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A fusion-focused future

A fusion-focused future thumbnail

Dr David Kingham explains why fusion energy is closer than ever before

Nuclear fusion is the creative process of the universe. All matter, besides hydrogen and a smattering of helium, was created in the fusion furnaces within stars as small atomic nuclei joined together to make larger ones. This reaction releases huge amounts of energy – about 10 million times as much by weight as the chemical reaction of fossils fuels, and all without any harmful byproducts.

One can see why it is hailed as the energy of the future, the power source that will right the wrongs of a fossil fuel-reliant past and present. But it is not easy to achieve.

The established principle for this reaction on Earth is to combine deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen, to make helium and a neutron.

To do this, fusion reactors must recreate the conditions found in stars, where fusion naturally occurs. This means creating temperatures of 100m°C to create a super hot ‘plasma’ within which the isotopes come together.

The neutron generated by this reaction is not confined by a fusion reactor and so flies out of the vessel; capturing the energy of the neutron is what generates electricity.

The scientific and engineering problems behind putting a star within a box are big, to say the least.

Without proper confinement of the plasma, the reactor walls would get hot and the fusion fuel would get cold; the reaction would stop. The hot plasma must be isolated from the walls of the reactor. This feat can be performed using magnets and the most advanced machine used for this purpose is the ‘tokamak’.

The best-performing tokamak in the world is JET, which produced 16MW of fusion power with 24MW input in 1997 – ie, 65% as much energy out as was put in. It holds the world record for total fusion power produced and for getting closest to breakeven, the point where you get as much energy out as you put in. For JET to achieve this, fusion research had followed a Moore’s Law-like path. The temperature, density and energy confinement time, which indicates fusion performance, was increasing at a faster and faster rate up until the JET experiments.

But since then it seems that progress has stalled. There have still been experiments built and much learned, but progress towards energy breakeven has slowed. We still haven’t actually reached energy breakeven almost 20 years after we nearly got there.

Traditional designs have moved to larger dimensions, culminating in the ITER experiment currently under construction in the south of France. This will be over 30m tall and weigh about 23,000 tonnes. The demonstration reactor that follows, dubbed DEMO, will likely be slightly bigger again. When ITER was being designed in the 1990s, it was believed that the only feasible way to increase fusion power was to increase machine size. But the size and complexity of ITER has led to very slow progress, with first fusion set for the mid 2020s.

Tired of waiting so long and recognising the inherent difficulties of such a big project, the possibility of a smaller way to fusion has grabbed the imagination of inventors, innovators and now investors.

As patience with progress has begun to run out there is a new climate of private funding reaching into areas previously the domain of governments. Ventures such as Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, or the Breakthrough Energy Coalition led by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg; these large investments in new technologies and promising areas of scientific research are becoming more common. As Lord Rees of Ludlow, past president of the Royal Society, put it in 2015, “the private sector now has greater appetite for risk in scientific projects than Western governments.”

The fusion industry has benefitted hugely from this surge in funding. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, and Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, have invested many tens of millions into private fusion ventures in the USA and Tokamak Energy is seeing the same in the UK, receiving over US$15 million so far from private and public investors. This has allowed the complex science and engineering needed for fusion to be developed faster than it has for years.

For Tokamak Energy this investment has allowed it to extend the lead that tokamaks already have in the race to fusion. With research beginning in the mid 20th century, a lot is known about how they hold plasma in a spherical reactor with magnetism. Tokamak Energy has added to this, publishing two papers that show for the first time that size is not an important factor in fusion reactors and proving that a compact reactor can produce an energy gain; a game changer when you consider the grand scale that other fusion projects are pursuing. Proving this has helped the company to turn the pursuit of fusion energy into a series of engineering challenges.

Thanks to funds raised, Tokamak Energy has been tackling these challenges head on with a five-stage, five-reactor plan. Its second device showed it was possible to make new high temperature superconducting magnets for controlling the plasma. These are made of a material with much increased conductivity in high magnetic fields than materials typically used for magnets in fusion reactors. The higher conductivity and higher operating temperature will allow fusion power to be produced in much more compact devices than conventionally thought possible.

By breaking down the challenges into such distinct goals, money can be raised privately to achieve each step, with success enabling more money to be raised to tackle the next challenge. Tokamak Energy aims to deliver a fusion power gain within five years, first electricity within 10 years and a 100MWe power plant within 15 years, but acknowledges that this will depend on attracting a huge amount of investment.

There is latent public enthusiasm; many people recognise that harnessing fusion energy is an important challenge that we have a duty to tackle. The new investment climate brings hope for this fusion future. While some hold the view that fusion will forever be 30 years beyond the horizon, Tokamak Energy is working on making it a reality.

Dr David Kingham is CEO of Tokamak Energy.

EngineerLive



29 Comments on "A fusion-focused future"

  1. Anonymous on Fri, 2nd Dec 2016 6:18 pm 

    Fusion is just around the corner.

    Energy TOO expensive to meter.

    (IF it ever produces a single KW of net energy that is)

    I can hardly wait. The article said so, so it must be true.

  2. Davy on Fri, 2nd Dec 2016 6:41 pm 

    Ain’t my friggen duty! Snake oil – “many people recognize that harnessing fusion energy is an important challenge that we have a duty to tackle.”

  3. onlooker on Fri, 2nd Dec 2016 6:46 pm 

    Same hyping this up are probably hyping vacations to Mars haha

  4. Go Speed Racer on Fri, 2nd Dec 2016 6:51 pm 

    LOL maybe a Ford Fusion.
    At least it would do something useful.

  5. Go Speed Racer on Fri, 2nd Dec 2016 6:56 pm 

    You can make one out of a Mr Coffee pot.
    Enough energy for a Delorean.
    Runs on garbage.

  6. makati1 on Fri, 2nd Dec 2016 7:36 pm 

    HAHAHAHAHA! LMAO!

  7. DMyers on Fri, 2nd Dec 2016 8:19 pm 

    So much cynicism here. Let’s give it a try. Fusion works on the sun, as duly noted. (But think small, in this case). It’s all natural.

    This is really our last hope. That’s why we must embrace it.

    ITER in a bottle. The idea fits in so many ways. If you don’t want to believe in that, you are not f*cking normal.

  8. makati1 on Fri, 2nd Dec 2016 8:25 pm 

    DH, you are dreaming … or delusional … or on some really good drug. Fusion is a techie pipe dream, nothing more.

  9. Truth Has A Liberal Bias on Fri, 2nd Dec 2016 8:26 pm 

    “This is really our last hope. That’s why we must embrace it.”

    Yeah maybe if I need it bad enough I’ll start shitting golden eggs. Fucking retard.

  10. GregT on Fri, 2nd Dec 2016 8:50 pm 

    “If you don’t want to believe in that, you are not f*cking normal.”

    Not to worry, an extremely large percentage of the world’s population still ‘believe’ that their God is coming to save them.

    More likely than the belief of creating miniature solar systems in a bottle.

  11. GregT on Fri, 2nd Dec 2016 9:03 pm 

    “This is really our last hope. That’s why we must embrace it.”

    Our last hope is to stop treating the planet as a resource base for unnecessary consumer crap. Finding different ways to keep doing what we have for the last couple of hundred years, ends the same way. Extinction.

  12. penury on Fri, 2nd Dec 2016 9:51 pm 

    “This is really our last hope” after this we have nothing except reality and humans cannot embrace or tolerate reality. The world as we know it has far fewer years left to create this than the flora and fauna have left to survive. And that is the good news.

  13. jjhman on Fri, 2nd Dec 2016 10:33 pm 

    I can’t help it:

    “You are our last hope Obi-Wan Kenobi”

    He died trying as I recall.

  14. Apneaman on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 1:41 am 

    Beyond the Point of No Return — Imminent Carbon Feedbacks Just Made the Stakes for Global Warming a Hell of a Lot Higher

    -Global Warming Activates Soil Respiration Which Produces More CO2

    -Amplifying Feedbacks Starting to Happen Now

    -Beyond the Point of No Return

    “What this means is that the stakes for cutting human carbon emissions to zero as swiftly as possible just got a whole hell of a lot higher. If we fail to do this, we will easily be on track for 5-7 C or worse warming by the end of this Century. And this level of warming happening so soon and over so short a timeframe is an event that few, if any, current human civilizations are likely to survive. Furthermore, if we are to avoid terribly harmful warming over longer periods, we must not only rapidly transition to renewable energy sources. We must also somehow learn to pull carbon, on net, out of the atmosphere in rather high volumes.”

    https://robertscribbler.com/2016/12/02/beyond-the-point-of-no-return-imminent-carbon-feedbacks-just-made-the-stakes-for-global-warming-a-hell-of-a-lot-higher/

    I think it’s even worse than this. There are no studies or models accounting for all feedbacks underway. It may be even too complicated to model on their supercomputers. Too many variables. Add it ALL up and throw in the fact that the globalist corporatists have won and will never give up their power base – fossil fueled consumer growth. Not even to save the species. A species that only half or less even know about AGW and out of the half who do half of them are in pure denial and most of the remaining half are in soft denial and magical thinking. A few years back Dave Cohen estimated that there are about only 10 million who can process what is happening; what the humans have done. I can’t see any reason to argue with him over it and many reasons to support his claim, like all the parents who have been warned but haven’t done a fucking thing. I don’t believe they don’t care about their kids, so it must be that they really don’t believe the worst is possible. I’ve read accounts of mass shooting where a bunch of the victims are men who were shot in the back because they were shielding their wives or kids. Instinctual protection and not unusual at all, so why would they do nothing in regards to AGW, mass extinction, etc that will kill all their loved ones? Not only not do anything, but devote their lives: work, consumption, lifestyle and amassing wealth that only bring it on all the quicker? They not all stupid people and the vast majority care about their loved ones, so why?

  15. Boat on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 3:20 am 

    Ape,

    It is easy to see major gains in the fight against climate change. One just needs to open their eyes. I have been pointing out evidence for the last 3 years. You doomers see what you want to see. More bad weather events will increase the pressure to go cleaner faster over the years. The solutions will happen much faster as the costs from climate change go up. That’s how it works.

  16. makati1 on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 4:07 am 

    Ap, Those who do know and accept global warming/climate change are too ingrained (indoctrinated) with the capitalist greed and the need to not look weak, or to appear to not be ‘tin foil hat’ wearers, to their peers. They insist that there will be some form of BAU powered by pixie dust they call ‘alternate’ or ‘renewable’ energy. They never look at the financial and material resources needed to do so because it would pop their dream bubble.

    Western man has devolved from pioneer types into ‘snowflakes’ that want to seem ‘normal’ more then they love their kids. It’s only when there is a “Katrina” and the levees give way do they question their decision to live below sea level or the guarantee by their government that they are ‘safe’. Too late.

    Some, like Boat, are perfect examples of the denial snowflake. Or is it just… flake? ^_^

  17. GregT on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 4:29 am 

    “It is easy to see major gains in the fight against climate change. One just needs to open their eyes. I have been pointing out evidence for the last 3 years. You doomers see what you want to see. More bad weather events will increase the pressure to go cleaner faster over the years. The solutions will happen much faster as the costs from climate change go up. That’s how it works.”

    Sounds like someone is beginning to get all a-fear-ed. Not to worry Boat, the average male American lifespan is 78 years. You now have ~17 years more to go, if you are lucky. That’s how it works Kevin.

  18. Davy on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 4:38 am 

    I am living as if we are past the point of no return. I also believe this point of no return is for more reasons than many climate scientist preach who I think are just as delusional about energy and the economy. They are in denial their prescriptions will kill and that is wrong. They are all hot and bothered about the climate when it is the economy and energy and the combination of the two that feeds us that will kill us. Plain old hunger with gaunt faces and big bellies kind of death.

    Climate change point of no return will hasten this process and probably/maybe cause an extinction event later in the century. I think we only have a few years before a die off starts that will radically change civilization. It will be a time of deindustrialization so I am not yet sure the worst of climate change can happen. Yet, it is now apparent even the least is going to make this planet uninhabitable in many places.

    My little place in central Missouri being one eventually. Continental interiors will not be inhabitable in the summers someday. We have lots of good water here above and below ground which is a plus for now. I dread the hot wet bulb summers coming. Life will be extinguished for 6 months a year with the really tough shit living through the winters and that won’t be us. In the mean time I am adapting by grazing goats with less cattle. This is one of the largest cow calf rearing area in the world. I have stopped trying to eliminate weeds, invasives, and brush from pasture. I am doing this because it will be polycultures that survive this dramatic change to the biota and combinations of animals to live with this change. If you are farming based on monocultures I feel eventually the likelihood of failure will be high.

    This is why I see a die off coming. We need a majority of the population on the land in subsistence and where possible permaculture living. This won’t happen in the numbers needed. We need monasteries of knowledge and wisdom to leave the best of what humans have developed and perfected. Hopefully part of that wisdom is an account of what will have brought us to the brink of extinction. We may have a new type of man evolve out of this and it could be a bottleneck that advances us at least spiritually.

    Frankly, we are not worth saving as a species now. We are a destroyer species of nature and ourselves. Sure we have some good in us but the bad side of us that fossil fuels let lose is horrible. What other kind of word can you use when you go to a nature place that has been spoiled by cheap plastic of the misuse of a bulldozer? I remember in the 70’s when I was a kid and the big push was to get people to quit throwing trash out the car window. A Native American fellow was at the end of the commercial with a tear coming down his cheek when he observed trash along a road.

    I live a surreal life just like that fellow now because I live what people don’t want to admit or live like. I live collapse and I criticize false hope. I guess in a way I am a prophet. Prophets are useless really from society’s point of view. What point do they serve to the social narrative of progress and growth? They are nothing but a distraction from hope. That is fine because I am speaking for those who come later who will face the worst of what man has created. I just thought about this tonight how I am going to break the news to my kids when they are of age that they may be the “last of the Mohicans”. Maybe they can take that life changing message and converted to something. Maybe they can be the monks of the monastery I speak of.

    Those of you who can’t do anything or don’t want to do anything I can’t fault you. What I will fault you for is if you have a good life now then don’t fuck it up with careless human actions or thoughts. Live life fully and enjoy it fully. If you can do something higher. Practice some relative sacrifice for nature and your fellow man. I feel there is value in it and value is found in the truth. I am here every day sometimes redundantly but here as a sentinel of collapse. I want to be on the front lines of what is coming as a recon ranger. I am living what I am preaching and I am preparing for death.

    A good death is dying in the truth. No, I doubt I will face death much easier than others. It scares the hell out of me but where I am ahead of many is not fearing the fear of death. That is a vicious circle of anxiety and paralysis. Denial is dangerous because at some point it does not work and when that time comes a mental and physical break down occurs. A way of life built on denial ends badly. Yet, it also can be a time of great energy and effort from transformation to the truth.

    If, you feel what I am talking about not relevant then you are in denial of the coming die off and collapse. We are dealing with issues if not handled properly will get us there sooner rather than later. For me that is the best I can do for man and that is find him some more time to be alive. If that is a few months or one or two years than that to me is worth something. When the end time is near anything even a little bit more is special unless you are in pain of living. In that case there is always suicide.

  19. Davy on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 4:46 am 

    “Western man has devolved from pioneer types into ‘snowflakes’ that want to seem ‘normal’ more then they love their kids” What denial we have from those who thinks this is just a western problem. What a friggen dumbass to act like he is superior because he is the anointed one in an anointed land when it is his place that is the absolute worse place to be. The Mid East then Asia are the worst possible places in the beginnings of this process. LMFAO. Yea, I am going to die too but at least not an old dumbass alone in a faraway land.

  20. Boat on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 5:28 am 

    mak,

    Your a lousy barrel counter even when the stats are laid out before your eyes. Your track record sucks predicting economic collapse sucks along with your financial advice. I understand you will be worthless at counting wind and solar growth. You have a track record of denial. Don’t worry, I will be here to walk you through these confusing times.

  21. makati1 on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 7:23 am 

    Boat, I don’t give a shit about barrels of anything. You are the one obsessed with oily things. You cannot accept that your dream future is NEVER going to happen.

    That the end has not happened … yet … only means that the crash will be a multi-megaton bomb and not a kiloton bomb. Your blindness is obvious to those who live in the real world. It must be terrifying to know that you will NOT live the life you want to. You were born too late to enjoy the world I knew. That’s the breaks! LOL

  22. makati1 on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 7:40 am 

    Davy, Ozark Hillbillies have no opinions as that requires thought and intelligence. No sign of either in Missouri … LOL

    You must spend all of your ‘farming’ time composing those long rants no one reads. You and Boat need to live together. Birds of a feather, and all that.

    Typical Self centered American idea that the U$ is better than ANYPLACE else on this huge globe to be at this time. LMAO You will soon see how foolish that belief is. All you have to judge other places is the propaganda bullshit fed to you daily by your Fascist government. Slurp! Slurp!

    You are not here.
    You were never here.
    You will never be here.
    That makes anyone who is here, the expert on here.

    “Obama Supports Forcing Women To Register For Military Draft” Do you have a daughter?

    “The New American Dream – A Life In Hock” Enjoying those chains?

    ““Civil War Is Unavoidable”: Divided Americans Will Inevitably Turn Toward Militancy and Mob Action”

    Will it be Blacks vs Latinos vs Whites vs Muslims vs … ? Or maybe Red vs Blue? Getting more and more likely as time passes. Wait until the ATMs are down and the food stamps stop.

  23. Davy on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 8:56 am 

    Makat, my rants are less than the summations of your chirps and they say something . What do you say other than bragging?

  24. Cloggie on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 8:58 am 

    Ozark Hillbillies have no opinions as that requires thought and intelligence. No sign of either in Missouri … LOL

    These people from Hermann/Missouri don’t look like “Hillbillies” to me:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KoZidoE4SU

    At 0:30 there is a woman who moved from South-Africa to Hermann. Wonder why she did that. I mean, wasn’t post-Apartheid SA “vibrant”, colorful and stuff? What’s wrong with these people?

    Oh and say hello from me to your new maximo lider, will ya Bill?

  25. Cash472 on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 9:25 am 

    First, Neither the article nor any of the comments point out that Large Corporations are also spending their own R&D money, working to solve this problem as well (think Lockheed Martin).
    Second, Solar does work (but is only affordable with excessive Government Assistance). My office building is 100% Solar, producing approx 950 kWh per month more than I’m using. Unfortunately with battery storage still way too expensive, I have to use the local power company’s grid as my “storage”, so if they are down, so am I.
    Third, Climate history going back before the Industrial Revolution, seems to show that at a certain level of CO2, the world gets an explosion of plant life which lowers some of the CO2 in the atmosphere. Unfortunately those periods did not have the excess heat which we’re going to have. Not to mention all of the other harmful items we’ve placed into the atmosphere which nature never could have created on it’s own.
    Next, North America does have one thing going for it which only a few other parts of the planet do. As the southern area of the US grain growing area becomes unproductive, the extent further north in Canada will be enlarging.
    Finally, from what I learned in Chemistry classes in High School, if you look at the very long chemical formula of raw Petroleum, and compare it to the chemical formulas of Sugar & Starch (just for starters , the building blocks of what humans need to consume). I believe that a special type of petroleum refinery, could create most of the building blocks for artificial food.
    Respectfully,

  26. Apneaman on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 10:12 am 

    Cash472, “the world gets an explosion of plant life which lowers some of the CO2 in the atmosphere.” got any numbers for that? How much is an “explosion of plant life” and what kind of plant life?

    What the world is getting is an explosion of desertification and forests being killed by pine beetles et al and AGW jacked wildfires and cut down for more lumber and/or marginal agricultural land. Obviously you have never been to northern Canada. Let me tell you that there will almost no wide scale industrial agriculture there. Game over.

  27. LPG on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 6:05 pm 

    Hard to believe a complete article and discussion. Not one mention of Liquid fueld Thorium reactor. Carbon negative energy dense technology 60 years old. The fuel is basically free. Long way to go but there is momentum in reimplementing the technology.

  28. DMyers on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 8:00 pm 

    I appreciate the responses to my previous entry, DMyers on Fri, 2nd Dec 2016 8:19 pm.

    It was so ridiculous that I laughed while writing it. So, I’m left wondering, did they misunderstand my sarcasm or did I misunderstand theirs?

    Mak1 accuses me of delusional dreaming after taking good drugs. The only drug affecting me at the moment is the constant stream of laughing gas piped in with media propaganda.

    Truth Has A Liberal Bias on Fri, 2nd Dec 2016 8:26 pm Truth calls me a “fucking retard.” This is a compliment, as that was the impression that I intended. By the way, it wouldn’t bother me at all were someone to call me a fucking retard, to my face or behind my back. I call myself that sometimes, and so does my wife.

    But I will say this, as an advisory for any case. You’d better smile when you say that.

  29. antaris on Sat, 3rd Dec 2016 8:36 pm 

    Davy, years back we were driving into Vegas and went through about a 3 mile stretch of highway filled with roadside garbage. I still wonder to this day was it never picked up( for a reason ) thrown out for a reason or did the wind naturally blow all this shit there. Maybe someone here knows the place and can enlighten me.

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