Nuclear Fusion Recedes Into Far Future For The 57th Time

Fusion Recedes Into Far Future For The 57th Time,  Clean Technica
,  Fusion has an amazing future as a source of energy. In space craft beyond the orbit of Jupiter sometime in the next two centuries. By Michael Barnard, November 9, 2021  Fusion has an amazing future as a source of energy. Which is to say, in space craft beyond the orbit of Jupiter, sometime in the next two centuries. Here on Earth? Not so much. At least, that’s my opinion.

Nuclear electrical generation has 2.5 paths. The first is nuclear fission, the part that is the major electrical generation source that provides about 10% of the electricity in the world today. 

And then there’s fusion. Where fission splits atoms, fusion merges them. Instead of radioactive fuel, there’s a lot of radioactive emissions from the merging of things like hydrogen-3, deuterium, and tritium that irradiates the containment structures. Lower radioactive waste that doesn’t last as long, but still radioactive waste for those who think that’s a concern…….

fusion generation of electricity, as opposed to big honking nuclear weapons using fusion, is a perpetual source of interest. When Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, talked about nuclear being “too cheap to meter” in 1954, he was talking about fusion, not fission. Like everyone since the mid-1950s, he assumed that fusion would be generating power in 20 years.

And so here we are, 67 years later. How is fusion doing?

Let’s start with the only credible fusion project on the planet, the ITER Tokamak project. It’s been around for decades. It planted its roots in 1985 with Gorbachev and Reagan. 35 countries are involved. Oddly, ITER isn’t an acronym, it’s Latin for “The Way,” a typically optimistic and indeed somewhat arrogant assumption about its place in the universe.

It’s supposed to light up around 2040. That’s so far away I hadn’t bothered to think much about it, as we have to decarbonize well over 50% of our economy long before that. As a result, I had a lazy read on it. I had assumed, as most press and indeed pretty much everyone involved with it asserted, that it would be generating more energy than it consumed, when it finally lit up…………..

ITER will require about 200 MW of energy input in total running as it creates 500 MW of heat. But the exergy of heat means that if it were tapped, it would only return about 200 MW of electricity. So it might be a perpetual motion machine, but one that wouldn’t do anything more than keep its lights running as long as you fed it tritium, about $140 million worth of the stuff a year.

And it gets worse. ITER is planning at the end of this process to maintain this for less than 3000 seconds at a time. That’s 50 minutes. This is at the end of the process. As they build up to less than an hour, mostly they’ll be working on fusion that lasts five minutes, several times a day. It’s a very expensive physics experiment that will not produce climate-friendly energy. It’s going to teach us a bunch, which I completely respect, but it’s not going to help us deal with climate change.

I expected more from ITER. Not much more. I mean, it is a million-component fission reactor expected to light up in 2040 and not generate any electricity at that point. But I had assumed based on all the press that it would generate more electricity than it used to operate if you bolted a boiler and some turbines to it, even if it were grossly expensive. Apparently not. Just grossly expensive, no net new electricity………..

However, ITER is not the only fusion reactor in the game. There are startups! And we all know startups make no promises that they can’t keep and are excellent at disclosure.

Like Helion. They have a photo-shopped peanut asserting it’s a 6th prototype with regenerative power creation that’s never achieved fusion that is backed by Peter Thiel! It just received $500 million more of VC funding, with an option to get up to $2.2 billion if they hit their targets!

I’m not sure if I could have made up a paragraph less likely to make me think that there was some there there.

The website is likely intentionally lacking in anything approaching detail. It’s low-information and VC friendly, which in the energy space is Thiel’s jam. He’s the guy who, despite being partnered with Elon Musk, has never realized that electrical generation was already being disrupted by wind and solar. His acolytes in startups disrupting energy crashed and burned, because he and they never bothered to do the hard work of understanding how electricity actually works at grid scale. At least Musk was solid on solar, although he got the wrong end of it and hasn’t quite figured that out yet.

While Helion has achieved 100 million degrees Celsius, it’s with a high-energy laser pulse — not new ideas, in fact 1950s ideas, just easier now — and they are incredibly coy about duration. The assumption to be taken is that it lasts for a picosecond at a time. They talk about their prototype having worked for months, but that means it’s maintaining a vacuum and occasionally creating plasma, a precursor to fueled fusion. Many years and tens of millions of dollars in, they are promising the moon, and soon. And to be clear, they are well behind on their initial schedule…………..

 fusion generating electricity appears to be as far away as ever.

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