatures must be raised to at least the realm of a mind-boggling 100 million degrees in order to create the conditions in which fusion can occur.
Toward the end of last year, in a world first, China managed this, with the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, known as EAST.
This”artificial sun”achieved the required temperature by superheating plasma electrons to six times the heat of the sun, making EAST – if only for a split second – the hottest place in the solar system.
China’s inclination toward nuclear-powered clean energy resources is growing rapidly. Liu Hua, of the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, recently stated that China will begin construction of several new nuclear power plant projects this year (fission not fusion).
Currently, there are 45 operational reactors on the Chinese mainland. The combined total energy output of these stations is a whopping 46 gigawatts, which is the third-highest globally.
The government is not looking to stop there, however, with 11 more nuclear plants currently under construction in various parts of the mainland. The national plan is to have sufficient nuclear infrastructure in place so that by 2020, China has a capacity of 58 gigawatts.
If major breakthroughs in nuclear fusion continue to progress, however, these construction projects will be rendered futile. Under nuclear fusion, one helium isotope can produce up to six times more energy than a single atom of uranium, under currently possible nuclear fission technology. It is estimated by many experts that this breakthrough is highly likely to occur within the next 50 years, if not sooner.
However, other factors are at play, which may hinder the world’s progress toward a solution for our universal energy problem. Global and political pressure could affect research, if proper safeguarding practices are not heeded. Incidents like the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, for example, are huge setbacks to the development of the nuclear industry. However, it is worth remembering that hydrogen fills our oceans in the form of water, and it is literally an inexhaustible energy source which would be more reliable and potent than current renewable options.
The days of coal are also more numbered than people think. The majority of coal comes from a geological time window period hundreds of millions of years ago, where bacteria which could decompose tree wood had not evolved yet, allowing coal to form. What little is left of our coal reserves is fast depleting too. Imagine if we had the magic ability to, in essence, turn water into petrol instead? This would be worth waiting for.