The Holy Grail of Energy Generation Might Finally Be Within Our Grasp

8th April, 2022.      //   Space Travel, Technology  // 

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If you’ve ever been outside during the day, you’ve seen a fusion reactor—though you’re not supposed to stare directly at it. The sun is our fusion reactor in the sky. It’s constantly fusing hydrogen atoms to create helium, and this process generates a massive amount of energy, which produces the light and heat that make life on Earth possible.

Long-duration energy storage — defined as a system that can store energy for more than 10 hours — is often called the Holy Grail of clean energy. It is the linchpin technology that will allow the economy to truly run off intermittent renewable energy sources and backup power after grid disruptions.

Here on the surface of this planet, we’re trying to replicate this process to revolutionize how we generate clean electricity. Fusion researchers believe this technology could be the key to meeting our vast energy needs. Depending on who you talk to, we’re either on the cusp of one of the most important breakthroughs in all of science and technology; or we’re a long way away from our goals.

It’s been the Next Big Thing for about 20 years. But maybe, just maybe, it really is the next big thing right now.

The Department of Energy launched an effort to push down costs of long-duration energy storage by 90 percent by 2030 as part of its Energy Earthshot Initiative.

“We’re going to bring hundreds of gigawatts of clean energy onto the grid over the next few years, and we need to be able to use that energy wherever and whenever it’s needed,” Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in a statement. “That’s why DOE is working aggressively toward cheaper, longer-duration energy storage to reach President [Joe] Biden’s goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2035.”

Whether a result of the Earthshot announcement or simply good timing, in the last month, big investors have backed a variety of energy storage startups using new technologies and promising low costs.

We’ve been on a quest to unlock the potential of nuclear fusion for a long time. Nuclear fusion was first achieved by British physicist Ernest Rutherford in 1934, when he and his colleagues discovered that they could bombard deuterium with deuterium nuclei (two versions of hydrogen with altered masses) to create helium.

Since then, we’ve been trying to harness the energy created by nuclear fusion to produce carbon-free electricity—a tremendous amount of it. The goal of fusion research is to achieve what’s called “ignition,” which is when the fusion reaction creates more energy than was used to spark the reaction.

“Matter itself contains a huge amount of energy, but we just don’t have a way of releasing it, except either through fission reactions—which also releases a lot of energy—or through fusion reactions.”

Fission is what happens in our existing nuclear reactors. That process involves splitting atoms, rather than combining them. We’re interested in developing a fusion reactor because it would produce roughly four times as much power as a fission reactor.

Alex Zylstra, an experimental physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told that there are many other benefits to fusion—most especially that there’s no possibility of a radioactive meltdown like what might occur in a fission reactor. In a fusion reactor, “it’s very easy to stop the reaction,” Zylstra said. “If anything goes wrong, it basically just stops automatically because it’s so hard to get going in the first place.”

One of the key concerns about nuclear power comes from people’s knowledge of major meltdowns that have occurred with fission reactors, but fusion wouldn’t have the potential to cause such a meltdown, which is one of the reasons it would be preferable for generating energy.

Zylstra said fusion also produces essentially zero long-lived radioactive waste. Its fuel, hydrogen, is nearly limitless (and extremely cheap) because it can be extracted from seawater. Nuclear fusion is essentially the carbon-free energy producer of our dreams.

“We need a lot of power and the power demand of the world just keeps going up in developing countries and emerging economies, so that’s a very hard challenge,” Zylstra said. “We need a lot of sources of new power that aren’t creating carbon dioxide, and fusion is potentially one of those if we can get it to work.”

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