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Nuclear Fusion: Still Frustratingly Far Off Despite Recent Signs of Momentum

Alternative Energy

Governments are not giving up on nuclear fusion making a meaningful contribution to the global decarbonization efforts, despite the technology’s obvious challenges.

Last month, for example, the U.K. government pledged £220 million ($283 million) toward getting a fusion power plant up and running by 2040, as part of moves to cut the country’s emissions to net zero by midcentury.

The funding, covering the first five-year development phase of a spherical tokamak for energy production, “will set us on the path to develop and build a commercially viable fusion power plant by 2040, offering clean, safe and carbon-free fuel supplies,” said a government press statement.

The announcement follows a £22 million funding package to create a fusion energy research facility in Rotherham in north England. A 40-strong team at the facility will carry out research led by the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority in partnership with the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and Britain’s Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, the government reported.

Elsewhere in Europe, the European Investment Bank agreed to a €250 million ($277 million) loan as part of a €500 million investment into an Italian test bed within a program designed to produce safe, clean nuclear fusion energy by 2050.

The Divertor Tokamak Test Facility in Frascati, near Rome, will employ 500 scientists and technicians along with 1,000 other staff, according to the bank.

“If we succeed in making a breakthrough in this technology, it could significantly contribute to our efforts to make Europe the first climate-neutral major economy,” said European Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete in the press statement.

Growing momentum worldwide

Events in Europe reflect growing momentum in fusion research worldwide. This month it emerged that the Los Alamos National Laboratory has preparations “well underway” for a novel fusion concept experiment involving plasma guns in a spherical chamber. GTM has identified at least one private U.S. fusion plant developer that is getting ready to make an announcement in the coming weeks.

China, meanwhile, which is generally viewed as having the most ambitious national nuclear fusion program in the world, is working to get power from an experimental reactor by around 2040.

China has already spent around 6 billion yuan ($893 million) on research and has awarded another 6 billion yuan to start building a reactor five years from now, with around 10 years planned for the construction process, Reuters reported in April.

For now, the most advanced fusion program in the world is ITER (which stands for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), a global research effort funded by the European Union, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.

ITER is building the world’s largest tokamak, or plasma confinement chamber, in southern France. ITER’s head of communication, Laban Coblentz, said the organization is due to achieve “first plasma,” creating a fusion reaction for a few milliseconds, by December 2025.

“The major milestone for any such device is first plasma,” Coblentz said, adding, “65 percent of the total construction work through first plasma is done. If you look at our monthly completion rate, which is 0.6 percent or 0.7 percent, we’re on track despite the fact that it’s an aggressive schedule.”

It’s important to note, however, that this is ITER’s third target for first plasma. The group was originally hoping to achieve the milestone in November 2018. In July 2010, it decided to put the first plasma date back to November 2019. In November 2016, the target was moved again, this time to 2025.

And ITER will never deliver fusion energy to the grid, since the project is purely for research purposes. Commercialization of fusion technology will depend on a demonstration project, imaginatively named DEMO, that will be developed once ITER starts delivering results.

Because of this, said Chris Warrick, communications manager for the the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, realistically, “commercial power plants are expected to come online in the second half of this century.”

Some argue this will be too late for fusion to make a difference in decarbonizing the energy system, even if it is still worth pursuing as a power source in the long term.

Writing in The Conversation last month, Thomas Nicholas of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, U.K., said: “The world must reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in order to limit future warming to 1.5 [degrees] C.”

“It’s unlikely that commercial fusion power plants will exist in time for that, and even once a first-of-its-kind DEMO power plant is operational, hundreds would still need to be built to seriously dent global emissions.”


10 Comments on "Nuclear Fusion: Still Frustratingly Far Off Despite Recent Signs of Momentum"

  1. EnergyUnlimited on Wed, 30th Oct 2019 8:22 am 

    There are no eartly materials, not even in theory which can withstand 14MeV neutrons for more than few days or weeks at most at luminosity expected in fusion power plants.
    For this very reason the simplest D+T fusion is a dead end.
    Now we go to He3+D fusion – problems with plasma, which must be *much* hotter are going up by an order of magnitude or more.
    So it will remain energy source of the future for a very long time or for ever.

  2. dave thompson on Wed, 30th Oct 2019 11:00 am 

    Even if one of these contraptions can be built and operational at scale, there is still nothing that will replace what liquid FF does for industrial civilization.

  3. Sissyfuss on Wed, 30th Oct 2019 1:18 pm 

    I used to be a earnest proponent of fusion. I think it was in ’75.

  4. dissident on Wed, 30th Oct 2019 8:51 pm 

    People have been brainwashed by MSM hype and Hollywood to think that throwing a few billion dollars can solve any problem. But that’s why they are called sheeple.

    There is no rule book for finding solutions. Some problems will take centuries if not thousands of years to “solve” (assuming humanity does not bite the dust from global warming). Magnetically confined fusion at the scale it is being attempted does not occur anywhere in the natural universe. And one of the details out of the last 40+ years of research is that making the reactors bigger brings direct benefits. Unfortunately, it may be serious barrier for practical nuclear fusion plants since the physics suggest that much larger plants are needed. The magnetic flux tubes on the Sun that are likely host to fusion as they undergo rapid deformation are vastly bigger than any Tokomak that we can build.

  5. Dredd on Thu, 31st Oct 2019 11:21 am 

    Extinction … oh yeah … (The Extinction of Robust Sea Ports – 12)

  6. Duncan Idaho on Thu, 31st Oct 2019 12:56 pm 

    Those ports may possibly be good snorkeling destinations when all the trash and sewage gets washed away.
    I’m keeping positive!

  7. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 3rd Nov 2019 4:14 pm 

    LOL the sun will blow up in 4 billion years,
    before these welfare bums are able to
    generate as much electricity as an old
    steam engine full of wood and old tires.

  8. Cloggie on Mon, 4th Nov 2019 1:22 am 

    “I used to be a earnest proponent of fusion. I think it was in ’75.”

    I was taught at school in 1969 that fusion would be working in 50 years time.

    That would be today.

  9. Antius on Mon, 4th Nov 2019 4:21 am 

    Generally, the wrong approaches are being pursued. Inertial confinement, z-pinch and electrostatic confinement are more promising approaches than electromagnetic confinement (Tokamak), as they allow much superior power density. There is a lot of vested interest in Tokamak fusion and it tends to resist attempts to pursue alternative approaches. The trouble is it will never be economically useful even if it does ultimately work. The power density will be poor and a Tokamak is a very complex machine containing a lot of rare earth metals.

  10. peakyeast on Mon, 4th Nov 2019 6:13 am 

    All these “clever” scientists still havent understood that the best and most stable fusion reactor is the sun – which btw. is also completely maintenance free and impervious to any kind of attack.

    And all we have to do is to collect the energy.

    It could hardly be simpler, but power and greed corrupts the investors and their minds…

    Fucking idiots run this world.

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