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Nuclear Fusion is no longer a pipe dream

Nuclear Fusion is no longer a pipe dream

It sounds like the stuff of dreams: a virtually limitless source of energy that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases or radioactive waste. That’s the promise of nuclear fusion, which for decades has been nothing more than a fantasy due to insurmountable technical challenges. But things are heating up in what has turned into a race to

It sounds like the stuff of dreams: a virtually limitless source of energy that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases or radioactive waste. That’s the promise of nuclear fusion, which for decades has been nothing more than a fantasy due to insurmountable technical challenges. But things are heating up in what has turned into a race to create what amounts to an artificial sun here on Earth, one that can provide power for our kettles, cars and light bulbs.

Today’s nuclear power plants create electricity through nuclear fission, in which atoms are split. Nuclear fusion however, involves combining atomic nuclei to release energy. It’s the same reaction that’s taking place at the Sun’s core. But overcoming the natural repulsion between atomic nuclei and maintaining the right conditions for fusion to occur isn’t straightforward. And doing so in a way that produces more energy than the reaction consumes has been beyond the grasp of the finest minds in physics for decades.

But perhaps not for much longer. Some major technical challenges have been overcome in the past few years and governments around the world have been pouring money into fusion power research. There are also over 20 private ventures in the UK, US, Europe, China and Australia vying to be the first to make fusion energy production a reality.

“People are saying, ‘If it really is the ultimate solution, let’s find out whether it works or not,’” says Dr Tim Luce, head of science and operation at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), being built in southeast France. ITER is the biggest throw of the fusion dice yet.

Its $22bn (£15.9bn) build cost is being met by the governments of two-thirds of the world’s population, including the EU, the US, China and Russia, and when it’s fired up in 2025 it’ll be the world’s largest fusion reactor. If it works, ITER will transform fusion power from being the stuff of dreams into a viable energy source.

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