Energy shortage could become a thing of the past and so could the concerns about global warming if what the US scientists have achieved could be rolled out commercially. The US Department of Energy has announced that its scientists have at last achieved a breakthrough in ‘fusion technology’ for generating electricity. The efforts at achieving this are not new, of course. For close to one hundred years, since the days of the brightest discoveries in nuclear physics in the 1930s, scientists have been trying to produce electricity from ‘fusion’ as opposed to ‘fission’. Currently, nuclear power plants generate electricity through fission, which is splitting an atom to generate heat and thus boil water to generate power. Although present-day nuclear plants are cleaner than those based on burning fossil fuels, these are not very safe. Fission-based plants have huge by-products of radio-active materials which have an exceedingly long life span. These have to be stored in extremely safe ways so that their radioactivity does not spread into the neighbouring areas of the plant or the storage areas. This makes the present nuclear plants difficult to handle and confined to only a few developed countries. These are not effective alternatives for use of fossil fuels.
Fission is the opposite route. It is joining up two atoms to generate heat. This is the process through which the sun and other stars are known to produce energy and heat. Doing fusion on earth would be to reproduce what is happening constantly at the core of the sun. America’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory has achieved just this, as the US energy secretary has announced. Once again, this is not a new achievement. Two other laboratories are trying to achieve this for many, many years now. One is in a village in England and the other is on a hillside in France. The latter is a joint effort by scientists from thirty-five other countries, of which nine are most active, including India. The critical factor is that the energy produced must be more than the energy consumed in the effort and that should be stable for a longer period. While the basic science has been by and large known and established, the issue is one of solving some related matters and that of implementation through engineering. Going by the statement of the US energy department, these related issues of implementing a stable fusion reaction appear to have been resolved.
But even then, the actual availability of electricity from fusion is not near just now. To do this on a commercial scale, it will call for efforts on a prolonged basis and could be expected to be available only sometime in the future. However, as the US Energy department says, some hopes of a near-future solution are at hand. There are underlying tensions in this scientific effort as well. The foundation block of the fusion process, that is, extremely powerful magnets to start and hold the process, was first discovered and engineered by Soviet scientists. Called tokamaks, these were structured by the Russians years back. The excitement about fusion technology as a solution for mankind’s energy problems is that it is clean. It uses an atom that is available in plenty in nature — it is from water. That is, just one glass of water could give enough material to produce electricity for a year for a city.