Nuclear fusion: the end of our energy problem?

CNN January 25, 2018

Professor Thomas Klinger heads up one of the world’s most advanced nuclear fusion projects at the Max Planck Institute in Greifswald, Germany, where 400 scientists from around the world have invested over one million manpower hours to build the Wendelstein 7-X, a prototype nuclear fusion reactor.

It’s called nuclear fusion: a method to produce energy which promises to be limitless, clean and accessible to all.

Nuclear fusion is the same process that powers the sun, and it’s what scientists are trying to imitate to create a power source on earth that could one day replace fossil fuels entirely, offering limitless and clean energy.

For the moment, this is just a test, since it consumes far more energy than it creates. But it will provide valuable data if we are ever to build a nuclear fusion power plant.

This is a different process from the one used in traditional nuclear plants, which use fission. The risks associated with these plants have resulted in accidents such as Chernobyl in 1986 and the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Nuclear fusion, which Klinger and his colleagues are working on, promises to be safe, and generates no radioactive waste or other byproducts.

The Wendelstein 7-X experimental fusion reactor.

To explain how it works, Klinger uses a simple analogy: “It’s like a pool billiards game,” he says, describing nuclear fission as the moment when the balls on the table first break, and nuclear fusion as individual balls colliding.

“Nuclear fusion is fusing light nuclei, nuclear fission is splitting heavy nuclei. The fuel we are using from nuclear fusion is much more energy efficient, it’s 10 million times more energy efficient than burning coal.”

Nuclear fusion has been studied for decades and the Wendelstein is one of a number of fusion projects worldwide. Among them is the ITER project in Southern France, partly funded by the European Union. But Klinger affirms that the manpower, brainpower and over $1 billion of investment here in Northern Germany are worth it. “Wendelstein 7-X is clearly one of the most advanced machines in the world, and it’s also a big hope.”