Fission or Fusion?

The Creator of All Things conceived the dimensions of time, space, matter, and energy when He brought the universe (the heavens and the Earth) into existence (Genesis 1:1). In our contemplative, devotional moments we may marvel at the reality of each dimension of our existence. Our current post discusses the plentiful energy within matter. Gifted scientist Albert Einstein conceived of matter and energy as “two sides of the same coin” according to his famous equation e = mc2:  energy = mass times the square of the speed of light (a VERY large quantity).   

Fission and fusion have been linked with discussions about energy for many years. The concept of energy has been a part of our science knowledge for centuries. Energy has been defined as the “capacity for doing work.” Students deal with the topic of energy early in their study of science. Our civilization could not function without a plentiful supply of energy. 

Atomic fission is the opposite of fusion. In each of the two processes the composition of atomic nuclei is altered to create energy. A tiny bit of the atom’s mass is converted into huge amounts of energy in both processes.  

In 1945 the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were each struck by an atomic bomb developed by US scientists. The atomic bomb had been under secret development by our scientists for several years beginning in 1939. A neutron strikes and splits a uranium nucleus, forming smaller atoms. In this process tremendous quantities of energy are released. The energy release is the basis for the destructive power of the atomic bomb. Subsequently, scientists conceived a way of capturing the atomic energy for peaceful purposes: heating water and generating a different sort of energy—electricity—a staple of power to operate our factories and accomplish tasks in our homes. There are many nuclear power plants in the world generating electricity. Before important discoveries concerning electricity several hundred years ago, most work was accomplished manually by humans.

In fusion, smaller atoms such as hydrogen are chemically combined to produce larger atoms such as helium. Our Sun produces light and heat by a fusion reaction. Once again, a tiny amount of mass is converted into huge quantities of energy. The term mass/energy equivalence relates to the truth of the previous statement.

Just as the secrets of atomic fission were discovered slowly, first in theory, then applied to real phenomena, the secrets of fusion are still being discovered. Our gain of scientific knowledge of man’s use of fusion is slow and laborious. In the last decade of my teaching career there was a flurry of fascination with so-called “cold fusion.” If fusion could be achieved successfully without applying enormous heat and pressure—that would be a monumental discovery for the benefit of humanity!

In December 2022 US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm made the startling announcement of a major scientific breakthrough. Scientists had performed an experiment in which more energy was produced by a fusion experiment than was originally supplied to the experimental apparatus. What could be better than generating more energy than we contribute? The promise of cheap energy which does not generate carbon pollution as do fossil fuels holds great promise for mankind. The caveat appears to be that, even if amazing fusion technology is possible, a practical solution appears many decades away. There is no guarantee that useful fusion technology is probable.

Understanding the two methods of energy generation may be difficult for the non-scientist. But it is not difficult for the non-scientist to understand two facts related to the downside of both fission and fusion: (1) Fission: Even for peaceful purposes of electricity generation there is danger of a nuclear meltdown with release of harmful radioactive substances. In addition, the nuclear weapons arsenals of many of the world’s countries is beyond comprehension. The cost of development of nuclear bomb technology has been staggering. (2) Fusion: Several world nations have collaborated on fusion research in the mountains of Italy. The US share is $3.9 billion; other nations contribute about $20 billion. Moreover, the laser energy needed to achieve fusion is still currently many times the fusion energy produced. The optimism that we have achieved a stunning breakthrough may be misplaced. 

The Creator has endowed human scientists with the ability to discover and utilize a wealth of energy resources. Man’s ability to discover multiple sources of energy and use them for our benefit is one of many evidences of God’s love for humanity. 

“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” (I John 3:1a NIV) God lavishes us with love not only in the realm of theological faith but also in the realm of science.

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