Nuclear technology: what’s the future?

Could you be creating future nuclear technology? You are quite literally the future. You might not think it now, sitting on your desk, head buried into a textbook – but in a few years, it will be some of you, headlining the news. The new discoveries made in science will be your research. The strides being made today will ultimately become your dissertations, your livelihoods, and jobs.

Just recently, MIT made a truly startling announcement. In as little as 15 years nuclear fusion might be commercialized, and the energy produced from this method put on the grid.

I imagine most of you are quite familiar with nuclear power plants. These revolutionary buildings supply 11% of all of the world’s energy, and are currently one of the greenest alternative fuel sources. Nuclear power plants today operate on a concept called nuclear fission. This process involves the decay, i.e. the splitting apart, of unstable heavy isotopes into smaller atoms. During this phenomena vast amounts of energy, in the form of heat, is released and thus used to generate electricity.

However, there are still a large number of problems associated with it:

  1. Risk of nuclear leak e.g. nuclear power plant disaster in Fukushima (which to this day remains uninhabited).
  2. The risks associated with mining the very rare uranium and plutonium, and the disposal of large amounts of spent fuel rods. The current solution to this problem remains, burying it thousands of meters below the ground and letting future generations deal with it. Earlier solutions were found in the form of dumping it into large ocean trenches, and praying that nothing leaked.
  3. The split atoms that are produced are often radioactive themselves, and oftentimes have half-lives upwards of millions of years, which means they take a very long time before they are no longer harmful.
  4. Nuclear sources are not renewable once decayed, cannot be reverted back into its unstable form.
  5.  We have become too dependent on nuclear sources for energy. The scarcity of these radioactive isotopes will become a problem for the future.

The future of nuclear technology: sustainability?

The flip-side of nuclear fission, is nuclear fusion. It is quite a simple concept, and is done every day by our very own sun. The combination of two hydrogen atoms (usually hydrogen and helium, unless it is a very old star), into a larger atom (in this case helium), will release vast amounts of energy. If this method could be recreated, it would be:

  • Completely green
  • Carbon-free
  • An inexhaustible source of energy

The problem is, the temperature needed are in the range of hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius. Not only is there the issue of reaching the temperature, of quite literally the sun, but of having a material able to withstand these temperatures in which to carry out the procedure. MIT was able to create very powerful and small magnets. Capable of producing a magnetic field able to levitate the hydrogen in the air, whilst being subjected to these temperatures.

It is still early days and there are many more aspects that need to be addressed. However, we have taken a giant stride towards green energy. It will be up to the scientists of tomorrow to solve the other issues and develop sustainable nuclear technology.

Written by Sophie Z.

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