Fusion-based power generation is widely regarded as the grand engineering challenge of this century. With moderate accomplishments so far and a lot more obstacles ahead, the world has gotten more and more doubtful about whether this theoretically feasible technology is ever going to become a reality.
The opposite to nuclear fission, during which a heavy atom disintegrates into lighter nucleuses, a fusion reaction merges two light atoms (of the same element) to form a heavier nucleus. Both fission and fusion produce an enormous amount of energy when compared to chemical fuels, but the latter comes with perks like widely available fuel (e.g. hydrogen), no long-lasting radioactive waste and no risk of nuclear meltdown. The attempts to harness fusion for power generation began in the 1940s. Despite the copious amount of funding and decades of scientific and engineering efforts, no one has come close to producing a sustainable fusion reaction that can power up the grid. This is why fusion energy is dubbed “the technology that is always thirty years away.”
To make fusion reactions viable for power generation, scientists and engineers face multiple serious obstacles. First of all, the core of the fusion reactor contains plasma, whose temperature could reach hundreds of millions degrees Celsius (at least ten times higher than the solar core). To confine and direct the movement of the insanely hot atoms, scientists need to come up with the right containment materials and confinement method. Two of the current leading designs are Tokamak, a magnetic confinement device shaped like a donut, and laser beam confinement. A second major hurdle is figuring out how to extract the enormous amount of fusion energy and convert it into electricity. Current strategies include steam turbines powered by heated fluid-steam conversion, lithium-ceramic blankets that utilize the neutrons from fusion, and other theoretical methods. Hopefully, by eliminating obstacles one after another, the world is inching closer to fusion power generation.
Video credit: Youtube/Kurzgesagt - In a Nutshell