The center of the Death Star. Engines in The Expanse. Missiles in Star Trek. Fusion reactors are everywhere in science fiction, serving as anything from weapons to clean sources of energy. We’ve had the technology for fusion weapons since the 1950s, but until now that second possibility has been forever out of reach. Over winter break scientists at Princeton University discovered that the injection of Boron powder can help stabilize plasma-dependent tokamak fusion reactors, paving the way for stable, clean fusion reactions.
That’s a lot of science words, but as far as we at the City Voice understand it, which, admittedly, is not very far, plasma is really hot. Really hot doesn’t do it justice. Plasma is so hot it has transcended such simple categorizations as solid, liquid, or gas, and created its own state of matter, plasma. As for hydrogen fusion, atoms contain a lot of energy at small levels. What can be called a “normal” atomic bomb relies on fission, the process of splitting one atom in half to release massive amounts of energy. Fusion is the exact opposite process. Fusion reactions occur when two separate atoms are forced together at very high speeds, fusing them into one. This, for a variety of very complicated science reasons, releases nearly four times as much energy as a fission reaction. Fusion is what powers the sun, and it releases so much energy that a network of only a few stabilized fusion reactors could theoretically supply all of the Earth’s energy needs while producing no pollution.
A tokamak fusion reactor uses the fusion process to produce plasma, which produces heat, which gets turned into electricity. The main problem with this is that the plasma cools quickly when exposed to the reactor walls, while scientists want to keep it as hot as possible. This new experiment successfully used Boron powder to insulate the plasma from the reactor walls, keeping the reaction hot and producing more energy. The use of Boron powder for insulation also proved more efficient and less dangerous than the injection of Diborane gas, which can become explosive under certain conditions.
While this is by no means a guarantee that the next time you turn on the lights the power will come from a star on Earth, it is another step forward in the research of this new technology. Clean hydrogen fusion could prove the solution to the world’s current climate crisis, although it is unlikely that the discovery will be soon enough to free humanity of our responsibility to clean up our mistakes. Our current energy systems are still doing a lot of damage to the world, and new advances can’t fix that overnight, but that doesn’t stop the small discoveries from being exciting.