Archive for the ‘nuclear fusion’ Category

Nuclear Fusion Recedes Into Far Future For The 57th Time

December 25, 2021

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.

International Thermonuclear Experimental (fusion) Reactor (ITER) will consume as much power as it will generate

December 25, 2021

The ITER organization has confirmed that the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is not designed to produce net power. This disclosure comes four years after articles in New Energy Times revealed that the ITER design is equivalent to a zero-net-power reactor.

In an article in the French newspaper Le Canard Enchainé last week, Michel Claessens, the former ITER organization spokesman, explained the ITER power discrepancy.

“For many years, it was claimed that the reactor will generate ten times the power injected. It is completely wrong. Thanks to a patient investigation, the American journalist Steven Krivit showed that ITER will consume as much [power] as it will generate,” Claessens said. “We know now that the net [power] balance will be close to zero.”

 New Energy Times 3rd Nov 2021

It’s not the energy salvation for the world – nuclear fusion

November 28, 2020

Nuclear Fusion Will Not Save Us,  Yessenia Funes, August 6, 2020  Last week, construction kicked off on the world’s largest experimental nuclear fusion reactor. It marked the start of a new era in the energy sector: The fossil fuel industry has historically dominated this arena, but renewable energy is quickly taking over. Now, nuclear scientists are hoping that the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, the experimental power plant under construction in southern France, can play a role alongside already-established technologies like solar and wind.

All the nuclear power plants that exist today rely on nuclear fission. ITER, however, will rely on nuclear fusion. The two are dramatically different, and scientists have struggled to recreate nuclear fusion — the process that makes stars shine — in a lab setting. ITER is the world’s first true attempt at this on a large scale.

“The difference between nuclear fission and nuclear fusion is the reason why we’ve developed a nuclear fission reactor in a matter of years, and still after more than six decades, we still don’t have a nuclear fusion reactor,” said Eugenio Schuster, a mechanical engineering and mechanics professor at Lehigh University who is working on ITER.

Around the world, 450 nuclear reactors were operating last year, all using nuclear fission, which involves splitting heavy atoms of elements such as uranium and plutonium. The process produces tons of highly radioactive waste, the ingredients to create nuclear weapons, potential instability that could lead to a destructive nuclear meltdown, and other concerning issues.

This process also requires uranium. In the U.S., the mining of this resource has contaminated the waters of the Navajo Nation and left countless individuals sick. President Donald Trump wants to see more uranium mining, and he doesn’t care where. The Grand Canyon? It can be mined. Bears Ears National Monument? That, too. Nuclear fission has proven destructive to both human health and the environment. There’s a reason many environmental advocates are highly opposed.

“We have a horrible legacy of uranium contamination in our communities,” said Carol Davis, the executive director of Diné C.A.R.E., an environmental organisation that supports the Navajo people. “Water was contaminated with uranium, and it’s never been cleaned, and people are using that and drinking that.”

Davis and other advocates worry nuclear power is just another false promise that creates radioactive waste while taking time and money away from developing renewable energy technologies. The United States alone has 90,000 metric tons of nuclear waste with nowhere to go. Nuclear fusion doesn’t create the same level of long-lived radioactive waste as the more popular process of nuclear fission, but it isn’t waste-free, either.

The process begins with the breaking down of lighter atoms into a state of matter called plasma. It requires more than 150 million degrees Celsius of heat to get going, though. When you’re comparing it to fission, of course, fusion is better. It can’t cause the nuclear meltdowns that we’ve seen at other sites. It doesn’t need any uranium; all it needs is lithium and water. If greenhouse gas emissions are the concern, fusion doesn’t have any evidence of contributing there. But the process does still produce some waste, and advocates are worried that their communities will be forced to deal with that waste for the greater good.

“This whole notion of endless power with little to no waste, it just sounds too good to be true. We really need to examine what are the true costs and who are the people who will be impacted,” said Leona Morgan, a Diné activist and coordinator of the Nuclear Issues Study Group, a New Mexico-based volunteer organisation against nuclear power. “It seems like we should really learn from what we have already experienced with the loss of human rights and loss of water resources from contamination.”

If scientists want communities to fully embrace nuclear energy, they need to figure out what the hell to do with this toxic trash. In the U.S., decision-makers have historically dumped this stuff near tribal or low-income rural communities. History is bound to repeat itself if leaders don’t take proper action to prevent these injustices.

“The reason we’re investing in fusion is because the promise is big,” Schuster said. “We’re going to have the benefits of renewables in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but at the same time, we’re going to reduce the area we need to produce the same amount of energy while eliminating the risk of nuclear accidents and the generation of long-lived radioactive waste.”

That’s the thing, though. Intense attention on the climate crisis allows other ecological crises to happen alongside it. No one wants to see the world burn from rising temperatures, but disenfranchised communities don’t want to keep being sacrificed for the sake of human progress, either. Lithium extraction primarily happens in Argentina and Chile, where Indigenous advocates worry about the amount of water the mining requires, as well as the potential for contamination of their lands. Water is going to become even more valuable as we see droughts dry out lakes, rivers, and streams. Fusion simply doesn’t come without a cost.

“This whole notion of endless power with little to no waste, it just sounds too good to be true.”

Proponents of ITER note that the amount of lithium and water needed is minimal, especially compared to the extractive industries that exist today. The plant is expected to need only 550 pounds of fuel a year, half from the isotopes they need from water and half from the isotopes they need from lithium. Schuster notes that most of the water needed for this process would be returned to its source. That’s because researchers need only a specific molecule from the water. These materials won’t be the main issue with nuclear fusion, said Egemen Kolemen, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University who is also working on the plant.

“The real issue is going to be the nuclear safety issues,” Kolemen said. “Even though it doesn’t have this runaway type of [reaction], there is still going to be some sort of nuclear reactions… that are going to have low levels, but still some, nuclear waste of sorts.”

The construction of ITER certainly does mark a new chapter in the world’s energy sector. It marks a moment of technological breakthrough and scientific accomplishment, but it won’t save us by itself. No new energy source can. At the heart of the climate crisis is human behaviour. If we’re to survive it — and, more importantly, solve it — we need to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Reducing emissions will require more than finding the perfect clean energy source; it will need a massive shift in human behaviour, lowering our emissions through energy efficiency and less consumption.

Then again, emissions aren’t everything. If we’re lowering our carbon footprint without protecting the health of vulnerable communities, what good is it after all? A nuclear future needs a justice and equity lens if it’s to actually be successful. Otherwise, it’ll be another damaging industry. The world already has enough of those.  The construction of ITER certainly does mark a new chapter in the world’s energy sector. It marks a moment of technological breakthrough and scientific accomplishment, but it won’t save us by itself. No new energy source can. At the heart of the climate crisis is human behaviour. If we’re to survive it — and, more importantly, solve it — we need to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Reducing emissions will require more than finding the perfect clean energy source; it will need a massive shift in human behaviour, lowering our emissions through energy efficiency and less consumption.

Then again, emissions aren’t everything. If we’re lowering our carbon footprint without protecting the health of vulnerable communities, what good is it after all? A nuclear future needs a justice and equity lens if it’s to actually be successful. Otherwise, it’ll be another damaging industry. The world already has enough of those.

MIT’s $millions plan for small nuclear fusion station

April 2, 2018

MIT Receives Millions to Build Fusion Power Plant Within 15 Years   Ryan F. Mandelbaum 10 Mar 18 Nuclear fusion is like a way-more-efficient version of solar power—except instead of harnessing energy from the rays of a distant sun, scientists create miniature suns in power plants here on Earth. It would be vastly more efficient, and more importantly, much cleaner, than current methods of energy production. The main issue is that actually realizing fusion power has been really difficult.

Some, like the folks at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, still worry that the excess neutrons produced in fusion could lead to radioactive waste or contaminants, as well as high costs.

Nature points out that there are plenty others are in the fusion-with-high-temperature-superconductors game, too. Princeton has its own tokamak, and there’s a British company called Tokamak Energy using a similar device to produce fusion energy. But all of the cash towards the MIT effort is significant.

“If MIT can do what they are saying—and I have no reason to think that they can’t — this is a major step forward,” Stephen Dean, head of Fusion Power Associates, in Maryland, told Nature.  Perhaps all fusion power needed to become reality was, well, a lot of money. Mumgaard said that CFS’ collaboration with MIT will “provide the speed to take what’s happening in the lab and bring it to the market.”

From Nuclear Fusion Fraud to Physics Fortune

March 31, 2018

The ITER Power Amplification Myth Oct. 6, 2017 – By Steven B. Krivit –

Short link:

This is the third of three reports about the claims by representatives and proponents of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). “The Selling of ITER” published on Jan. 12, 2017. “Former ITER Spokesman Confirms Accuracy of New Energy Times Story” published on Jan. 19, 2017.

From Fusion Fraud to Physics Fortune
“………..The ITER project, supported by a widespread misunderstanding of its promised results, funded by billions in cash, resources and materials, will not deliver a practical demonstration of fusion power, but merely a scientific demonstration of a sustained fusion reaction. Yet on July 3, 2017, the Chinese Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak reactor already did this, for 101 seconds. When built, ITER will merely do it for four times longer.

Oddly, the quest for practical nuclear fusion on Earth was born out of fraud. The ITER Web site recognizes this, with a page titled “Proyecto Huemul: From Fusion Fraud to Physics Fortune.”

The story began in 1948 in Argentina when Austrian scientist Ronald Richter proposed his idea for a fusion device to President Juan Perón. Perón agreed to fund the concept, and on March 24, 1951, Perón held a press conference at which he announced that his country had achieved practical, controlled nuclear fusion. By 1952, however, after independent investigators reported no evidence to support the claims, the project was shut down. The ITER page calls it “the scientific fraud of the century.”

Yet in 1951, before the Argentinian project was shut down, the project caught the attention of Lyman Spitzer, an astrophysicist at Princeton University. Spitzer, in turn, approached the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and convinced it to fund his own fusion research concept. Thus, the U.S. controlled nuclear fusion era began at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and the worldwide race for fusion energy began.

Since construction on ITER began in 2007, nuclear fusion news stories have been tagged with titillating headlines about unlimited energy. A CNN story headline is typical: “Is Nuclear Fusion About to Change Our World?” Every incremental step forward in temperature, pressure, or plasma confinement time has been a “breakthrough.” Each breakthrough, according to the news stories, has brought the dream of harnessing the power of the sun on Earth one step closer to reality. Rarely have the stories featured any critical assessment or analysis.

One journalist wrote that physicists at the Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory had “demonstrated” how a new fusion reactor design could lead to the first commercially viable nuclear fusion power plant. The demonstration was merely on paper. The article featured a photo of a reactor. But it wasn’t the reactor described in the article. That reactor hadn’t been built yet.

As the comics below show, the very same Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory — back in 1975 when the DOE was called the Atomic Energy Commission — told journalists it was a big step closer to virtually limitless pollution-free energy thanks to “breakthroughs” in plasma density and temperature.

Then there’s MIT scientist Earl Marmar, who told journalists this year that the technology exists to have fusion energy in 13 years if only it is funded aggressively enough.

Vision and hope are wonderful and necessary components of the human experience. But false hope and worthless promises — laced with misleading claims — do not represent the science accurately. They do not represent the integrity of all scientists involved in the research.

The false idea that the JET reactor produced 65% of the power it consumed has been deeply planted in the minds of the public and journalists. The same goes for the false idea that the ITER reactor will produce 10 times the power it consumes. These two myths serve to misrepresent the status of fusion energy research and, specifically, the ITER project……

Fusion nuclear reactors? Let’s bust the hype!

May 18, 2017

These impediments—together with colossal capital outlay and several additional disadvantages shared with fission reactors—will make fusion reactors more demanding to construct and operate, or reach economic practicality, than any other type of electrical energy generator.

The harsh realities of fusion belie the claims of its proponents of “unlimited, clean, safe and cheap energy.” Terrestrial fusion energy is not the ideal energy source extolled by its boosters, but to the contrary: Its something to be shunned.

Fusion reactors: Not what they’re cracked up to be   Daniel Jassby, 19 Apr 17 Daniel Jassby was a principal research physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab until 1999. For 25 years he worked in areas of plasma physics and neutron production related to fusion energy research and development. He holds a PhD in astrophysical sciences from Princeton University.

Fusion reactors have long been touted as the “perfect”energy source. Proponents claim that when useful commercial fusion reactors are developed, they would produce vast amounts of energy with little radioactive waste, forming little or no plutonium byproducts that could be used for nuclear weapons. These pro-fusion advocates also say that fusion reactors would be incapable of generating the dangerous runaway chain reactions that lead to a meltdown—all drawbacks to the current fission schemes in nuclear power plants.

And, a fusion-powered nuclear reactor would have the enormous benefit of producing energy without emitting any carbon to warm up our planet’s atmosphere.

But there is a hitch: While it is, relatively speaking, rather straightforward to split an atom to produce energy (which is what happens in fission), it is a “grand scientific challenge” to fuse two hydrogen nuclei together to create helium isotopes (as occurs in fusion). Our sun constantly does fusion reactions all the time, burning ordinary hydrogen at enormous densities and temperatures. But to replicate that process of fusion here on Earth—where we don’t have the intense pressure created by the gravity of the sun’s core—we would need a temperature of at least 100 million degrees Celsius, or about six times hotter than the sun. In experiments to date the energy input required to produce the temperatures and pressures that enable significant fusion reactions in hydrogen isotopes has far exceeded the fusion energy generated.

But through the use of promising fusion technologies such as magnetic confinement and laser-based inertial confinement, humanity is moving much closer to getting around that problem and achieving that breakthrough moment when the amount of energy coming out of a fusion reactor will sustainably exceed the amount going in, producing net energy. Collaborative, multinational physics project in this area include the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) joint fusion experiment in France which broke ground for its first support structures in 2010, with the first experiments on its fusion machine, or tokamak, expected to begin in 2025.

As we move closer to our goal, however, it is time to ask: Is fusion really a “perfect”energy source? After having worked on nuclear fusion experiments for 25 years at thePrinceton Plasma Physics Lab, I began to look at the fusion enterprise more dispassionately in my retirement. I concluded that a fusion reactor would be far from perfect, and in some ways close to the opposite.

Scaling down the sun.  (more…)

Nuclear fusion research in China – still decades away from application

March 20, 2016
Chinese Fusion Test Hits A Milestone By Creating 90 Million °F For 102 Seconds  BY  ON FEBRUARY 9, 2016 

Chinese scientists create record by hitting 90 Million °F For 102 Seconds which is three times hotter than the Sun

Scientists in China were able to heat plasma to three times the temperature of the core of our sun using nuclear fusion – a temperature of 90 million °F – for an impressive 102 seconds, as they continued their search to derive energy from nuclear fusion.

They have surpassed the nuclear fusion experimental device referred to as the Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X) stellerator developed by a team of German researchers from the Max Planck Institute that managed to heat hydrogen gas to 80 million degrees Celsius, and sustain a cloud of hydrogen plasma for a quarter of a second.

According to a statement on the institute’s website last Wednesday, the experiment was conducted on a magnetic fusion reactor at the Institute of Physical Science in Hefei, capital of Jiangsu province.

The experiments were carried out in a donut-shaped reactor, officially known as the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST). The reactor was able to heat a hydrogen gas – a hot ionised gas called plasma – to about 50 million Kelvins (49.999 million degrees Celsius). The interior of our sun is calculated to be around 15 million Kelvins.

The plasma can be contained by careful control of intense magnetic fields in a tight ring by running through the center of the donut’s circular cross section. In other words, the walls of the structure are never directly exposed to the high temperatures of the plasma.

For the long term goal of such fusion reactors, it is very necessary to make sure that those temperatures can be sustained for long period of time, as a huge input of energy is required to get them started. But, if they end up stopping too soon, the reaction is net negative in energy terms. Such high energies cause great instabilities making it difficult to confine them, as controlling such intense heat is tough. Therefore, it is a positive step indeed for running an experiment at such temperatures for 102 seconds.

It’s not the hottest temperature ever created on Earth. So far, the hottest temperature to have been created artificially in the lab remains that reached by the gargantuan Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, which managed to achieve temperatures of 4 trillion degrees Celsius back in 2012. However, those conditions last for the sheer flicker of time, which is inadequate for creating energy.

The ultimate goal of China’s team is to hit 100 million degrees Celsius now, and sustain the resulting hydrogen plasma for over 1,000 seconds, or 17 minutes. In the meantime, now that their ‘proof of concept’ experiment is out of the way, the German team says it could possibly sustain its plasma for as long as 30 minutes.

However, most scientists who are in agreement advocate that the long-yet-intense burn required for fusion needs to be around 180 million °F, which means we are likely decades away from actually connecting nuclear fusion to solve humanity’s energy problems.

Nuclear fusion reactor launched in Germany

January 4, 2016

Germany launches world’s largest nuclear fusion reactor  The rocky road to nuclear fusion power, DW, 18 Dec 15   Innovative designs using modern superconductors are supposed to bring us nuclear fusion power plants soon – some optimists say. Fusion experts predict, however, that a practical application will take many more decades. Nuclear fusion is considered a potential energy source of the future. It’s clean nuclear energy. But what is it, exactly and why is it so difficult to generate? Let’s start with the difference between classical nuclear fission and nuclear fusion.

Nuclear fission means that radioactive isotopes, like uranium or plutonium are being split up and turned into other highly radioactive isotopes that then have to be deposited or reprocessed.

Nuclear fusion means that two isotopes of hydrogen – called deuterium and tritium – merge together – they “fuse.” And that leaves behind only non-poisonous helium and one single neutron, but no nuclear waste.

Huge amounts of energy caught in a plasma

Nuclear fusion takes place in the sun for example – or in a hydrogen bomb – and that’s the big challenge for engineers – how do you control the high energy fusion process in a power plant?

That’s what scientists have been working on since the 1960s. One model-fusion-reactor called Wendelstein 7-X has just started operating in the northern German town of Greifswald. It is not designed to generate a nuclear fusion reaction yet – so far it’s just a specific reactor design that’s being tested.

What all fusion reactors have in common is a ring-shaped form. The idea behind it is to take powerful electromagnets and create a strong electromagnetic field, which is shaped somewhat like an inflated bicycle tube.

That electromagnetic field must be so dense that when it is being heated by a microwave oven to about one million degrees centigrade, a plasma will emerge in the very center of the ring. And that plasma can then be ignited to start the nuclear fusion process.

Research reactors show what’s possible

In Europe, two prominent fusion experiments are under way. One is Wendelstein 7-X, which just generated its first helium plasma last week – albeit without actually going into nuclear fusion. The other one is ITER – a huge experimental project in southern France, which is still under construction and won’t be ready to run before 2023.

ITER is supposed to do real nuclear fusion – but only for short periods of time, certainly not for any longer than 60 minutes. And ITER is just one of many steps towards turning the idea of nuclear fusion into a practical application.

Are smaller, alternative designs feasible?………

Hot, hot, hot

The heat is also problematic. In the core of the nuclear-fusion plasma, the temperature would be around 150 million centigrade. This extreme heat stays put – right there in the center of the plasma. But even around it, it still gets seriously hot – 500 to 700 degrees at the breeding blanket – which is the inner layer of the metal tube that contains the plasma and which will serve to “breed” the tritium that is needed for the fusion reaction.

Even more problematic is the so called “power-exhaust.” That is the part of the system, where the used-up fuel from the fusion process is being extracted – mostly helium. The first metal components hit by hot gases are called the “diverter.” It can get hotter than 2,000 degrees centigrade.

The engineers are trying to use the metal tungsten, used in old-fashioned light bulbs – to withstand such temperatures. They have a melting point of around 3,000 degrees. But there are limits.

“In the case of ITER we can do it, because the heat is not there constantly. Only one to three percent of the time, ITER will eventually be running.” Hesch says. “But that is not an option for a power plant, which has to run 24/7. And if someone pretends to build a smaller reactor with the same power as ITER, I can definitely say – there is no solution for that diverter-problem.”

Several decades to build a real power plant

Nonetheless Hesch is optimistic that the development of nuclear fusion power reactors will go ahead – but not quite as fast as some of the industry optimists predict.

“With ITER we want to show that fusion can actually deliver more energy than we have to put into it to heat the plasma. The next step would be to build an entirely new fusion demonstrator power plant, which will actually generate electricity.”

The engineers are already working on the designs now. They will have to learn lessons from ITER, which is scheduled to start operating in 2023. Taking the necessary time for design, planning and construction into account, it looks very unlikely the first nuclear-fusion power plant will be up and running much before the middle of the century.

A costly pipe dream – Nuclear Fusion

January 4, 2016

The challenges that make fusion potentially permanently decades away have been identified as threefold. The first is for the reactor to generate more energy than it takes to produce it. The second is for the reactor to produce more energy than the facility as a whole uses to make it. And the third is to actually make electricity in this fashion without going completely broke.

The False Promise of Nuclear Fusion by LINDA PENTZ GUNTER There have been some pretty radioactive climate change ideas making the rounds at the COP21 talks in Paris. Team Hansen’s wildly unrealistic notion of switching on 61 new nuclear reactors a year was taking the cake until an even fruitier one reared its familiar head: the nuclear chimera known as ITER.

ITER was originally called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, with ‘experimental’ being the operative word in that lofty title. Which is perhaps why today they refer to it only by acronym (apparently the word ‘thermonuclear’ also had some rather explosive connotations.) The official website equates ITER with its coincidental Latin meaning, ‘The Way’.

ITER was initiated in 1985 by then presidents Reagan and Gorbachev. The multi-nation project included not only the United States and the already crumbling Soviet Union, but the European Union and Japan. Today there are 35 countries in the partnership.

If it ever gets completed and actually works, ITER will be a fusion reactor known as a Tokomak. Fusion is the physicists’ wet dream, and they’ve been hallucinating about ITER for precisely three decades and Tokomaks and fusion itself for even longer.

ITER itself isn’t even the final step to electricity-producing fusion power plants. Its purpose is in “preparing the way for the fusion power plants of tomorrow.” A tomorrow that is heralded as ten years away, decade after decade. (more…)

Nuclear fusion? it’s a white elephant

November 19, 2015

Another Fusion White Elephant Sighted in Germany 27th, 2015  Helian  According to an article that just appeared in Science magazine, scientists in Germany have completed building a stellarator by the name of Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X), and are seeking regulatory permission to turn the facility on in November.  If you can’t get past the Science paywall, here’s an article in the popular media with some links.  Like the much bigger ITER facility now under construction at Cadarache in France, W7-X is a magnetic fusion device.  In other words, its goal is to confine a plasma of heavy hydrogen isotopes at temperatures much hotter than the center of the sun with powerful magnetic fields in order to get them to fuse, releasing energy in the process.  There are significant differences between stellarators and the tokamak design used for ITER, but in both approaches the idea is to hold the plasma in place long enough to get significantly more fusion energy out than was necessary to confine and heat the plasma.  Both approaches are probably scientifically feasible.  Both are also white elephants, and a waste of scarce research dollars.

The problem is that both designs have an Achilles heel.  Its name is tritium.  Tritium is a heavy isotope of hydrogen with a nucleus containing a proton and two neutrons instead of the usual lone proton.  Fusion reactions between tritium and deuterium, another heavy isotope of hydrogen with a single neutron in addition to the usual proton, begin to occur fast enough to be attractive as an energy source at plasma temperatures and densities much less than would be necessary for any alternative reaction.  The deuterium-tritium, or DT, reaction will remain the only feasible one for both stellarator and tokamak fusion reactors for the foreseeable future.  Unfortunately, tritium occurs in nature in only tiny trace amounts.

The question is, then, where do you get the tritium fuel to keep the fusion reactions going?  Well, in addition to a helium nucleus, the DT fusion reaction produces a fast neutron.  These can react with lithium to produce tritium.  If a lithium-containing blanket could be built surrounding the reaction chamber in such a way as to avoid interfering with the magnetic fields, and yet thick enough and close enough to capture enough of the neutrons, then it should be possible to generate enough tritium to replace that burned up in the fusion process.  It sounds complicated but, again, it appears to be at least scientifically feasible.  However, it is by no means as certain that it is economically feasible.

Consider what we’re dealing with here.  Tritium is an extremely slippery material that can pass right through walls of some types of metal.  It is also highly radioactive, with a half-life of about 12.3 years.  It will be necessary to find some way to efficiently extract it from the lithium blanket, allowing none of it to leak into the surrounding environment.  If any of it gets away, it will be easily detectable.  The neighbors are sure to complain and, probably, lawyer up.  Again, all this might be doable.  The problem is that it will never be doable at a low enough cost to make fusion reactor designs based on these approaches even remotely economically competitive with the non-fossil alternative sources of energy that will be available for, at the very least, the next several centuries.

What’s that?  Reactor design studies by large and prestigious universities and corporations have all come to the conclusion that these magnetic fusion beasts will be able to produce electricity at least as cheaply as the competition?  I don’t think so.  I’ve participated in just such a government-funded study, conducted by a major corporation as prime contractor, with several other prominent universities and corporations participating as subcontractors.  I’m familiar with the methodology used in several others.  In general, it’s possible to make the cost electricity come out at whatever figure you choose, within reason, using the most approved methods and the most sound project management and financial software.  If the government is funding the work, it can be safely assumed that they don’t want to hear something like, “Fuggedaboudit, this thing will be way too expensive to build and run.”  That would make the office that funded the work look silly, and the fusion researchers involved in the design look like welfare queens in white coats.  The “right” cost numbers will always come out of these studies in the end.

I submit that a better way to come up with a cost estimate is to use a little common sense.  Do you really think that a commercial power company will be able to master the intricacies of tritium production and extraction from the vicinity of a highly radioactive reaction chamber at anywhere near the cost of, say, wind and solar combined with next generation nuclear reactors for baseload power?  If you do, you’re a great deal more optimistic than me.  W7-X cost a billion euros.  ITER is slated to cost 13 billion, and will likely come in at well over that.  With research money hard to come by in Europe for much worthier projects, throwing amounts like that down a rat hole doesn’t seem like a good plan.

All this may come as a disappointment to fusion enthusiasts.  On the other hand, you may want to consider the fact that, if fusion had been easy, we would probably have managed to blow ourselves up with pure fusion weapons by now.  Beyond that, you never know when some obscure genius might succeed in pulling a rabbit out of their hat in the form of some novel confinement scheme.  Several companies claim they have sure-fire approaches that are so good they will be able to dispense with tritium entirely in favor of more plentiful, naturally occurring isotopes.  See, for example, herehere, andhere, and the summary at the Next Big Future website.  I’m not optimistic about any of them, either, but you never know.