on October 6th, 2023

The world of fusion energy has witnessed remarkable strides in recent years. The question that looms large is this: are we on the cusp of achieving practical fusion energy, and if so, what ramifications will it bring for electrical engineers and society at large?

For a century, scientists have delved into the intricacies of fusion energy, tirelessly working to harness its potential. Curiously, with each step forward, the finish line appears to recede into the distance. Nevertheless, the sheer magnitude of fusion’s promise demands our attention.

Fusion technology offers the tantalizing prospect of a secure and abundant stream of electricity, utilizing seawater-derived fuel to replicate the process that fuels our sun. Its environmental benefits are striking, as it generates no greenhouse gases and leaves minimal waste compared to traditional energy sources.

As global temperatures rise and energy demands surge alongside them, the quest for fusion has never been more pressing. It holds the potential to address both these pressing issues in tandem. Yet, despite its immense promise, fusion is often relegated to the status of a scientific curiosity rather than being recognized as the transformative solution it could be to a monumental global challenge.

This article examines the strides made in fusion energy research and its impending impact on electrical engineering.

Infographic depicting a typical fusion process.

Understanding Fusion Energy

Pursuing practical fusion energy remains one of humanity’s most formidable scientific and engineering quests. For over five decades, nuclear power plants have harnessed energy through fission, where heavy elements like uranium release heat when bombarded by neutrons.

In contrast, nuclear fusion operates on a different principle. Fusion reactors subject light atomic nuclei to extreme pressure and heat, causing them to merge into heavier nuclei, releasing energy. The challenge lies in achieving a net energy gain, making fusion a viable commercial energy source.

The primary fusion fuels are deuterium and tritium, both hydrogen isotopes. Deuterium can be inexpensively extracted from seawater, and tritium can be derived from lithium, which is abundant in nature. A single liter of water contains enough deuterium to theoretically produce as much energy as burning 300 liters (about 79.25 gal) of oil, promising a virtually limitless energy source.

Generating controlled fusion energy on Earth, however, presents persistent challenges. The key lies in managing plasma, the fourth state of matter, which is our fusion fuel. Hydrogen isotopes are heated to extreme temperatures and pressures within fusion reactors, creating superheated plasma where atomic nuclei collide and fuse, producing energy. However, the unpredictable nature of superheated plasma presents a significant hurdle in this endeavor.

Additionally, safety concerns have lingered in the fusion energy sphere, mainly due to misconceptions inherited from traditional nuclear fission reactors. Fusion reactors operate differently, mitigating radiation and accident risks.

Historically, private companies hesitated to enter the fusion realm, citing the immense capital needed for research and development. Nevertheless, a new era is dawning, with companies like Zap, Tokamak Energy (United Kingdom), and Thea Energy pioneering fresh approaches and revitalizing the fusion landscape.

Approaches to Fusion

Creating a fusion power plant capable of withstanding the extreme temperatures and pressures required is a monumental engineering feat.

To initiate fusion, deuterium-tritium fuel must reach temperatures around 100 million degrees Celsius, forming a fully ionized gas plasma that can be ignited.
The following two methods for achieving nuclear fusion (inertial and magnetic confinement) are being pursued:

Inertial Confinement Systems

Here, ion or laser beams compress a tiny fuel pellet to high densities, triggering ignition when critical conditions are met. This approach envisions rapid ignition of fuel pellets, generating heat used to produce steam for electricity generation.

Magnetic Confinement Systems

With this approach, electromagnets contain the plasma fuel, with promising designs like the Tokamak, a doughnut-shaped chamber. A powerful electric current increases the plasma’s temperature, aided by auxiliary systems like microwaves and accelerated particles, achieving temperatures in the hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius.

Sustainable Energy

Fusion provides a sustainable energy solution, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and mitigating climate change.

Resource Accessibility

Fusion fuels like deuterium are readily available, ensuring long-term energy security.

Clean Water

Fusion desalination could offer a sustainable solution for producing freshwater from seawater.

Industrial Advancements

Fusion technology enhances industrial processes, including more efficient welding and waste management.

Medical Applications

Fusion research yields insights into controlled plasma, benefiting medical diagnostics, imaging, and therapies.

Space Exploration

Compact fusion reactors could power deep space missions, enabling extended solar system exploration.

Electrical engineers at a power plant.

Electrical Engineers: Unsung Heroes of Fusion Research

Electrical engineers are considered among the many unsung heroes of fusion energy research, playing a pivotal role in pursuing clean and virtually limitless energy. Their expertise is indispensable in designing, testing, and maintaining the intricate electrical systems that power and control fusion reactors. These systems encompass a range of critical components, including high-voltage power supplies, current leads, and diagnostic equipment.

One of the primary responsibilities of electrical engineers in fusion energy research is to develop and optimize control systems. These control systems are the nerve center of fusion reactors, overseeing and managing the complex processes involved in achieving and maintaining fusion reactions.

Moreover, electrical engineers are at the forefront of pioneering new technologies for fusion research. They explore innovations that can enhance the performance and safety of fusion reactors, pushing the boundaries of what’s achievable in this cutting-edge field. Their work contributes to advancing nuclear fusion and the broader landscape of clean and sustainable energy solutions.

In addition to their core responsibilities in this area of fusion energy, electrical engineers often collaborate with professionals from various disciplines, including plasma physicists, mechanical engineers, and materials scientists.

This multidisciplinary approach is vital for addressing the complex challenges inherent in fusion research. It underscores the need for engineers to possess solid electrical engineering skills and the ability to collaborate and adapt in a dynamic and rapidly evolving field.

References

Nuclear Fusion Basics

Fusion energy is a reason to be excited about the future

Is fusion energy getting any closer to reality?

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