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Fusion energy pushed back beyond 2050

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We will have to wait until the second half of the century for fusion reactors to start generating electricity, experts have announced.

A new version of a European “road map” lays out the technological hurdles to be overcome if the processes powering the Sun are to be harnessed on Earth.

The road map has been drawn up by scientists and engineers at EUROfusion.

This is a consortium of European laboratories and universities that funds research on fusion energy.

The original version of the road map, published in 2012, forecast that a demonstration fusion power plant known as DEMO could be operating in the early 2040s, in order to supply electricity to the grid by 2050.

But in the updated version, yet to be released, DEMO would not start running until “early in the second half of the century”.

A related document that provides more detail on DEMO’s design says that operations would start after 2054.

The setback has been caused largely by delays to ITER, a 20bn-euro reactor that is currently being built in the south of France to prove that fusion energy is scientifically and technically feasible.

In fact, according to EUROfusion’s programme manager, nuclear physicist Tony Donné, DEMO’s schedule could slip further, depending on progress both with ITER and a facility to test materials for fusion power plants that has yet to be built.

Image copyright Iter
Image caption Artist’s concept of the ITER vacuum vessel; DEMO depends on this project’s progress

“2054 is optimistic,” he says. “It is doable but we need to align political decision makers and get industry involved.”

Fusion involves heating nuclei of light atoms – usually isotopes of hydrogen – to temperatures many times higher than that at the centre of the Sun so that they can overcome their mutual repulsion and join together to form a heavier nucleus, giving off huge amounts of energy in the process.

In principle, this energy could provide low-carbon “baseload” electricity to the grid using very plentiful raw materials and generating relatively short-lived nuclear waste. But achieving fusion in the laboratory is a daunting task.

Doughnut-shaped reactors known as tokamaks use enormous magnetic fields to hold a hot plasma of nuclei and their dissociated electrons in place for long enough and at a high enough density to permit fusion.

ITER, in fact, represents the culmination of 60 years of research. The world’s largest ever tokamak, it will weigh 23,000 tonnes and is designed to generate 10 times the power that it consumes.

But the project has been beset by delays and cost overruns. Originally foreseen to switch on in 2016 and cost around 5bn euros, its price has since roughly quadrupled and its start-up pushed back to 2025. Full-scale experiments are now not foreseen until at least 2035.

As well as being technically very demanding, ITER is also complex politically.

Image copyright Iter
Image caption After delays, ITER construction is proceeding apace in southern France

It is an international project with seven partners: China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States. As host, Europe is paying the biggest share of the costs – about 45%.

European research organisations set up the road map five years ago to guide the research needed to achieve fusion electricity by 2050. In doing so, they were mindful of competition from other ITER partners; both China and South Korea having started to design their own demonstration reactors.

The roadmap sees ITER as the single most important project in realising fusion but not one that is designed to generate electricity.

DEMO, a tokamak adapted from the ITER design which would also cost billions of euros, is intended to produce several hundred megawatts of electricity for the grid. To do so, it must run continuously for hours, days or ideally years at a time, as opposed to ITER, which will operate in bursts lasting just a few minutes.

In addition, DEMO will have to generate its own supply of tritium (the radioactive isotope of hydrogen which can help drive fusion) by using neutrons it produces to transform lithium (its other hydrogen isotope, deuterium, can instead be extracted from sea water).

Researchers are already starting to develop conceptual designs for DEMO. But because they need results from ITER to draw up a detailed engineering design, their progress is vulnerable to any further delays in France.

The person who coordinates this work, EUROfusion nuclear engineer Gianfranco Federici, describes the revised road map as “realistic but very ambitious”. He says its success will depend not only on progress with ITER but also on the heads of European labs sacrificing some of their own research projects to concentrate on the design and R&D laid out in the plan.

He reckons that this shift in priorities will not be easy. He says that physicists “are searching for the holy grail, the perfect plasma”, whereas the roadmap embodies a more “pragmatic” approach to realise fusion energy as quickly as possible.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Reactors with stellarator designs – such as Germany’s Wendelstein 7X shown here – are a promising alternative to tokamaks

Federici argues it is vital to demonstrate electricity generation from fusion “not too far after the middle of the century”. Otherwise, he says, there may no longer be a nuclear industry able to build the commercial fusion plants that would follow, and the public may lose patience.

The subsequent loss of political support, he wrote in the DEMO design report, “would run the risk of delaying fusion electricity well into the 22nd century.”

Robert Goldston, a physicist at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory in the US, is more optimistic. He is “very confident” that ITER can produce “industrial amounts of heat” and believes that once it has done so generating electricity from fusion will be “a question of commitment of manpower”.

But he says that commercial power plants won’t necessarily use tokamaks. An alternative, he says, is the stellarator – a reactor exploiting strangely-shaped magnets that is hard to build but potentially easier to operate.

Meanwhile, in recent years a number of private companies have started investigating smaller, cheaper alternatives.

One such company is Tokamak Energy in Oxfordshire, which is developing a spherical-shaped tokamak that creates magnetic fields using high-temperature superconductors. The firm has yet to generate fusion reactions, but nevertheless aims to put electricity into the grid by 2030 – using a reactor perhaps 100 times smaller than ITER.

“We see fusion as a series of very substantial engineering challenges,” says the company’s chief executive David Kingham. “The physics doesn’t have to be perfectly understood.”

Federici agrees that engineering is now key to building working fusion plants. But he is sceptical that the newer, cut-price proposals will do the job, arguing that they face daunting design challenges.

“Cheap, fast and small is something that fusion will never be,” he says.



15 Comments on "Fusion energy pushed back beyond 2050"

  1. ALCIADA-MOLE on Tue, 11th Jul 2017 2:21 pm 

    This is good news. There’ll be plenty of time to kill off extremist tard preachers and then tard extremists. We can not continue to put off some culling by inventing new sources of energy.

  2. Cloggie on Tue, 11th Jul 2017 2:49 pm 

    By 2050 we in Europe will have completed the energy transition away from fossil fuel (sorry rockman). Jean-Claude Flasche leer Juncker said so.

    So the 2054-wannabee fusioneers can put their plasma in a place where the Sun doesn’t shine.

  3. Bob on Tue, 11th Jul 2017 3:42 pm 

    Fusion: A dream that has been turned into the highest form of reality. A fantasy like no other. Just give it all the funding possible and all the engineering talent on the planet and maybe, by the end of the century, we may have a working model. Meanwhile wind and solar carry on, demolishing coal, nuclear and bio-fuel by being the cheapest (gasp)!

  4. StarvingLion on Tue, 11th Jul 2017 4:06 pm 

    Fusion = FRAUD

  5. bobinget on Tue, 11th Jul 2017 5:18 pm 

    When early NASA techies spent millions developing a pen that would work in zero gravity, Russian astronauts reinvented a pencil.

    At this very second my home is air conditioned, harvesting one huge fusion reactor, we like to call “Sun”.

  6. Jeff on Tue, 11th Jul 2017 5:20 pm 

    By 2050 it will be far too late to avoid collapse of civilisation.

  7. Makati1 on Tue, 11th Jul 2017 6:46 pm 

    Jeff, you are correct. From my vantage point, collapse will be over way before 2050. If there are any humans left they will be living in a world full of disease, radiation and death. Fusion will only be a word in the printed dictionaries that have avoided being used as fire starters. Wait and see. Fortunately, I will not be here or I would be 104. lol

  8. bobinget on Tue, 11th Jul 2017 9:47 pm 

    Jeff and Makati need to move to Alaska just to experience the Rapture first hand.
    BETHEL — Along the main thoroughfare here, drivers brake for warped asphalt. Houses sink unevenly into the ground. Walls crack and doors stick. Utility poles tilt, sometimes at alarming angles.

    Permafrost in and around Bethel is deteriorating and shrinking, even more quickly than most places in Alaska.

    Since the first buildings out here, people have struggled with the freeze and thaw of the soils above the permafrost. Now those challenges are amplified.

    “What they are saying is the permafrost is dying,” said Eric Whitney, a home inspector and energy auditor in Bethel who has noticed newly eroding river banks, slanting spruce trees and homes shifting anew just weeks after being made level. “I’m just assuming it is not coming back while we’re around here.”


  9. Go Speed Racer on Tue, 11th Jul 2017 10:14 pm 

    Article is wrong. Not the year 2050.

    2017 + 30 = year 2047.
    Fusion always 30 years away.

  10. Anonymouse on Tue, 11th Jul 2017 10:32 pm 

    Thats is a shame, I was looking forward to vacations on the moon, a robot maid in every closet, clog-frauds autonomous flying dutch vaporware EVs, the whole bright shiney future package(tm). With this sad bit of news, all that will have go on the back-burner for a while longer I guess.

  11. Dooma on Wed, 12th Jul 2017 5:05 pm 

    If the roadmap for fusion is created by the same people who draw the ME peace process, then forget about it!

  12. Antius on Thu, 13th Jul 2017 6:50 am 

    We could build a working fusion reactor very soon if enough people wanted to. But it would not be economically viable. Here are a few inconvenient facts about fusion reactors:

    1) Power density is poor. At 100 million K, the density of a hydrogen plasma at 1 bar is less than 1 milligram per cubic metre. Realistic power density is at least an order of magnitude less than a bog standard PWR nuclear reactor core.

    2) A lot of very expensive technology is needed to contain and control the plasma. That includes huge rare earth magnets, mass production of which would severely strain the Earth’s supply of rare Earth elements.

    3) Most of the energy liberated is in the form of fast neutrons, which rapidly destroy (months-a few years) the internal lining of the reactor and irradiate the magnetic field coils, sensors and everything else. Producing enough tritium for the reactor would require a molten lithium blanket, which must be continuously reprocessed.

    4) A fusion reactor is a huge nuclear proliferation risk. Those abundant fast neutrons are an excellent resource for anyone trying to breed plutonium and the lithium blanket produces tritium that can be used to produce boosted fission weapons and hydrogen bombs.

    Long shot – this is a white elephant. A better investment at this point would be modular nuclear reactors, with passive safety features.

  13. Kenz300 on Thu, 13th Jul 2017 1:00 pm 

    Wind and solar combined with battery storage are here now.

    They are safer, cleaner and cheaper.

  14. Mark on Thu, 13th Jul 2017 5:52 pm 

    Not likely there be any “human civilization” left around by then.

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