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Nuclear fusion gets boost from private-sector startups

Nuclear fusion gets boost from private-sector startups thumbnail

The lab where a company called General Fusion is trying to spark an energy revolution looks like a cross between a hardware store and a mad scientist’s lair. Bins full of electrical gadgets are piled high against the walls. Capacitors recycled from a bygone experiment are stacked up like bottles in wine racks. Ten-foot-high contraptions bristle with tangled wires and shiny plumbing.

Michael Delage, General Fusion’s vice president for strategy and corporate development, makes sure nothing is turned on when he takes a visitor through the lab, which is tucked away in a bland industrial park near Vancouver. He’s worried about the voltage.

“If you get a broken wire or something like that, you get a very loud bang,” Delage explains.

His company and others are looking for a bang of a different sort:

In one fusion reaction, merging two forms of hydrogen — tritium and deuterium — yields helium plus a neutron and energy.

S. Egts

a smashing together of superhot hydrogen atoms that produces a net gain in energy. Nuclear fusion. It’s the same mass-to-energy reaction that’s behind the sun’s radiative power and the blast of a hydrogen bomb, but scaled down to a manageable level for power generation.

Government-funded research programs have spent tens of billions of dollars trying to harness fusion power during the last 60 years or so. Some are using superstrong magnetic fields to bottle up hydrogen gas that’s been heated up so much that it becomes plasma, a state of matter in which the electrons are stripped away from atomic nuclei. Others are blasting pellets of hydrogen fuel with powerful lasers or ion beams, causing tiny but powerful implosions.

Although they’ve come up short so far, the government-funded groups insist they’ll achieve controlled fusion sometime in the next couple of decades. For commercial fusion plants to deliver substantial amounts of electricity to power grids, however, will probably take until the 2040s or 2050s.

In contrast, General Fusion and at least 10 other commercial ventures say they can get fusion to pay off within a decade, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars rather than tens of billions. The upstarts are going with unorthodox approaches, ranging from piston-driven engines to devices that have more in common with particle accelerators than traditional nuclear reactors. And they’re finding deep-pocketed investors who are willing to cover the cost.

Not everyone is impressed.

“For the most part, these ideas are recycled from the glory days of the 1980s, and one by one, the Department of Energy stopped funding those concepts,” says Edward Morse, a nuclear engineer at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s fortunate that the investors who are quoted in these reports are very rich people. They may not miss the money.”

But the start-ups insist they’re adding new twists to those decades-old principles. They plan to use computer simulations, innovative engineering and an entrepreneurial mindset to leapfrog the government projects.

General Fusion injects magnetized rings of plasma into a liquid metal vortex that is squeezed by pistons.

General Fusion

“You can’t do what we do for a million bucks,” says Michl Binderbauer, chief technology officer for Tri Alpha Energy, a fusion research company headquartered in Foothill Ranch, Calif. “There’s a certain level of capital expense that comes with doing frontier science.… But I don’t believe it takes billions of dollars. I really don’t.”

A big-money power play

If perfected, fusion power technology could be worth trillions.

Fusion power has several advantages over nuclear fission power, in which heavy atomic nuclei release energy upon splitting. The best-known fusion fuel, the heavy hydrogen isotope deuterium, can be extracted from seawater. There’d be no worries about long-lived highly radioactive waste, and a fusion reactor keeps so little fuel inside that it would naturally stop if something went wrong — avoiding the risk of a Fukushima-style meltdown or Chernobyl-style radiation leak.

Fusion power also eliminates worries about the fossil fuel emissions that are warming Earth’s climate. It would be a renewable energy source like solar and wind power, with some extra advantages. The reactors could be put anywhere to provide 24/7 power; no need for strong winds or bright sunshine.

“It really does have all the benefits you could ever want from a renewable energy source,” says Nathan Gilliland, General Fusion’s CEO. “One kilogram of hydrogen fuel has the same amount of energy as 10 million kilograms of coal. You’d have abundant fuel for hundreds of millions, billions of years.”

It’s that kind of enormous potential that has brought money pouring in to solve the fusion puzzle. Dozens of projects — from Astron to ZETA — have flowered and faded. The biggest project on the horizon is the ITER experimental reactor in Cadarache, France, which is backed by the United States and 34 other nations. ITER’s price tag and construction timetable have both ballooned beyond original estimates. The project is now due for completion in the mid-2020s at an estimated cost of $20 billion.

Once ITER is up and running, it’s expected to demonstrate a controlled fusion reaction that produces an energy surplus. But even under the best-case scenario, it would take until the 2040s to adapt ITER’s technology for use in a commercial power plant.

The Wendelstein 7-X stellarator, another advanced reactor, has just begun what’s expected to be a years-long experimental campaign in Greifswald, Germany. The German government has covered most of its $1 billion cost, but it’s far too early to tell if the technology can ever be commercialized.

ITER and Wendelstein 7-X both use a fusion approach called magnetic confinement. At the heart of each device is a chamber shaped like a doughnut (in Cadarache) or a pretzel (in Greifswald). Inside the chamber, a cloud of hot hydrogen plasma is squeezed by magnetic fields. An electromagnetic barrage heats the plasma so much that hydrogen nuclei fuse — creating helium atoms and neutrons while converting a smidgen of mass into electro­magnetic radiation and kinetic energy.

Magnetic coils hold superhot plasma within a doughnut-shaped chamber.

Max Planck IPP

The other common strategy for fusion is called inertial confinement. This approach involves blasting pellets of hydrogen fuel with lasers or ion beams. The fuel is compressed so quickly and precisely that it’s held in place by its own inertia, allowing it to ignite in a burst of fusion energy.

The $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory uses inertial confinement, but has fallen short. It doesn’t produce more energy than it consumes in the fusion reaction (SN: 3/8/14, p. 6).

Hybrid technology

A couple of the fusion start-ups — Tokamak Energy and First Light Fusion, both in the United Kingdom  — are experimenting with their own twists on magnetic confinement or inertial confinement. But the best-funded private efforts are focusing on hybrid technologies alternately known as magnetized target fusion, field-reversed configuration or magneto-inertial fusion.

In magneto-inertial fusion, puffs of hydrogen are heated, then magnetized so that they hold together. Those magnetized puffs of plasma, which take on the shape of tiny smoke rings, are injected into a compression chamber, where they must be squeezed hard enough and fast enough to spark fusion.

Although the concept has been around for decades, magnetized target fusion was traditionally passed over in favor of the technologies behind ITER and the National Ignition Facility. That’s beginning to change. The Air Force Research Laboratory in New Mexico is using the method in an experiment known as FRCHX. Most of the work on magnetized target fusion, however, is happening at the private start-ups.

At General Fusion, for example, engineers are building steampunk-looking machines that they’ll eventually combine into a full-scale reactor. One contraption is designed to squirt plasma rings through a 10-foot-high, cone-shaped injector. In a different room, there’s a mechanical monster with black tubes reaching out in all directions.

When program manager Brendan Cassidy talks about the monstrous creation, he sounds like a mad scientist from the movies — but without the evil laugh. “We have successfully built the first device to pump liquid lead into a vortex, and use an acoustic driver to collapse the vortex,” he says proudly.

In the full-scale reactor, two rings of magnetized plasma — consisting of deuterium and tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen — will be shot toward each other in a chamber with a spinning vortex of liquid lead and lithium. The pistons surrounding the chamber should slam the metal around the plasma hard enough to set off a fusion reaction.

The resulting energy will heat the molten lead even more. That liquid metal will circulate through a heat exchanger, turning water into steam to drive a power-generating turbine. Some of the lithium will be transformed into tritium to fuel further reactions.

For its full-scale prototype, General Fusion will expand the plasma chamber from 1 meter wide to 3 meters. The number of pistons will grow from 14 to 220, bringing the setup to about 10 meters wide. If that next machine works the way researchers hope, they’ll get a successful fusion shot once or twice a day. To commercialize the technology, they’ll need a more advanced reactor firing an energy-generating shot every second.

When it’s time to commercialize, General Fusion would license the technology to the power industry. “If we ever succeed, we will partner with the GEs of this world,” says Michel Laberge, the physicist who founded General Fusion.

Science News

11 Comments on "Nuclear fusion gets boost from private-sector startups"

  1. Anonymous on Thu, 28th Jan 2016 7:52 am 


  2. antaris on Thu, 28th Jan 2016 8:14 am 

    I have had a tour and it is quite impressive from a fabricators standpoint. Maybe it will work one day. At least the guys at GF are thinking real world and how to capture the excess energy. ITER has none of that, as excess energy just makes a bunch of humans jump up and down, but no way to capture it.

  3. Steve O on Thu, 28th Jan 2016 8:29 am 

    Sigh. It’s too bad these rich “investors” have to fall for this. Given the millions they are blowing on this they could have a LFTR producing commercial power in the same 10 years or less and be burning the waste from 50 years of water moderated fission as a bonus.

  4. makati1 on Thu, 28th Jan 2016 8:59 am 

    Techie dreams…

  5. Lawfish1964 on Thu, 28th Jan 2016 9:27 am 

    The last one of these stories had the typical “ten years away” time frame. Now it’s only 25 to 35 years away. Sounds like they’re really making progress.

  6. GregT on Thu, 28th Jan 2016 9:47 am 

    “You’d have abundant fuel for hundreds of millions, billions of years.”

    Great news! I was beginning to get worried that the drive, shop, consume lifestyle was coming to an end.

  7. twocats on Thu, 28th Jan 2016 10:50 am 

    “For the most part, these ideas are recycled from the glory days of the 1980s, and one by one, the Department of Energy stopped funding those concepts,” says Edward Morse, a nuclear engineer at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s fortunate that the investors who are quoted in these reports are very rich people. They may not miss the money.” [article]

    I’ve interacted with some of these people around 2012 timeframe and floated the peak oil issue at some point over beers. It wasn’t even an issue worth discussing in their minds. It had no validity whatsoever. Meh.

  8. twocats on Thu, 28th Jan 2016 10:51 am 

    *the scientists at LLNL, not the investors

  9. Bob Owens on Thu, 28th Jan 2016 1:55 pm 

    I am glad to see all these little richies falling on their swords! We have lots of other ways to waste taxpayer money. If all their money was put into wind farms we would be half-way to energy independence by now.

  10. Go Speed Racer on Thu, 28th Jan 2016 2:28 pm 

    The private sector loves a good money laundering embezzlement huckster racketeering fraud scam.

    So why leave fusion to the government only, when the private sector is much more capable at fraud. The is article is right on schedule. Liking that pro LFTR comment from Steve O. However at the Peak Oil chat board, the only Politically Correct viewpoint allowed, is doomerism .

  11. peakyeast on Thu, 28th Jan 2016 6:30 pm 

    Why do we need fusion when we already have a working E-CAT???


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