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By Andrew Holland on Oct 22, 2012 with 17 responses

Why Nuclear Fusion is Worthy of Further Research and Government Investment

Last week, I spent two days at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 2012 Fusion Energy Conference in San Diego. The conference, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science and General Atomics, brought together about 1000 fusion scientists from around the world to meet and discuss the state of the art in scientific research to develop fusion energy.

Fusion is a technology that holds great promise in meeting our energy needs. By fusing together two hydrogen isotopes – deuterium and tritium – enormous amounts of energy can be produced, as predicted by Einstein’s equation, E=MC2. The heat from this reaction creates steam to spin a generator just like any other electricity power plant. Since deuterium comes from ocean water, and tritium can be bred from lithium, fusion holds the promise of providing a nearly inexhaustible supply of energy, with no pollutants, no greenhouse gases, and no radioactive waste. There is no threat of a nuclear meltdown like there is with the nuclear fission reactors of today.

This is the same process that powers the sun, and it could completely revolutionize the energy system when commercialized. However, the problem is that it is fiendishly hard to initiate a reaction anywhere other than under the tremendous gravitational force of a star. Scientists have not been able to confine the heated plasma on earth in such a way that it creates a reaction that generates more power than it put in – a term called “ignition” or “energy gain.” For more detail, see ASP’s ‘mini-site’ on fusion.

Most of the presentations at the conference were above the scientific knowledge of the average person (they were certainly well beyond my understanding!). However, I am convinced by my experience there that the scientists believe they are now on a pathway to energy gain.

The "DIII-D Tokamak" at General Atomics' fusion facility in San Diego. Taken on October 11, 2012, by Andrew Holland for Consumer Energy Report.

While in San Diego, I took a tour of General Atomics’ DIII-D fusion machine, one of only 3 tokamaks (the donut-shaped reactor designed to confine plasma for the purposes of generating fusion) in the country. The DIII-D has revolutionized the science of containing and controlling the plasma in which a fusion reaction takes place. When operational, the DIII-D fires an experimental 5 second “shot” of plasma through the machine. It was down for maintenance while I was there.

Critics of fusion often say that it is the energy of the future and always will be. However, I would point out that the DIII-D was originally built in the 1960s, and was last substantially upgraded in 1986. Similar trajectories can be noted at the other major American research facilities, like MIT and Princeton. Throughout the 90s, and into today, there have been plans for new machines that could lead to breakthroughs, but persistent budget cuts have prevented new advances.

Even so, scientists at the conference seemed convinced that they are on a pathway to achieving ignition with energy gain over the next decade or two. These predictions are dependent upon the level of government funding – not an easy or guaranteed thing at this time – and some scientific breakthroughs. The ITER project in Cadarache, France promises to achieve energy gain when it is operational by the end of this decade.

Fusion is not tomorrow’s energy source, and I am not advocating that we put all our energy research and development eggs in this one basket, but in a world with a population growing towards 9 billion people, with economic growth and prosperity directly linked with the use of finite fossil fuel resources, we must plan for alternative energy sources. Renewable resources can meet some of those needs, but they will become increasingly difficult to mesh with our modern energy grid as their levels get higher. The presentations I saw last week convinced me that there are many hurdles before the ultimate goal, but that the scientists are on their way. With the quality of the minds working on it, and with the clear benefit that limitless power would bring, this seems like a “Hail-Mary” pass that we should be investing in. Someday, we will realize fusion as a limitless, safe, clean energy. If America does not invest in it, other nations will, and we’ll be forced to buy it from them.

I will have future posts on the state of the budget for American fusion, and progress towards fusion in smaller, privately-funded companies. I should also direct readers to my most recent article up on AOL Energy that discusses Lawrence Livermore’s National Ignition Facility, and why the New York Times’ editorial page was wrong to attack it.

  1. By robert_steinhaus on October 23, 2012 at 3:01 am

    I am grateful for your fine article, but you omit coverage of the most practical form of fusion.

    There is a practical U-233 Ignited molten salt fusion technology pioneered at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Labs capable of generating huge amounts of energy from D-D and D-T fusion today. This system called PACER and could be used today to produce power from the Deuterium in the sea while generating only non-radioactive helium as its nuclear waste. It is not necessary to wait 50 years to produce energy from fusion, PACER fusion is practical fusion that requires no additional scientific or engineering breakthroughs and can be prototyped today with minimal cost and technical risk.

    It is important that we learn to use the D-D fusion reaction in the long term, and U-233/Thorium Ignited PACER fusion is the most practical form of fusion today that is capable of economically supplying large Gigawatt levels of power safely without requiring decades of additional development.

    An enormous amount of the fusion fuel deuterium is available (4.6 x 10^13 metric tons) in sea water. The complete conversion of deuterium nuclear fuel releases an energy content of 250 x 10^15 joules per metric ton. Deuterium present in seawater will yield around 5 x 10^11 TW-year of energy.

    To give all 10 billion people expected to live on the planet in 2050 the level of energy prosperity we in the developed world are used to, a continuous average use of power of 6 kilowatts per person as is typical in Europe, we would need to generate 60 terawatts as a planet—the equivalent of 900 million barrels of oil per day.

    The time since the earth first formed = 4.54 billion years.

    The time until the sun burns out = 5 billion years.

    The deuterium in the sea is capable of completely powering planet earth at a level of 60 Terawatts for 8.33 billion years (longer than the earth has existed or the sun will burn)

    More Info available at http://www.yottawatts.net

     

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    • By Andrew Holland on October 23, 2012 at 9:55 am

      Robert – thanks. 

      A couple of things here – I’m not a nuclear scientist, so I’m not going to go into the details on the competing technologies. I would say that there are many possible options here, and it is too early to close off any avenues.

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    • By Maury Markowitz on October 26, 2012 at 7:27 am

      “There is a practical U-233 Ignited molten salt fusion technology”

      Yes, and all it requires is tens of thousands of nuclear bombs.

      What could *possibly* go wrong?!

      Dumbest idea ever.

       

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  2. By notKit P on October 23, 2012 at 9:35 am

    “1000 fusion scientists ”

    Here is an idea. We put the 1000 fusion scientists + Andrew on stationary bikes with generators hooked up. When they peddle they could ‘spin’ the generator and make electricity providing 1001 new sources of ‘clean’ energy. When you consider all the climate scientists and politicians, there is an unlimited number of new sources.

    So why are some people so fascinated in what does not work?

    What about fission? Currently LWR have demonstrated that they can produce enough electricity to exceed the demand for any industrial society. Reference: See France.

    We have absolutely no problems finding and processing raw material to make fuel assemblies. Spent fuel can be recycled since on 5% of the fuel is used in the once through US process. Reference: See France.

    Nuclear power is very clean. I would recommend eating of the floor in the containment building before the best restaurant in the world.

    On tiny amount of waste are produced. Reference: See any storage pad at a US nuke. About the size of a tennis court.

    Safe! Nothing that man has done is safer than making power with LWR.

    Unlimited, clean, safe and proven.

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    • By Andrew Holland on October 23, 2012 at 10:00 am

      I’m not sure why you think I’m against fission – it is proven and is capable of providing much-needed carbon-free baseload power. I’m on the record in support of keeping our nuclear plants running.

      The problems that nuclear faces are not really technical – they are political and economic. Dealing with waste is a political problem that no society has really solved yet – not even France. And, economically, new nuclear plants are no longer economically viable anywhere in the world – they’re too big and too costly, with returns that are too uncertain. The only places that are building nukes are countries like China or Vietnam where its really a government program.

      Fusion could deal with these problems. I’m not sure why you’re against it?

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      • By notKit P on October 23, 2012 at 2:45 pm

        “I’m not sure why you’re against it?”

         

        Very simple, because it does not work.  While I am not against the concept of fusion, after someone makes it work; then I will decide to be for or against it based on safety, environmental impact, and economics. 

         

        We have never had a problem with handling spent fuel.  Sure politicians make up problems and then block the solutions but it is not like a real problem exists.

         

        “new nuclear plants are no longer economically viable anywhere in the world”   

         

        Nuke plants are economical almost every place.  The reason is the cost and uncertainty associated with coal and even more uncertain is the uncertainty associated with natural gas.

         

        It is more of a case of where does the investment in nuclear have the best return when considering uncertainty of the transportation cost of fossil fuels.  This is why the six large reactors currently under construction in the US are located in the Southeast. 

         

        The economics of any new plant depends on the existing mix and the risk to your customers.  If you have 20 nukes and 2 fossil plants, the risk of uncertainty in fossil fuel cost are minimal.  If you have 2 nukes and 20 fossil plants, the risk of uncertainty in fossil fuel cost are huge. 

         

        South Korea also has an aggressive new build program.  All the fossil fuel South Korea burns arrives by ship.  South Korea has also started construction of four large reactors in UAE.

         

        Saudi Arabia is also has an aggressive new build program.  I bring this up because I thought it was odd that oil rich countries would want nukes.  However, fossil fuels that are burned to make power cannot be sold to bring money into the country.  Nukes are longer term investment when considering the future cost of fossil fuels that they can sell. 

         

        From a practical matter we do not need an ‘inexhaustible supply of energy’.  We just need to meet our needs which from a practical matter is not that hard to do.  Like other futuristic promises such as ‘too cheap to meter’ they are aimed at a fantasy world not a practical world.  We need affordable energy not free energy.

         

        The point here is that we do not need fusion research.  We have plenty of ways to make electricity to meet our needs.   

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        • By robert_steinhaus on October 23, 2012 at 4:22 pm

           

          Nuclear fusion is practical and works today, fusion is not just some uncertain prospect for potential power generation 50 years from now.

          Fusion is not just an energy process that happens in the hearts of stars, but is practical today here on earth.

           The successful Ivy Mike thermonuclear test of 1952 produced a controlled burst of 43 peta-joules (10^15 joules) of energy in 39 nanoseconds. This energy was repeatedly demonstrated on demand in more than 800+ subsequent nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site and on the Pacific Test Range in the Marshall Islands.

          Arguably among the world’s finest nuclear designers carefully designed a system called PACER to safely harness the energy that can be reliably and safely  released from controlled nuclear fusion inside a carefully engineered artificial cavity. This system, designed by LLNL and LANL National Labs remains the only practical fusion system the works and produces net energy (more energy out than it takes to run the fusion power plant) at a Gigawatt level.

          PACER fusion is real D-D and D-T fusion and deserves re-evaluation (not just a casual uncomprehending brush-off).
          Why keep up the fantasy that fusion, while desirable, will not be available in a commercial form for ~50 years. PACER fusion has been tested by LLNL and LANL field test division and can be used today to heat homes and light factories at costs that rival or better any other power generating system.

          A Scientific Document library focused on PACER fusion – http://goo.gl/Ji0r2

           

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        • By Harold Helsley on November 19, 2012 at 3:14 am

          Fossil fuel and fission fuels have world consequences … CO2 and radioactive waste. Both are major concerns for the earth. Nuclear Fusion has neither … no CO2 generation or fission waste/radiation problems or potential runaway reaction.

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  3. By Sandra Hayden on October 23, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    I have been watching progress at the NIF with fascination. The public and the press are put off by the intense rivalry between government agencies competing for funds and entrenched interests against a new technology. Those involved in research, such as the NIF, are especially soft targets. Whilst the physics is extremely hard and demonstration of ignition as yet out of reach, detractors criticize and undermine scientists efforts, attempting to destroy their program and take away their funding (what, they haven’t invented the cure for cancer yet?!). The ill-will of some detractors is palpable, and I believe motivated by self interest. I hope that our leaders have the vision to see what they have here and continue their support. It would be a disservice to abandon the NIF which has only been operational for a couple of years. Who knows, perhaps NIF could attain ignition at any time now, perhaps through a lucky shot. Then they would need to continue improvements to make this repeatable.

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  4. By Richard Smith on October 23, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    You might want to look at the low budget aneutronic fusion plants being built.  The Fusor at Lawrenceville Plasma Physics has a far lower budget but is closer to ignition than the big boys.  The Polywell fusion system (funded by the navy) also has the potential to do fusion at far lower prices than the National Ignition Facility or the Tokamak based systems.  You might also want to look at the Thorium fission reactors – they have all of the big benefits of fusion and we could build them today.  Look up LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor) and Thorium on YouTube for some nice videos that go over the basics.

     

    Discussing the upstarts would be a good article I think.

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  5. By Richard Wilson on October 24, 2012 at 9:32 am

    I’ll put my money on Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) as the first practical fusion technology.  It already produces practical levels of energy and should penetrate the market in 2013.  After that the first hot fusion project I would expect to be successful is Focus Fusion, the dense plasma project of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics.  We’ve spent billions on hot fusion in the form of  ITER and have seen no practical results.  These other projects have cost practically nothing in comparison.

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    • By Andrew Holland on October 24, 2012 at 9:38 am

      Richard – thanks. One thing that I’m not confident there’s a future for is Cold Fusion (aka LENR). If someone can convince me I’m wrong, I’ll welcome it. But, for now, if its so easy, why hasn’t anyone done it?

      And, that’s the crux here. This stuff is HARD. Fusion is a real scientific challenge – but I think the benefits are worth the cost. 

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      • By Tom G. on October 24, 2012 at 11:26 am

        To Andrew and Richard:

        I have also been following LENR ever since Ponds and Fleischer [sp?] experimented with the process years ago.  You can even find mention of how MIT tried to hid the original results all over the net. 

        To this day, I don’t or can’t prove it either does or does not exist.  The only thing I can say is that news of this type of reaction/device is starting to get some traction and the below link is just one such example by Popular Science magazine.  Now Popular Science is not an authoritative scientific journal but articles like these are beginning showing up in lots of places.  Something MAY be happening that is not well understood by the scientific community or this could be a huge case of fraud.  Here is the link.  

         http://pesn.com/2012/10/16/9602208_Andrea-Rossis_Black-Box–by_Popular-Science/

         

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  6. By Maury Markowitz on October 26, 2012 at 7:21 am

    If I came out with a great way to produce coal energy with twice the emissions, five times the cost and requiring three decades of development and billions of dollars in research, do you think anyone would be interested? Probably not. So why are people interested in these fusion reactors.

    We already have a perfectly good fusion reactor called the Sun. It is safely placed millions of miles away from us, and thoughtfully beams its energy to us for free.

    Better yet, we already have working fusion power plants called PV, which takes this beamed energy and turns it into electricity with ~18% efficiency, at least half of what any of these more complicated devices could ever manage.

    But much more importantly, PV cost far, far less than any of these pipe-dream devices. And even more important than that, it actually works.

    It’s not that fusion might not work, or can not work, its more like “who cares?”  I cover this flip side of the fusion story here:

    http://matter2energy.wordpress.com/2012/10/26/why-fusion-will-never-happen/

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  7. By Russ Finley on November 21, 2012 at 10:52 pm
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  8. By Maury Markowitz on June 30, 2014 at 10:32 pm

    There is exactly zero chance the fusor or polywell will ever be energy positive. This was demonstrated almost 20 years ago, followed by everyone pulling funding. Look up Todd Ritter (on iPhone, sorry can’t google it got you) and nonequlibrium plasma physics. In spite of this the true believers tell everyone they’re doing great great, that they have the true path, and they’ll have working fusion any day now. Then get people such as yourself to be their cheerleaders. It doesn’t work, it can’t work, end of story.

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