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The Future is Fusion

Alternative Energy

We are currently experiencing an energy crisis. For over 150 years now we have been extracting energy from the earth in the form of oil and gas. For a long time this was seen as a good thing — these fuels were the energy backbone that helped to build the modern world. In fact, more than half of all energy production in the United States is derived from oil and gas. However, oil and gas are very polluting forms of energy. Combustion of these resources releases a slew of harmful substances that include mercury and sulfur dioxide, as well as vast amounts of carbon dioxide.

Even if one were to ignore the health and environmental effects of burning fossil fuels for energy, it’s hard to ignore the fact that we’re running out. After a century and a half of extraction, the world’s oil and gas reserves are vastly depleted. As the remaining stocks decline even further, oil and gas prices will continue to rise. This in turn causes those products that are dependent on oil and gas to rise in price.

This is where alternative energy comes into play. For several decades now, solar, wind, wave, and geothermal power as well as biofuel, hydroelectric power, and even people power have been an ever growing part of the energy mix that powers our world. While these initial forays into the world of alternative energy are wonderful in their own right, and while they are certainly helping to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, they are only partial solutions and intermediary technologies on the way to something even better, something that will completely and permanently solve our energy crisis: Fusion power.

Fusion Power
Fusion power, as you might know, is caused when atomic nuclei fuse together, simultaneously creating a heavier nucleus and releasing enormous quantities of energy. A fusion power plant would be able to create these reactions and harness that energy to power our planet.

Fully functional fusion plants generate no pollution and exceedingly small amounts of CO2 during operation, and are almost completely environmentally benign. A fusion plant requires only 3 things to operate; deuterium, (an isotope of hydrogen) which is readily available and extractable from water; lithium, (also readily available in sea water or the ground) and tritium (another isotope of hydrogen) which can actually be created as a byproduct of the fusion process, thereby allowing it to be made on site.

Fusion plants are also significantly more efficient at creating usable energy than any other method currently available. A 1,000-megawatt fusion power plant would consume around 100 kilograms of deuterium and three tons of lithium in a year whilst generating 7 billion kilowatt-hours. To generate the same amount of electricity, a coal-fired power plant would need around 1.5 million tons of coal.

So we’ve determined that fusion is both cleaner and more efficient than other available methods. But what about safety? Isn’t there a radiation risk? After last year’s Fukushima disaster, many people are wary of anything nuclear. But have no fear–fusion plants cannot meltdown… ever. By their very nature, such an event is entirely impossible.

To better explain the veracity of this claim, a brief (but by no means complete) explanation of how a fusion reactor works is in order.

How a Fusion Reactor Works
To create fusion (and electricity) in a fusion reactor, several precise steps must be undertaken. First, hydrogen atoms must be heated up until they turn into superheated plasma. Then, through the use of a toroidal(donut shaped) magnetic field, the plasma is compressed to the point of fusion. The fusion process releases super-energetic neutrons (which are magnetically neutral and therefore are not contained by the magnetic field) that shoot out from the fusing plasma and are absorbed by what is known as a lithium blanket that surrounds the whole process. The absorption of these neutrons heats the lithium blanket. That heat is then transferred to a heat exchanger to make steam. The steam in turn drives electrical turbines to produce electricity.

So what keeps the fusion process from spinning out of control? As mentioned, a magnetic field is required to compress the superheated plasma into fusing. The reason that a magnetic field is used rather than some other method is because the plasma created is so hot that if it came into contact with anything corporeal, it would instantly vaporize it. But what if the magnetic field failed and the plasma escaped? The magnetic field is created by superconducting magnets that line the walls of the fusion chamber. If the plasma were to somehow escape the confines of the magnetic field, it would instantly vaporize these magnets. Without the magnets, the magnetic field would immediately destabilize, and without the presence of the magnetic field, the compression of the plasma would cease, instantly halting the fusion reaction. Hence, a runaway fusion reaction is impossible.

So now we know that fusion is not only cleaner and more efficient, but it’s completely safe as well. That begs the question: where are all the fusion plants?

What Still Needs to be Done
The simple answer is that the technology is not quite there yet. Thus far, every experimental fusion reactor ever built has been unable to attain net usable power. In other words, creating the fusion reaction has always required the input of more energy than the reaction itself creates. Another major problem has been sustainability of the reaction. The longest sustained fusion reaction on record only lasted for around five seconds before the process collapsed. But things are changing.

Construction is currently underway to build ITER, an internationally funded and operated nuclear fusion research project, which when completed around 2018-2019, will be the world’s largest and most advanced experimental fusion reactor. It is expected to produce 500 megawatts of output power from only 50 megawatts of input power, or ten times the amount of energy put in. This would make it the first fusion reactor to ever achieve net usable power. And while the current record for a sustained fusion reaction is 5 seconds, ITER, it is hoped, will be able to sustain a reaction for 500 seconds.

But it doesn’t stop there, either. The successor to ITER, DEMO, is expected to produce 25 times as much power as it consumes, and be able to sustain a reaction indefinitely. And if ITER and DEMO are successful, then the next step is to build commercial fusion reactors. If all goes as planned, these reactors should start producing electricity by the 2040s.

As things stand today, commercial fusion reactors are still around 30 years away. It might seem like a long wait, but mark it on your calendar anyway. For it marks the point at which the world will finally free itself from its dependence on fossil fuels.

“Jon Korvascus is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about technologies that are currently under development and how such technologies will positively impact our future. Please visit his blog here.”

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10 Comments on "The Future is Fusion"

  1. Arthur on Sat, 7th Apr 2012 4:11 pm 

    “As things stand today, commercial fusion reactors are still around 30 years away.”

    40 years ago, practical application of fusion was 40 years away.

    It will always be 30 years away Jon.

    Fusion is like a fata morgana.

  2. Yago on Sat, 7th Apr 2012 9:21 pm 

    The future is aneutronic fusion, and it is already around the corner to entirely and permanently solve our energy crisis in a much cleaner and more efficient way, without neutron emissions, a totally safe source of energy.

  3. Mike on Sat, 7th Apr 2012 9:43 pm 

    just around that bend….just wait… there it is….oh no just a little further…..there we g…..nope…just another 30 years folks.

    As far as i am concerned fusion would be the death of humanity. Imagine all the shit we do now, but with billions more people and infinite net energy. If we attain fusion the death of planet earth is no more than 50 years away.

  4. Arthur on Sat, 7th Apr 2012 11:25 pm 

    Infinite energy would indeed constitute just as grave a danger as no energy at all. There would be no restriction to human expansion at all, until the entire earth has acquired a homogeneous layer of human flesh.

  5. BillT on Sun, 8th Apr 2012 2:12 am 

    Yugo, either you are too young to have experienced promises of paradise “just around the corner” and then never see them happen, but I am not (67). Nuclear electric was supposed to become “too cheap to meter”, but it never did. By now we were to be living lives like the TV Jetsons, but we aren’t. Reality has a way of popping dream bubbles.

  6. MrEnergyCzar on Sun, 8th Apr 2012 3:41 am 

    We need transportation fuels, not electricity to make the world function..


  7. DC on Sun, 8th Apr 2012 6:59 am 

    Hydrgoen fuel news? I guess they probably think the hyrdrogen economy is just around the corner too.


    And its a good thing Arthur that even if Fusion were to prove ‘somewhat doable’ this century, fusion wouldnt provide anything like infinite energy. A single fusion station would easily cost 50-100billion each, not adusted for inflation in the year 2080 or 2090 or w/e one gets built. Its also physically impossible for fusion to provide infinite energy in any event. A fusion station would be rather like an up-rated fission station(maybe). Who knows. Even the reasearchers never seem to get around to talking about what a hypotheical fusion stations power output would be.. 5Gw? 10GW? Nice but hardly infinite, even if we allowed for a 20GW station per. They never say. So this idea that fusion stations will pop up like dandelions one fine day, putting out 100GW or more a pop seems a little far-fetched.

    Besides, if even we get around everything above, even killing the plaent with infinite resource use would prob not occuer either. Thats because any serious effort to convert the world to a fusion economy would consume so much money and resources, the plants themselves would likely collapse civilization long before they ever got the change to power rampant, infinite consumption. And if that wasnt bad enough, the waste heat from a fusion economy would also likely fry the planet just as effectvely as Coal and Oil are doing now.

    Aint tech-No-fixes grand?

  8. Marc on Tue, 10th Apr 2012 9:32 am 

    I guess it’s true that waiting for fusion power to solve all energy problems is a bit of a gamble. Surely alternative renewable energy should be researched further and become a bigger part of the energy mix. It sure is better than becoming oil and gas dependant and have the occasional ‘Gulf of Mexico’ incidents (add the costs of cleaning up if you compare energy sources). What impresses me about the ITER project is the way scientist all over the world are working closely together to crack the problems fusion is facing. Far more productive than all the wars raging around the planet right now…

  9. Dennis on Tue, 10th Apr 2012 7:49 pm 

    Fusion has been progressing exponentially at a faster rate than Moore’s Law since 1970. It just has a really high bar before it becomes useful…but at the rate things are going, we’ll surpass breakeven within a decade.

    ITER’s not necessarily the way to go. NIF is closer to breakeven, and claims to have a practical power-plant design with LIFE.

    There are also half a dozen promising alternative fusion projects, including Polywell, Focus Fusion, General Fusion, the new design from Sandia, and Tri-Alpha, as well as some interesting projects that unfortunately lack funding including Helion and MIT’s levitated dipole. We should be pursuing all of them.

  10. Brian on Tue, 10th Apr 2012 11:24 pm 

    …and the TV couldn’t replace the radio, and a car couldn’t replace a horse, and a cell phone couldn’t replace a land line.

    …and nuclear power can’t replace old plants and animals.

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