Drive To Really Cut Global Warming

Private Firms and Government Working Behind the Scenes

Photo provided by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Climate change is raging through our lives while mainstream media have occupied themselves with politics, the pandemic, and a variety of popular subjects. Not far beneath the surface of this all-encompassing info storm are some lesser-known activities that are likely to impact every one of us in a major way.

A key technology has leaped ahead toward providing electric power to the world in ways only imagined in science fiction. Two breakthroughs occurred during the last few months. These were made by from Commonwealth Fusion Systems in Cambridge, MA and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

The first was delivery and test of a superconducting magnet that will be used to contain the plasma in which fusion will happen. The second was production of an enormous level of power using laser-induced fusion.

Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS)

September 8, 2021, CFS successfully tested the strongest superconducting magnet ever made. This magnet is needed to make an experimental fusion reactor work. It operates at a much higher temperature than previous designs. Those required massive cooling to reach superconductivity and were far larger.

This work is being done in collaboration with the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center. The fusion reactor is being built in Devens, MA, and is named SPARC.

Bob Mumgaard, CEO of CFS, described the test results.

The world needs a fundamentally new technology that will support efforts to decarbonize on a timeline that can mitigate climate change. This test of our magnet proves we have that technology, and we’re on our way to producing clean, limitless energy for the entire world.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL)

August 8, 2021was the day that an experiment at their National Ignition Lab produced 10 quadrillion watts of energy from fusion. Just how much energy is that? Well, it is roughly 700 hundred times the output of all the power plants in the United States.

It lasted only for an instant, but the experiment was designed only to show that it could reach that level, not to continuously produce power. Not yet.

This was accomplished using the super laser the lab built for exactly this purpose. That’s why they call it the National Ignition Lab. It is designed to start, or ignite, fusion in a variety of materials. In this case it was water, specifically deuterium and tritium.

The experiment produced far more power than the scientists and engineers expected. There is some talk that the reaction might have been self-sustaining. But it was so brief and the amount of fuel so small that it would have lasted for an extremely short period. Analysis of the data is likely to reveal whether that was the case. Such a result would be wonderful for all the other fusion work going on throughout the world. It would tell the teams that they are on the right track. The output was so great that it overloaded some of the sensors and damaged others that were in the chamber for other experiments.

Looking Ahead

While these results are interesting on a technical level, the big question remains. When will they give us real power plants that help reduce the upward trend in global warming?

The laser results are encouraging in that they are yet another proof of feasibility of fusion reactors. They show that fusion from water appears to be possible, as the theoreticians have predicted. However, they seem to be more academic than practical. The fact is that LLNL is primarily dedicated to national security. The lab might discover that the fusion results provide excellent insights into improved fusion weapons. These could be of more benefit to the US than to actual production of electricity.

The magnet test results are practical and have a direct path to providing clean electricity to our homes and businesses.

Keep in mind that there are several approaches to fusion electric power production. TAE Technologies is a California company that has raised over $880 million. Their fusion technology is based on colliding plasma beams. In Europe, the Joint European Torus (JET) in the UK is running experiments that guide the build of the far larger Tokamak at ITER in France. Both JET and ITER are government run endeavors.

Meanwhile, General Fusion in Burnaby, B.C., is driving toward a plasma fusion device that operates in a radically different manner than all the others. It has begun work in Culham Center, South Oxfordshire, UK on a demonstration system that is 70% the size of a commercial power plant. This will be on the same land as JET.

TAE, General, and Commonwealth are private. Some, like General Fusion, say 2025 is the year that will see a practical demonstration electricity-generating fusion plant while others hedge with an “end of the decade” estimate. The government projects envision success in 20 to 30 years. The private companies are aiming at ultimately delivering full commercial power plants that generate electricity for you and me.

One outcome of this work is that it is bringing together scientists and engineers across national lines. There are so many details that are vital to success that continuous sharing is the way to move forward and reverse the trend in global warming.

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Writer, inventor, maker. Member of startup. Applied physics, electronics, microbiology.

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Mark Senninger

Mark Senninger

Writer, inventor, maker. Member of startup. Applied physics, electronics, microbiology.

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