Author’s note: A reasonable knowledge of quantum physics is helpful when reading this paper.
From the Japan disaster to the Chernobyl failure, nuclear power has gained popularity—and lack thereof—around the world. However, the key to unlimited power lies within the center of an atom, and through the discoveries of Thomas Edison and Lise Meitner, the world has managed to extract vast amounts of energy from uranium and plutonium. Unfortunately, the world’s store of radioactive materials is limited. Already, uranium and thorium, two fissionable elements, are in high demand and low supply, driving the prices of these materials up. Therefore, in response to the rising prices, scientists all around the world have come up with a solution—the ITER Deuterium Tritium Fusion Reactor.
Starting with some basic quantum physics, energy is extracted by either splitting or combining atoms. The force that binds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus of an atom is called the strong nuclear force. When two nucleons come together, the strong force takes over and binds them together. However, the force does not come from nothing. The nuclear force takes energy from the mass of the particle, turning mass into energy per the equation E=mc2. During this process, the energy that is transformed turns into radiant energy, leaving a force to bind the particles together. The energy then leaves the atom and is therefore attainable.
This is the tricky bit. As elements increase in number, the nucleons inside the nucleus also increase. Consequently, the nuclear force interactions increase as well. This results in lighter particles, since much of their mass has been turned into binding energy. This is shown by this graph. This is true for all the elements from hydrogen to iron. After iron, the nucleus becomes too large, and the nuclear force cannot hold the particles in place very well. Therefore, the nuclear force is diminished, meaning that the loss of mass per nucleon is less.
This is where fission and fusion come in. Fission is a word describing the splitting of an atom, thus making its atomic number decrease. Fusion, on the other hand, means the combining of two atoms, making their atomic number increase. The arrows on the graph above demonstrate this. In order to gain energy from either of these two processes, the resulting binding energy must be more than the initial binding energy. For instance, to gain energy from fission, atoms such as uranium (235U) that have a higher mass number than lead (56Fe), must be used. The resulting atoms of krypton (91Kr) and barium (142Ba) have a higher binding energy and a lower mass. Likewise, for fusion, the combining of two types of hydrogen, deuterium (2H) and tritium (3H), results in helium (4He) plus a spare neutron and loads of energy. In fact, fusion converts much more energy than fission per atom, demonstrated on the graph by the differences in binding energy between hydrogen and helium versus the relatively small difference between uranium and krypton.
Even though fusion is the more efficient process, there is a caveat. For hydrogen atoms to fuse, the hydrogen gas must be hotter than the center of the sun. That is extremely hot—150 million degrees Celsius to be precise. If the gas were to come in contact with any solid, the solid would immediately vaporize. To fix this, the gas must be suspended in space by a giant magnet, positioned around the gas in a donut shape. The ITER fusion reactor in Saint-Paul-lez-Durance, France will do exactly that, using the most plentiful element in the universe to supply energy to the south of France. The ITER reactor is currently being assembled by contractors representing China, the EU, India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and The USA. The first test is set for 2025, and the reactor should be fully operational by 2035. There is one risk, however. If the reaction were to escalate too quickly, or if the magnets stopped working, the reactor would blow up in an explosion more than one hundred times larger than that of a standard fission nuclear bomb. On the other hand, if it works, it will give the world unlimited power.
To learn more about ITER: https://www.iter.org/
Meet the Author
How old are you?
I am 15.
Where do you live?
I live in Southern California
What classes are you taking with TPS?
I am taking E3 Writing Foundations with Ms. Gaines.
What’s your favorite thing about writing?
I like expressing my opinions about science and politics in my writing, and I enjoy writing about topics that I am interested in, such as quantum mechanics and economics. Writing for fun also improves my skills, as writing was the most challenging subject for me as a child. However, taking two classes with Ms. Gaines at TPS really helped me improve my writing and made me feel confident about it.