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Could small nuclear fusion reactors provide the clean energy safety net the world needs?

Could small nuclear fusion reactors provide the clean energy safety net the world needs? thumbnail

The old joke suggests nuclear fusion is always 30 years away, but undeterred a British firm is now working to connect a nuclear fusion reactor to the grid by 2030

The idea of nuclear fusion someday providing a cheap and abundant source of clean energy has been around for decades, but has long considered by many nothing more than a pipe dream.

Although we can see the effects of fusion taking place on a daily basis in the sun and stars, the technological development of any kind of nuclear fusion reactor capable of generating a useful amount energy back here on Earth has remained tantalisingly out of reach.

However, while it is unlikely the old joke about nuclear fusion – ‘nuclear fusion is 30 years away, and always will be’ – is unlikely to be retired any time soon, the fusion research scene has quietly begun to show signs of progress in recent years. Steady developments in the science behind nuclear fusion have led to a host of private-sector start-ups, and even major players such as defence giant Lockheed Martin are getting involved, leading to testing of innovative ways of building on the decades of work undertaken by government-funded institutes.

Among these is Tokamak Energy – a British firm in the process of developing a small nuclear fusion reactor which it says could be connected to the grid within the next 15 years.

A nuclear problem

Fusion is a process by which small charged nuclei fuse together to make bigger atoms, the huge advantage being the release of torrents of energy without the toxic waste or danger of explosion created by the nuclear fission reactions currently harnessed in current nuclear plants where larger nuclei are broken into smaller fragments.

However, the big hurdle which has proved so difficult for nuclear fusion researchers to overcome is the inability to deliver the sustained and massively high temperatures and pressures required to make nuclei hit each other and fuse together.

Since these conditions are so extreme, matter turns into a plasma which can not be contained with solid materials – other ways of holding them, such as magnetic fields, need to be used instead, and much of fusion research is focussed on developing magnetic confinement using stronger and stronger magnetic fields.

Large scale commitments such as the Joint European Torus (JET) project at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in the UK and the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor at Princeton – which began working at full power in the 1990s – have delivered some results, with JET actually managing to produced 16MW of fusion power in 1997 – albeit only for a second and with 24MW of input energy.

Speaking to BusinessGreen, Dr David Kingham, chief executive of Tokamak Energy, explains how through these experiments it became clear the copper magnets normally used had too high a resistance to maintain the magnetic field for long enough to produce power. Scientists therefore realised superconducting magnets – which offer zero electrical resistance when cooled to very low temperatures – would be essential to get long lasting energy generation. The decision was therefore made to construct the ITER, an enormous reactor currently being built through an international research project in Southern France, which aims to use superconducting magnets to produce 500MW of fusion power. However, while construction of the €20bn, 35-metre-wide device began in 2007, it has encountered a number of difficulties and has still not been completed.

“Progress has been slow and people have got frustrated, and worried that these very large devices are going to be very slow to develop,” says Kingham. “And given that you might need two or three more steps after ITER to get to commercial fusion, it starts pushing it into the 22nd century before it’s a useful power source.”

But as these projects have floundered and many have given up hope on nuclear fusion as a feasible power source in any kind of short to medium time scale, small firms such as Tokamak Energy are increasingly using scientific advances to try out new ideas for how energy from nuclear fusion could be made a reality.

Small nuclear fusion reactors

Tokamak Energy is focused on the Tokomak technology used by these larger projects – a ring-doughnut shaped vessel first developed by Russian scientists in the 50s which has magnetic coils which trap the plasma. However rather than the conventional doughnut shape of Tokamaks, it uses a more compact spherical Tokamak developed by another side project at Culham laboratory called the Small Tight Aspect Ratio Tokamak (START).

Plasma in the START spherical Tokamak at Culham in 1997Plasma in the START spherical Tokamak at Culham in 1997


In the experiments at Culham the device produced record plasma pressures for a given magnetic field, but its small size – which restricted the overall size of the magnetic field – initially made it difficult to see how the very high fields needed for fusion could be produced, says Kingham.

But the recent advent of high temperature superconductors – materials that behave as superconductors at much higher temperatures than the very cold conditions superconductors usually require – has changed this. These materials were discovered 25 years ago but its only in the last five years that their manufacture at scale and high quality has become possible, Kingham explains, opening up the doors to creating strong magnetic fields in the compact spherical tokamak.

“We’re basically combining the physics advantages of the spherical tokamak with the engineering advantages of high temperature superconductors to make a better, smaller magnetic bottle,” says Kingham. “What we’re doing now is treating fusion as an engineering challenge, or a series of engineering challenges, and nobody’s really done that until the last few years – you can only treat it as an engineering challenge if the science is basically well enough understood, and the materials like the high temperature superconductors are available, and now they are.”

A back-up plan?

Tokamak Energy was founded in 2010 by Kingham along with two scientists from Culham laboratory with backing from tech firm Oxford Instruments and government seed funding.

It has so far built two small devices of around one to two metres – one with copper magnets, another with high temperature superconductor magnets – and has plans to build three more small reactors as part of a five stage plan which it hopes will result in a small nuclear fusion reactor capable of being connected to the grid by 2030.

27 Comments on "Could small nuclear fusion reactors provide the clean energy safety net the world needs?"

  1. penury on Tue, 27th Sep 2016 2:39 pm 

    To be redundant: call me when a commercial operation is available.

  2. Bob on Tue, 27th Sep 2016 2:48 pm 

    Will this fusion nonsense ever end? Apparently not.

  3. peakyeast on Tue, 27th Sep 2016 6:25 pm 

    The exercise in developing something now that is necessary for something else that doesnt exist and that isnt likely to exist for a prolonged period – if ever.

    What could possibly go wrong with that investment?

    I must say the “buyer” of that business plan is ???wtf???

  4. jjhman on Tue, 27th Sep 2016 7:34 pm 

    I might be cynical but I have a little difficulty understanding why the development of high temperature superconductors could lead to improved fusion reactors. Low temperature superconductors are used routinely in such “mundane” devices as the MRI machine in your local hospital. I doubt that the high temp magnets are actually more effective than the near absolute zero ones. Physics is seldom that accomodating. Note that most High temp SC transition around -135C rather than -240-ish. That’s 100C difference but still a big pain to maintain, probably using liquid Nitrogen instead of liquid Helium.

    Big deal.

  5. mike on Tue, 27th Sep 2016 7:43 pm 

    We’ve about the same chance of commercial fusion reactors as we do of power from Tinkerbell’s fairy dust.

    When I was a nuclear physics major in the early 1970s, commercial fusion was 20 years away. It is STILL 20 years away, according to the pundits, over 40 years later.

    IF they can sustain the reaction, how are they going to handle the neutron embrittlement of the confinement container, and the radioactivity from the neutron bombardment? I’ve not seen that addressed.

  6. makati1 on Tue, 27th Sep 2016 7:57 pm 

    mike, the idea is just more ‘hopeium’ for the masses and an income for a bunch of techies and their followers. Reality is a bitch and she is laughing her ass off at this fiasco. No one will address the negatives as that would ruin the illusion.

  7. GaryR on Tue, 27th Sep 2016 8:50 pm 

    Anything that will reduce oil production and uses will be worth it.

  8. harvey ammons on Tue, 27th Sep 2016 8:52 pm 

    Thorium reactors should be released for public development. Oak Ridge had one run for 5 years, no problems, no radioactive waste, safe, gets rare earths as by products, and we have enough thorium for thousands of years. It cost about the same as gas fired plants to build. We already buy all our rare earths from China, and they keep raising the prices. They are developing their on thorium reactors. If we do not get ahead of them, they will build and lease this cheap energy production to the world. They are going to own the world’s energy.

  9. Double Slit the Quantum Phantom on Tue, 27th Sep 2016 9:30 pm 

    For crying out loud the whole ‘cold’ fusioin thing was debunked year ago. Apparently we are dealing with its zombie.

  10. Bob Thompson on Tue, 27th Sep 2016 10:11 pm 

    The Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X) reactor in Germany holds real promise.

  11. Bob Thompson on Tue, 27th Sep 2016 10:21 pm 

    The timeline between theoretical thermonuclear weapons and the first H-bomb explosion was a flash in the pan (or atoll) for the science of physics. A few years from now, our neighborhood fusion electrical generators will be powering our daily living.

  12. G Herman on Tue, 27th Sep 2016 11:25 pm 

    Fusion is a nice source of power……the problem besides the obvious accidental explosion is heat…..we already have enough heat. Releasing that stored energy on the planet on a more widespread basis than we already do is gonna have major implications.

  13. ghung on Wed, 28th Sep 2016 7:37 am 

    “Fusion is a nice source of power…”

    No, it’s not. Excluding the sun, fusion isn’t a source of power at all, or energy for that matter. To date, earthly “fusion” has been an enormous energy and resource sink.

  14. Kenz300 on Wed, 28th Sep 2016 9:45 am 

    Seems like Solar energy is so inexpensive these days that no other form of energy generation can compete.
    And even better yet the price for Solar continues to fall.

    Solar Cost Hits World’s New Low, Half the Price of Coal

  15. jade on Wed, 28th Sep 2016 11:26 am 

    We will have to make this work sometime in the next 100yrs or we are in deep doodoo. Would $1T make it happen? what about $10T? Everything we have?

  16. ghung on Wed, 28th Sep 2016 11:37 am 

    jade says; “We will have to make this work sometime in the next 100yrs or we are in deep doodoo.”

    We’re in deep doodoo even if we could make it work. Look what we’ve done so far with history’s greatest energy endowment.

  17. Davy on Wed, 28th Sep 2016 12:13 pm 

    There is no question we are in deep trouble. The question is more like who is first and when? Where are the worst of the three dangers of climate, economy, and energy going to strike first? Food is central to these three danger with many other issues close behind. It comes down to the scale of degree and duration. How hard are we going to get hit by the worst of these dangers and when is the worst of these dangers going to happen? Can we have an orderly retreat or will there be a disorganized route? Will a crisis turn to panic or will that crisis allow meaningful change? These are vital questions currently because we have a huge productive global system that is available to solve “the crisis” to end all crisis but that global system is likely nearing its end and once ended it will be more of a liability than a resource.

    Ideally now is the time for action before it is too late. The problem is if we pull the trigger on actions to prepare for this collapse this action itself will precipitate collapse. The reason for this is because so many status quo activities must be eliminated. People are going to die and there will be many places that turn into failed locations. This is the nature of the coming crisis and the nature of the required actions needed to mitigate that crisis. This is the pain and suffering that happens in an existential catch 22. The key is to choose the “least” worse path. We as a modern people are not used to this because we are used to achieving great results not avoiding failure as long as we can. This is the paradox of the existential catch 22 are in. Right is wrong and wrong is right in regards to status quo and what is coming.

  18. Go Speed Racer on Wed, 28th Sep 2016 12:21 pm 

    To keep this fusion research going,
    call 1-800-ITS-GONE. Design engineers and physicists are standing by. To take your money, and spend it on brand new Audi’s. And college tuition for their kids.

  19. Apneaman on Wed, 28th Sep 2016 12:25 pm 

    Canada once again doing its part to help grow the cancer. Don’t need no stinking fusion or solar.

    Federal government approves liquefied natural gas project on B.C. coast with 190 conditions
    Project would build a liquefied natural gas terminal on coast and pipeline spanning province

  20. Go Speed Racer on Wed, 28th Sep 2016 12:25 pm 

    Harvey A gets it. There is a valid power source,
    Thorium. Go to the head of the class.
    Harvey gets a gold star. Thorium molten salt fuel works great.

    But now what, you think Hillary’s body double
    will allow a Thorium reactor to proceed ?
    Bwaaaa haaaa haaaa
    Or Trump? Laughing even harder.

  21. dervis mahmutcehajic on Wed, 28th Sep 2016 2:21 pm 

    My reply to title of this article. “Could new anti-gravitational technology bring the revolution to transportation, to avio industry in particular?” What a crappy article.

  22. Dan from MV on Wed, 28th Sep 2016 2:58 pm 

    Fusion. Always just 10 years away…
    In 10 years, guess what?
    It will be just 10 years away…

  23. Republifascism is still FASCISM on Wed, 28th Sep 2016 3:11 pm 

    Fusion’s not easy, but pro-solar/anti-technology dingleberries aren’t likely to possess the literacy to give it a fair hearing. It’s possible, and it’s likely. As to whether it’s during my lifetime or not is an open question. But understanding it in the first place was the “Star Trek” of this time in the last Century, so, I’d lean out on the naysaying. Solar just can’t handle the capacitance drawbacks. Not now, and maybe not ever. Newton’s Laws don’t give a fig. Unless you can learn to move the goalposts somehow. Same goes for Fusion. One has no high ground on the other…..

  24. Sissyfuss on Wed, 28th Sep 2016 4:24 pm 

    Repubichairschism, ass sphincter says what?

  25. Rick Bronson on Wed, 28th Sep 2016 6:30 pm 

    Russia already has BN-1200 Fast reactor.
    China is rapidly building Gen-4 reactor.

    By 2020, both these type of reactors will be built in many countries to make the Fission based power cheaper.

    Meanwhile Solar power hit a record low of 2.42 cents/ KWh in Abudhabi, UAE.

    Where does Fusion stand amidst all this.

  26. Kevin on Thu, 29th Sep 2016 6:42 am 

    I suggest all with an interest read this (relatively) simple paper by Todd Rider. It basically shows that all these small schemes will not work as the losses outweigh the gains. The only feasable method is gravitational confinement. I suggest you look up on a sunny day to see how that works..

    Anyone investing in these schemes is probably wasting their money..

  27. Kenz300 on Fri, 30th Sep 2016 11:36 am 

    Wind, solar and geothermal continue to grow in use every year while fossil fuel use declines.

    The simplest and cheapest forms of energy generation are wind and solar. They are the future of energy generation.

    Climate Change will be the defining issue of our lives…
    23 States to Rely on Geothermal, Solar, or Wind Power as a Primary Source of Electric Generation in 2016

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