How much energy can people create at one time without losing control?
Fire a series of high-powered lasers at a tiny patch of hydrogen isotopes and you can initiate nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun. National ignition system
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How much energy can we generate at the same time without losing control? - Luis, age 9, Brookline, Massachusetts
There is a powerful source of energy above our heads, the sun. Since the sun is 150 million kilometers away from us, only one billionth of the total energy of the sun reaches the earth and creates a world full of life. The energy that the sun gives to the earth's surface every second is more than all the electricity that will be generated by all power plants in the world throughout 2018.
Here on earth, people drive machines primarily through energy production: for example, harvesting the energy from falling water and converting it into electricity in hydropower plants. In order to generate energy, one has to convert matter into energy.
One way to do this is to split atoms, the basic building blocks of all matter in the universe. If you do this in a controllable way, you can create a steady flow of energy. If you lose control, you also release a lot of energy in a nuclear explosion.
The core of every atom, the nucleus, is made up of even smaller particles, protons and neutrons. The force that holds the core together stores a large amount of energy. To extract energy from the core, scientists developed a process in which a heavy atom was split into lighter atoms. Since the lighter atoms don't need as much energy to hold the nucleus together as the heavier atoms, energy is released as heat or light. This process is known as nuclear fission.
When an atom is split, a chain reaction begins: the split atom triggers another atom to split, and so on. In order to make the chain reaction controllable, the scientists developed ways to slow down the splitting, for example the absorption of some of the split particles.
Nuclear power plants harvest the energy released by the controllable splitting of atoms. The largest nuclear power plant in the world is the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear power plant in Japan. It consists of seven nuclear reactors with a maximum output of around 8,000 megawatts. The world's largest single nuclear reactor is a link between the two reactors at China's Taishan Nuclear Power Plant. Each Taishan reactor has an output of 1,750 megawatts.
Diagram showing a nuclear reactor, turbine, generator, and condenser, and power lines leading to a residential area
This amount of energy is much less than in uncontrolled nuclear reactions like atomic bombs. Nowadays, the energy generated by the detonation of an atomic bomb is equivalent to the electricity that the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant will generate in six months.
A disadvantage of the split is nuclear waste. The split atoms are usually unstable and emit dangerous radiation. Nuclear waste must be properly stored for many years.
Fusion near and far
Scientists have also discovered another type of nuclear reaction that produces energy without nuclear waste. When two lighter atoms combine to form a heavier atom, the lost mass is converted into energy. This process is known as nuclear fusion. The fusion takes place in the core of the sun. Every second, the sun burns about 600 million tons of hydrogen into about 596 million tons of helium and provides energy equivalent to trillions of atomic bombs.
A cut-away representation of a solid metal structure with a cylindrical core surrounded by a hollow ring filled with blue light
However, it is very difficult to achieve nuclear fusion on Earth. The fusion only takes place under extreme conditions such as the very high temperatures and the pressure of the sun. Scientists have yet to demonstrate an effectively controllable nuclear fusion that produces more energy than it uses, but they are working hard on it. One possibility is to shoot high-powered lasers from different directions at a tiny patch of hydrogen isotopes.
Fusion energy would be a promising energy solution in the future. But don't forget, we have a huge nuclear fusion reactor over our heads, the sun. With the improved efficiency of solar energy, we don't even have to generate energy, we only have to grasp what the sun gives us every day.
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This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It is written by: Xuejian Wu, Rutgers University - Newark.
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Xuejian Wu does not work for any company or organization that would benefit from this article, does not consult stocks or companies that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond her academic appointment.
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