The sparsity of fossil fuels and seemingly unending growth of the world’s energy demand is driving scientists and engineers to identify alternative energy sources.
The need to replace dwindling fossil fuel reserves and growing environmental concerns regarding global greenhouse gas emissions has led to an emphasis of focus on sustainable and viable alternatives.
Generating energy from renewable sources is an option currently being explored with renewable energy generating systems such as solar plants and wind turbines being installed throughout the world. However, the quantum and reliability of supply from these sources cannot meet the energy demands of the modern world alone.
Nuclear fission (the process operated by current energy producing nuclear reactors) produces large amounts of energy without carbon dioxide emissions. However, the production of large quantities of radioactive nuclear waste as a by-product, and the potential for losing control of fission reactions leading to nuclear meltdown, has curtailed its popularity.
So, is there a solution?
Not yet – but nuclear fusion, the process of fusing two atoms to generate energy (unlike to fission which splits atoms apart), is an area currently being invested in and explored heavily. The process, if achievable, presents a potential holy grail of energy generation.
It is able to produce vast quantities of energy from readily available raw materials, the reaction stops itself automatically if it somehow does go out of control, and it produces a fraction of waste materials compared to nuclear fission plants.
However, a sustainable energy generating fusion reaction has eluded scientists for decades, meaning nuclear fusion fuelled power generation is still beyond our grasp. Primarily, the problem rests in achieving a sustained hot plasma environment necessary for fusion reactions to occur.
But there is still hope, backing from investors in start-ups such as Tri Alpha Energy and the development of ever improving technology means a breakthrough may be on the horizon.
Google has also begun contributing by developing computer algorithms designed to work with humans to speed up experiments and resolve the complex problems currently preventing sustained nuclear fusion.
The use of Google’s algorithm has already paid dividends, and made progress on achieving nuclear fusion faster, with experiments previously taking a month to perform now taking just a few hours.
Interestingly, this also has larger implications in the greater scientific world. The problems faced in nuclear fusion are similar to those faced by scientists in a great number of other disciplines such as Medicine.
Although computer aided experimental design is not a new concept, the new algorithms developed by Google which work with humans, rather than independently, could have implications in other scientific research, vastly speeding up development and discovery.
Jay, Consultant, Leyton UK