Imagine being able to produce more than enough energy to last your whole lifetime from half a bathful of water and the amount of lithium that’s in your phone battery!

This is something that is thought to be possible – we’ve just got to find a way to do it.

Nuclear power, which relies on nuclear fission to generate electricity.  The atoms are split in a chain reaction, during which energy is released.  There is no carbon dioxide produced, unlike in fossil fuel power stations, but the resultant waste is radioactive and requires careful handling and storage to prevent leakages and disasters, (spoiler alert – nuclear waste doesn’t really glow green and it most certainly doesn’t make you glow in the dark!!).

The biggest source of energy in the Solar System, though, is the Sun.  This relatively humble star that dictates our days and nights, climate and even the fact that we have life on the planet, gets its energy from nuclear fusion.  That’s right – it’s the opposite of fission – it joins atoms of hydrogen together to produce nuclei of heavier elements, such as helium (another spoiler  – astronomers discovered helium in space by observing the Sun, before it was found on Earth!) to generate unbelievable amounts of energy, (yet another spoiler – the Sun isn’t really on fire, there’s no oxygen in Space so it wouldn’t be able to burn!)

How 'miniature suns' could provide cheap, clean energy - BBC News

The problem with nuclear fusion here on Earth is that the conditions required for it too occur are so extreme that up until now, Scientists have not been able to find a way to carry out the reaction with a small enough energy input.  Put simply, because of the massive size of the Sun’s gravitational pressure, the fusion reactions in space can occur at  around 10 million degrees Celsius, but due to the lower pressures available on Earth, scientists would have to rely on temperatures upwards of 100 million degrees Celsius – which would be far too extreme for any material to survive.

However, because no materials exist that can withstand direct contact with such heat. So, to achieve fusion in a lab, scientists have devised a solution in which a superheated gas, or plasma, is held inside a doughnut-shaped magnetic field and it was announced this week that the Joint European Torus (JET), sited at Culham in Oxfordshire have managed to produce 59 megajoules of energy, (11 megawatts of power), in an experiment that ran for just 5 seconds.

JET reactor

The work is now bebing transferred to a laboratory in France for continuation.

This makes the possibility of a clean, virtually unlimited energy resource a much more of am likelihood.   We could be nearing the end of air pollution from burning fossil fuels!

Until next time, keep calm and apply some Science!


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