Fusion Energy and Northwest School Sustainability

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By Ursula T. ’23

The climate crisis is a prevalent issue in the modern world, and many people are working day and night to solve it. There have been many advancements around the world on smaller and bigger scales, specifically there has been progress in the research for sustainable energy sources. Hydroelectric, wind, and solar power are the most commonly talked about sustainable energy sources, but there is ongoing research on even more sources, and recently there were huge advancements in the world of fusion energy. Fusion energy is one of the best experimental clean energy sources scientists have been exploring, but it is still in it’s testing stages and far from being usable. 

Northwest currently has a goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2030 and though fusion energy is not usable at the moment there are big plans to reach the goal. According to Annika W. ‘22, a leader of the Environmental Interest group at Northwest and a long time activist for environmental sustainability this means, “to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions from sources that NWS directly controls and electricity (from Seattle City Light but we may propose to add solar panels) by 2030. Also buying offsets to counterbalance emissions which we cannot currently control (e.g. air travel until planes can run on electricity or alternative fuels). Specifically, all emissions from student programs/administrative airplane trips offset by 2022, and then student travel and domestic commuting offset by 2030.” The Carbon Neutrality Task Force is currently working within Northwest School to make these goals come true and includes faculty, students, and parents. Though the Northwest School’s changes will not greatly impact the overall climate crisis and most of Washington already runs on clean energy like hydropower, every step helps, and it sets a precedent for other independent schools to follow. We have already been seeing the disastrous effects of climate change with the numerous weather crises that have been occurring in the US like the Pacific Coast heat wave last summer and the snow storm in Texas last winter, showing that it is important to shift the current habits around energy use. Many infrastructures are not designed to withstand these drastic changes, which is why the research and implementation of clean energy sources, and advancements in sources like fusion energy is so important.

Fusion energy is a unique alternative energy source that is appealing for many reasons like it uses water as fuel. Fusion is a process that happens naturally in a lot of different places, like the sun. It occurs when two smaller atoms merge together to create a larger one and release massive amounts of energy. The problem with using fusion energy is that it produces temperatures that are far higher than any solid materials can handle. The only way to control it is to suspend the energy in a way where it does not come in contact with anything that it can melt. The easiest way to keep anything from melting materials is using intense magnetic fields. These fields can contain the heat from the protons and electrons that form plasma when using fusion energy. The particles have an electric charge which makes them very easy to be controlled by magnetic fields. The device that is often used to contain the plasma that is generated is called a tokamak. A lot of these devices have used copper electromagnets in order to produce a magnetic field and those have not been strong enough, but there have also been experiments in France using low temperature superconductors.

Recently MIT had a major breakthrough in developing an effective fusion energy device. Using high energy superconductors allows for the creation of strong magnetic fields in smaller spaces. They were able to do this by using a superconductive material made available a few years back. Previously the only way to create strong enough magnetic fields to contain the extreme heat of plasma was to make larger and larger devices, but the innovation of high temperature superconductors decreases that issue by being able to produce a magnetic field that is the same strength as a device that would’ve been 40 times bigger using low temperature superconductors. These huge leaps in the progress of fusion energy means that we will likely see fusion energy power plants popping up in the next few years. Hopefully that will lead to a cleaner world and a great decrease in fossil fuel production, but we will not see these effects for a while. Northwest and other institutions cannot benefit from fusion energy at the moment, but that does not mean that they cannot engage in the fight for a cleaner world, and maybe we will see new clean energy sources in the Northwest School’s future.

If you are wondering how you can help on Northwest’s quest to carbon neutrality Annika has the answers for you, “We do want to continue working on a Sustainability Action Plan in 2022 and beyond, because there is so much energy within the Task Force and the school to make change. That’s a perfect opportunity for anyone to join, and we’ll send out info. Also, we’re going to try to present at community meetings and keep people more up-to-date, so we always appreciate feedback/any ideas about this project (email jenny.cooper@northwestschool.org, or me, anweber@northwestchool.org and we can pass on your thoughts).” You can do your part in the fight for a sustainable world by keeping up with the Northwest School’s sustainability mission. Even by making small steps in your own life to combat climate change you are helping the world.  


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