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On the right path to fusion energy

On the right path to fusion energy thumbnail

A new report on the development of fusion as an energy source, written at the request of the U.S. Secretary of Energy, proposes adoption of a national fusion strategy that closely aligns with the course charted in recent years by MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) and privately funded Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a recent MIT spinout.

Fusion technology has long held the promise of producing safe, abundant, carbon-free electricity, while struggling to overcome the daunting challenges of creating and harnessing fusion reactions to produce net energy gain. But the Consensus Study Report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine states that magnetic-confinement fusion technology (an MIT focus since the 1970s) is now “sufficiently advanced to propose a path to demonstrate fusion generated energy within the next several decades.”

It recommends continued U.S. participation in the international ITER fusion facility project and “a national program of accompanying research and technology leading to the construction of a compact pilot plant that produces electricity from fusion at the lowest possible capital cost.”

That approach (which the report says would require up to $200 million in additional annual funding for several decades) leverages opportunities presented by new-generation superconducting magnets, reactor materials, simulators, and other relevant technologies. Of particular emphasis from the committee is the advances in high-temperature superconducting magnets which can access higher fields and smaller machines. The report recommends a U.S. program to prove out high-field large-bore magnets. They are seen as enabling faster and less-costly cycles of learning and development than extremely large experiments like ITER, which will not come on line until 2025, while still benefitting from the knowledge that emerges from those programs.

This smaller-faster-cheaper approach is embodied in the SPARC reactor concept, which was developed at the PSFC and forms the foundation of CFS’s aggressive effort to demonstrate energy-gain fusion by the mid-2020s and produce practical reactor designs by the early 2030s. This approach is based on the similar conclusion that high-field high-temperature magnets represent a game-changing technology.  A $30 million program between CFS and MIT to demonstrate the high-field large bore superconducting magnets is underway at MIT and is a key step to a compact fusion energy system. Despite a handful of other privately funded fusion companies having offered roughly comparable timelines, the National Academies report does not envision demonstration fusion reactors appearing until the 2050 time frame.

The report also affirms that the scientific underpinnings of the tokamak approach have been strengthened over the previous decade, giving increasing confidence that this approach, which is the basis of ITER and SPARC, is capable of achieving net energy gain and forming the basis for a power plant. Based on this increased confidence the committee recommends moving forward with technology developments for a pilot power plant that would put power on the grid.

“The National Academies are a very thoughtful organization, and they’re typically very conservative,” says Bob Mumgaard, chief executive officer of CFS. “We’re glad to see them come out with a message that it’s time to move into fusion, and that compact and economical is the way to go. We think development should go faster, but it gives validation to people who want to tackle the challenge and lays out things we can do in the U.S. that will lead toward putting power on the grid.”

Andrew Holland, director of the recently formed Fusion Industry Association and Senior Fellow for Energy and Climate at the American Security Project, notes that the report’s authors were charged with creating “a consensus science report that reflects current pathways, and the current pathway is to build ITER and go through the experimental process there, while meanwhile designing a pilot plant, DEMO.”

Shifting the consensus toward a faster way forward, adds Holland, will require experimental results from companies like CFS. “That’s why it’s notable to have privately funded companies in the U.S. and around the world pursuing the scientific results that will bear this out. And it’s certainly important that this study is aimed at getting the government-based science community to think about a strategic plan. It should be seen as part of a starting gun for the fusion community coming together and organizing its own process.”

Or, as Martin Greenwald, deputy director of the PSFC and a veteran fusion researcher, puts it, “There’s a tendency in our community to argue about a 20-year plan or a 30-year plan, but we don’t want to take our eyes off what we need to do in the next three to five years. We might not have consensus on the long scale, but we need one for what to do now, and that’s been the consistent message since we announced the SPARC project — engaging the broader community and taking the initiative.

“The key thing to us is that if fusion is going to have an impact on climate change, we need answers quickly, we can’t wait until the end of century, and that’s driving the schedule. The private money that’s coming in helps, but public funding should engage with and complement that. Each side has an appropriate role. National labs don’t build power plants, and private companies don’t do basic research.”

While several approaches to fusion are being pursued in public and private organizations, the National Academies report focuses exclusively on magnetic confinement technology. This reflects the report’s role in the Department of Energy’s response to a 2016 Congressional request for information on U.S. participation in ITER, a magnetic-confinement project. The report committee’s 19 experts, who conducted two years of research, were also charged with exploring related questions of “how best to advance the fusion sciences in the U.S.” and “the scientific justification and needs for strengthening the foundations for realizing fusion energy given a potential choice of U.S. participation or not in the ITER project.”

The report’s publication comes at a time of renewed activity and interest in fusion energy, with some 20 private companies pursuing its development, increased funding in the most recent federal budget, and the formation of the Fusion Industry Association to advocate for the community as a whole. But the report cautions that “the absence of a long-term research strategy for the United States is particularly evident when compared to the plans of our international partners.”

That situation may be evolving. “We had a very nice meeting of stakeholders a month and a half ago in DC, and there was a lot of resonance among private companies, the research community, the Department of Energy, and Congressional staffers from both parties,” says Greenwald. “It seems like there’s momentum, though we don’t know yet just what form it will take.” He adds that the establishment of an industry association is very helpful for navigating and communicating in Washington.

“We would love to see the government have a role in things that lift all fusion companies, like advanced materials labs, the process of extracting heat from reactors, additive manufacturing, simulations, and other tools,” says Mumgaard. “There are many opportunities for collaboration and cooperation; every company will have a different mix of partnerships, even on personnel exchange as we do with MIT.”


15 Comments on "On the right path to fusion energy"

  1. Cloggie on Sat, 22nd Dec 2018 8:09 am 

    fusion technology (an MIT focus since the 1970s) is now “sufficiently advanced to propose a path to demonstrate fusion generated energy within the next several decades.”

    Please send money.

  2. Darrell Cloud on Sat, 22nd Dec 2018 8:57 am 

    If Custer had just had AR 15’s and a couple of A-10’s for backup he would have won the the day.

    Technology just over the horizon did not save the day.

  3. Sissyfuss on Sat, 22nd Dec 2018 10:06 am 

    It’s only 10 years away. Please send money.

  4. Go Speed Racer on Sat, 22nd Dec 2018 3:12 pm 

    Fusion will give U lots of power
    if U can just wait 50 more years for it.

    Meanwhile, let’s burn old furniture in
    the parking lot at the fusion facility.
    We will product way more energy than
    what they generate inside their fortress.

  5. Chrome Mags on Sat, 22nd Dec 2018 3:24 pm 

    Give me mo dough
    I’ll test some mo
    Let you know
    What I know
    Nothing mo
    Dream some mo
    Give me mo Dough

  6. Anonymouse on Sat, 22nd Dec 2018 3:59 pm 

    Fusion has generated something. It has generated legions of fusion fanboys all repeating the same mantras…

    -Fusion is clean! (its not)
    -Fusion is safe! (not really)
    -Fusion is UNLIMITED! (Its definitely not that either).

    These fusion fanboys despite being very energetic themselves, and emitting endless streams of highly-charged articles extolling the endless virtues and benefits of fusion power, the entire effort, going on the better of 100 years now, sadly, has yet to produce even a single watt of net energy.

    Im with GSR on this one. Even burning trash, as pointless and toxic as that is, still produces more net-energy than anything ITER and co. ever have. And cheaper too. Sofa bonfires are a very cost-alternative, at least when compared to ITER.

  7. dissident on Sat, 22nd Dec 2018 4:12 pm 

    Scaling fusion reactors to larger sizes is the only thing that works. All of the original designs including the tokomak were desktop scale and never had a chance to work.

    The problem is wall effects coupled to plasma instability. These designs suffer from the same problem as tokomaks. So they are not an alternative. By increasing the size of the tokamak the wall losses go down since the volume of the plasma increases faster than its surface area. At the same time the scale of the plasma instabilities does not increase so they become a finer noise on the plasma surface so that the “arcing” to the wall decreases relative to the small reactors.

    Anyone expecting a lab fusion reactor to be viable is never going to wait long enough. ITER is actually the first reactor which has a chance at being viable. And it has taken decades to reach this point because funding agencies drink the cheaper is better koolaid.

  8. onlooker on Sat, 22nd Dec 2018 4:41 pm 

    As we stand, human societies ard beginning to unravel from ecomomic and environmental stresses. How can we then, have the capacity and resources, expertise and money to fund, develop and maintain something as complex as fusion reactors. We cannot

  9. Nostradamus on Sun, 23rd Dec 2018 9:57 am 

    Limitless energy from fusion is only 20 years away. And it always will be.

  10. Duncan Idaho on Sun, 23rd Dec 2018 11:29 am 

    “And it always will be.”
    A constant, like the speed of light—–

  11. Antius on Sun, 23rd Dec 2018 4:47 pm 

    Well done Dissident for providing the only well reasoned response to this article.

  12. Westexasfanclub on Sun, 23rd Dec 2018 5:17 pm 

    ITER is fascinating and makes sense, just like Dissident explained. Parallel to ITER there is the very promising and successful development of stellarators whose design strongly reduces the containment problems of tokamaks. There is in fact progress in the design fusion reactors. Is it worth the investment? I think so. The other possibility, the harnessing of the big fusion reactor called “sun”, is already competitive with fossil fuels.

  13. Antius on Sun, 23rd Dec 2018 5:22 pm 

    Plasma pressure is an important variable, given that reaction rate is proportional to the square of ion density. This is main reason why inertial confinement and z-pinch are more promising approaches to fusion than magnetic confinement in my opinion.

    At typical fusion temperatures and tokamak pressures, plasma is so diffuse that an ion will travel tens of km before colliding with another. The higher the pressure, the shorter the mean free path. Suppose we had a spherical chamber under pressure in which cold deuterium gas is fed in at the boundaries. Fusion would take place at the centre and heat would be lost by radiation and conduction to the walls and to colder gas at the periphery. Assuming that no magnetic field is applied, how big would the chamber need to be and at what pressure, in order for conductive and radiative losses to balance heat addition by fusion? Presumably, if chamber diameter is many times the mean free path length, then a steep Gaussian temperature profile can be maintained across the chamber. But how big and what pressure would be neccesary?

  14. Antius on Sun, 23rd Dec 2018 6:37 pm 

    I have my answer. At 1bar and 100KeV, the mean path length to fusion in a De-T plasma is about 4000km. Assuming that roughly 1% of ions must fuse before escaping, then chamber diamter must be at least 400km. If chamber pressure is 1000atm, then required diamter reduces to 400m. This is physically quite difficult, though not unachievable using pre-stressed concrete vessels with steel inserts.

    Of course, at such high density the plasma will be highly opaque to bremsstrahlung radiation and also, neutrons would start to contribute non trivial heating to the plasma.

    So it would seem that high pressure non-magnetic confinement could be an achievable way to go. Whether it would be economically desirable is another matter.

  15. Go Speed Racer on Tue, 25th Dec 2018 3:03 am 

    Well Mr. Dissident, interesting points about bigger reactors are better.
    Unfortunately, the power per unit volume, everything I ever heard, is too low.
    The sun’s core, which is not the same type of fusion, has a power density of approximately 3 Watts per cubic meter. Isn’t that an interesting fact?

    The same concern applies to man-made fusion.
    The ITER reactor which isn’t even going to
    produce meaningful energy, uses up enough
    copper and rare-earths to build a small moon.

    There’s no way that kind of resource
    consumption will take Fusion into some sort
    of power solution for mankind. No way.

    This is why I recommend burning our
    garbage in large incinerators wiht tall
    smoke stacks. It will produce way more
    energy than fusion. And the black smoke
    clouds look way-cool, like a volcano eruption.

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