What is nuclear fusion and how can it help fight climate change?

Rebecca Thair
By Rebecca Thair,
updated on Apr 2, 2023

What is nuclear fusion and how can it help fight climate change?

Revolutionising the way we source energy is of paramount importance in the fight to address climate change, and a recent breakthrough has everyone talking about the power of nuclear fusion…

With the climate crisis ever-present in the news, and regular promises from the people in charge about cutting carbon emissions – such as the UK’s pledge, set into law in 2021, to slash emissions 78% by 2035 – you might be wondering what action is actually being taken. How can these emissions targets realistically be achieved?

A new hope for net zero came at the end of 2022, with environmentalists around the world rejoicing at news that had been 60 years in the making. What got everyone so excited? The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility, in California, announced a huge breakthrough in the development of nuclear fusion, revealing it had achieved “ignition”. This meant that, for the first time, scientists used nuclear fusion to create more energy than was required to produce it. So, why is this such a big deal?

What is nuclear fusion?

Initially discovered in the 1930s, nuclear fusion mimics the process that powers stars – including our sun. In a controlled space, at extreme temperatures and pressure, atoms are forced together. This causes them to form heavier atoms, releasing significant amounts of energy as they do so.

The goal is about achieving ‘net energy gain’, or ‘scientific breakeven’, by creating more energy through a process than it requires to make it, with the US Energy Secretary, Jennifer Granholm, calling this milestone moment “one of the most impressive scientific feats of the 21st century”.

How can nuclear fusion help the environment?

It might sound very space age, and, honestly, as much as I’ve simplified the explanation, it’s all incredibly complicated to do, which is why people are getting excited about the possibilities this breakthrough holds for sustainable energy.

In essence, not only could a nuclear fusion reactor create more energy than it consumes, it creates no greenhouse gases or carbon in the process. This means that, if harnessed correctly, nuclear fusion could provide us with a clean, limitless energy source – eradicating the need for fossil fuels. Plus, it has no risk of a meltdown, as with nuclear fission which involves splitting atoms.

Reaching net zero – what else could help?

• Investing in low-cost solar, battery, and wind power could contribute to halving emissions produced from creating electricity by 2030, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

• Government policies pushing support towards electric cars and other vehicles, would help to drastically cut fuel requirements and emissions. In a positive outlook, electric car sales increased 41% in 2020, noted in the Global EV Outlook 2021.

• Rewilding projects help to redress the balance with nature, by increasing plantlife that will help to take CO2 from the air.

What does this mean for the future of energy?

Firstly, we can’t get too ahead of ourselves. While this is a big milestone, there is a long way to go before nuclear fusion can be effectively used around the world, and plugged into the power grid. For one thing, this test saw scientists have 50% more energy output than consumed, but the power generated was still minimal – about 0.9 kilowatt-hours, AKA the energy it takes to power a microwave (based on EDF Energy usage estimates).

Given the temperatures required are astronomical, literally that of the stars but in this case created by lasers, it’s understandable that it’s tricky to control, and will require a much bigger reactor to increase output levels. The good news is that the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is already under construction in France, and is due to be operational in 2025.

The future is looking bright for this exciting scientific revelation, with hopes that nuclear fusion could be producing electricity by 2030, and helping to address the UK’s aim to be three-quarters of the way to net zero by 2050. However, the intention is not to replace renewable sources such as wind and solar power, but to supplement them. To address the climate crisis will require many elements to come together, not a single moonshot, but the possibilities of nuclear fusion have certainly put a twinkle in the eye of scientists, and sparked a continuing drive to fuel our world better.

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