The Future of Fusion Energy

Tomas Diaz de la Rubia leads efforts at Deloitte Consulting, LLP, to understand and anticipate new technological developments and their economic effects on his clients. For companies that focus on resources and energy, Tomas Diaz de la Rubia works with federal research facilities to identify and capitalize on innovation.

One technology that has significant promise is nuclear fusion. Fusion is the process that energizes the sun; it consists of hydrogen atoms joining to form helium atoms, releasing tremendous amounts of energy. The sun’s massive gravity creates the conditions for a controlled fusion reaction, but achieving the same thing on earth is far more difficult.

Self-sustaining fusion power promises to be a clean and safe energy. The isotopes required for its creation, tritium and deuterium, exist in virtually unlimited amounts, and fusion reactors would be less radioactive than fission reactors.

It was thought in the 1950s that fusion power was only 20 years off. This over-optimistic estimate has created skepticism, but today’s researchers maintain it is a real possibility, and are experimenting with two methods to create a fusion reaction that produces more energy than it consumes.

One technique involves firing lasers at fuel pellets, which would produce the required temperature of 100 million degrees Celsius. This has produced a small reaction, but not nearly enough to be self-sustaining.

The other method uses a powerful magnetic field to create heat. This led to the creation of a record 16 megawatts of power. Efforts are underway to improve on this output, but many scientists assert that fusion as a viable power source is still 40 to 50 years away.

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