As a British physicist who was once program manager for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, a government research organization responsible for the development of an elusive nuclear power source, Professor Colin Windsor has kept his finger on the slow pulse of fusion.
At Franklin & Marshall College’s March 3 virtual Common Hour, Windsor reviewed the history of nuclear fusion – an abundant energy source that produces no harmful emissions or radiation – and its potential for helping save the planet from climate-change catastrophe.
“I read that about 80 percent of U.K. citizens now think there’s a climate emergency,” he said. “Today’s question is what we can do about it? How can we act now to get energy sources that are safe, sustainable, CO2-free, and baseload?”
Using a slide show from his home in Oxford, where he earned his doctorate in 1963 in “Magnetic Properties of Coupled Systems,” Windsor explained that fusion would serve as a baseload energy source – always available on the grid, particularly when the wind doesn’t blow for the turbines and the sun doesn’t shine for the solar panels.
“Sometimes it’s cloudy and there’s no wind for months,” he said. “So what are you going to do then? … You have to have some storage.”
Since the mid-20th century, science has struggled to overcome the barriers to fusion’s commercial use, which once seemed decades away from becoming an actuality, but now appears possible in less that 10 years, Windsor said.
“To fight climate change, we need a new way of getting energy,” he said.
Why the general public, and not just the scientific community, is eager to perfect nuclear fusion for energy is what it would replace—nuclear fission. Fission is how nuclear bombs explode. It’s highly radioactive and devastatingly dangerous, as the nuclear fission power plant accidents showed at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in 1977, Russia’s Chernobyl in 1986, and Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi in 2011.
“Fission is really very much more dangerous than fusion,” Windsor said. He noted that “these three very horrible accidents that occurred in our lifetime … they couldn’t possibly happen with fusion.”
Windsor said fission splits one heavy atom to release energy while fusion fuses or merges lighter atoms to give off energy. Fusion powers the sun.
Referring to Three Mile Island’s accident, where the water that keeps the fission fuel rods stable had drained and caused a meltdown, Windsor said, “In fusion that never happens because the fuel is not stored inside the system, but gets injected there exactly as you need it, pulse by pulse.”
To perfect fusion requires a complex series of conditions that essentially keeps the process stable while it produces energy. Researchers are close to realizing the means to stabilizing fusion.
“Instability is one of the biggest problems of fusion,” Windsor said. “That’s why fusion is so hard.”
Dozens of private companies around the world, in addition to governments, are working on perfecting fusion including Tokamak Energy, where Windsor serves on the advisory board. The company is named after a device conceptualized and built by Russian physicists in the 1950s.
A tokamak uses a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma in the shape of a three-dimensional circle or torus. The machine is one of several magnetic confinement devices being developed to control thermonuclear fusion power, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
While fusion would provide safe, clean and abundant energy, its cost to consumers, “will be comparable to what we’re paying now,” Windsor said.
"To fight climate change, we need a new way of getting energy."