Fusion energy: it is often called the holy grail for the energy industry. Oil and natural gas are finite, and their extraction is often a hotly contested debate between the energy industry and environmentalists. Wind, geothermal, solar, hydroelectric and nuclear energy—all touted as renewable energy—are most effective in certain environments or under certain conditions.
The power of wind is best harnessed while on a hill or in windy areas, while geothermal plants are located in seismically active areas such as Iceland, the Philippines and El Salvador. All three countries have at least a quarter of their electricity produced by geothermal power. Solar energy is often most effective in areas with lots of sun: the Middle East, California, the west coast of South America, parts of southern Europe and Australia all come to mind. Hydroelectric energy would only reach its full potential in countries with many rivers flowing through it. For example, China has tapped several of their rivers to generate energy, as well as Venezuela and the countries bordering the Mekong River (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand). Nuclear power has also been explored, but several high-profile incidents involving nuclear power plants (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima) have made people distrustful of the use of nuclear power.
Fusion power, once seen as an improbable source of power for our generation (any SimCity player should remember that in the game, fusion plants are not available until the middle of the 21st century), could actually be here sooner than you think. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed a method to calibrate fusion research rigs by using bent quartz crystals.
The Z Pulsed Power Facility (nicknamed the “Z-Machine”) uses a pellet holding a heavy hydrogen isotope, deuterium, in a large metal drum. Capacitors store and instantaneously release 27 million amps of current (which the facility calls the “Z Pinch”) that causes the deuterium pellet to implode and fuses some of the atoms together. These atoms then release powerful x-ray signals which are being studied to learn more about the fusion process. These signals will foster the advancement and development of fusion power and other forms of energy.
So just how are these signals read? That’s where the carefully bent quartz crystals come into play. The crystal lattices of these thin sheets of quartz, when bent in the appropriate way, act as a prism for x-ray signals, splitting them into specific sub-wavelengths that scientists can collect and analyze.
“There is a science and art to bending crystals, and we are one of the world’s leaders in that area,” said Lawrence Hudson, a physicist working in the Radiation Physics Division Dosimetry Group at the NIST, in a September 2015 report. Although similar methods have been tried in the past, this is one of the biggest breakthroughs in the development of fusion energy. “These newly bent quartz crystals are similar to what we have been using with the Z machine before,” says Sandia Labs’ Guillaume Loisel. “But we are using a new set of crystal cuts, or orientations, that are sensitive to a band of x-ray frequencies that haven’t been observed accurately on the Z machine to date.”
Fusion power requires containment of the power that will be generated in a highly specific manner. Another application is exploring the elemental makeup of our own Sun, which is still largely unknown to astronomers. Some scientists have observed that certain elements can potentially fuse at the core of a star.
With depleting fossil fuel supplies that cause environmental damage when extracted and renewable resources only reaching their full potential in certain environments, fusion power could become a dominate energy source during the 21st century if scientists can develop a method for creating it in a safe manner.