Embrace Fusion — Change the World
Large Scale Renewable Energy Is Coming!
You might be wondering if there is any real progress on climate change. I certainly am. We talk. We conference. Governments proclaim. We demonstrate. We recycle and reduce our waste and consumption, but does it really make much difference? How can we do something that takes a big bite out of climate change? The forces behind it already have a major head start. In this article I‘m talking about controlled thermonuclear fusion, an approach that is usually overlooked. It is one that likely will change the direction of this planet. This article is the first of a series and lays the foundation. It’s a bit technical in a few places but is short and is about something that is likely to play a role in the future of each of us.
We are rapidly headed into a future where electric vehicles, for example, will replace most of the fossil fueled ones currently on the road. The Federal Government is electrifying its fleet of 645,000 vehicles. FedEx, UPS, and Amazon and many others are moving toward electric. Combine this with the increase in electric appliances, computers, cell phones, and we are looking at a massive increase in demand for electricity.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), demand for electric power will increase 2.1% per year until 2040. That would be 42% more consumption. And this may be conservative.
Coal, gas, and nuclear are not the solutions. While smaller and safer nuclear plant designs are certainly better than the current ones, they also are not the solution. They still produce highly radioactive waste that must be safely stored for hundreds of years. We can look at Fukushima and at our own problems with proposed storage in Yucca Mountain to see what a mess these create.
The solution is nuclear fusion. Yes, it’s the monster that makes the hydrogen bomb work. It is also what what powers the sun. But it has a tame side. When used in a fusion reactor, it is so delicate that engineers have a problem keeping it lit. While running, a reactor emits only very short-lived radiation. And if something goes wrong, it simply stops working. No meltdown. No explosion.
I believe we should embrace this technology for its potential and its safety. It is distinct from fission technology that is currently at the core of every nuclear power plant. Fission uses radioactive fuel and produces substantial amounts of poisonous radioactive material as a byproduct. Fusion, on the other hand, uses hydrogen as fuel and produces no radioactive waste. Did you read that correctly? Yes. No radioactive waste. Fusion reactors that are currently in development use water as the source of the hydrogen.
Specifically, “heavy” water, deuterium and tritium, are the fuel for fusion reactors. The World Nuclear Association describes this: “Deuterium occurs naturally in seawater (30 grams per cubic metre), which makes it very abundant relative to other energy resources. Tritium occurs naturally only in trace quantities (produced by cosmic rays) and is radioactive, with a half-life of around 12 years. Usable quantities can be made in a conventional nuclear reactor, or in the present context, bred in a fusion system from lithium.”
Development of reactors has been moving ahead with surprising speed while the rest of the world has gone about its business, preoccupied with COVID-19, the economy, and everyday activities. Practical investigation of fusion began in the 1920s and has continued in fits and starts until only a few years ago. The effort consisted mainly of studies that were aimed at furthering the science and producing excellent journal articles and further experiments. But they were not done to build a fully functioning power plant, or any kind of a real power source. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) has changed that over the last few years. Work is being done in formal programs with clear steps that lead to successful and sustainable fusion. ITER is being managed similarly to a large construction project. But unlike normal construction, it has very tight tolerances.
The reaction requires containment and control of the fuel at such high temperatures and pressures that it has been the butt of engineering and science jokes over the years. It was regarded by many as impossible and was “the great solution” that was always on the horizon but never realized.
The ITER project began construction in 2020 in the south of France and has brought fusion power much closer to reality. It is a massive collaboration of countries including China, the European Union (plus Switzerland, as a member of EURATOM), India, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the United States. By the way, ITER means “The Way” in Latin.
Fusion has taken decades to bring to fruition due to the enormous technical demands resulting from the temperatures (and pressures) to confine plasma to the level required to initiate and maintain nuclear fusion. Recent advances across the board in technology and engineering are quickly catching up with the science. Vastly improved real-time computational capability has made possible far better control of the powerful magnets that shape and confine the plasma. At the same time, new materials for the magnets have become available. New superconductors operate at moderate temperatures. Advanced modeling techniques have enabled vastly improved system design. This extends to exploration of shapes for the plasma and refinement of other basic system concepts.
All of this is to support the fusion of hydrogen nuclei, which is basically very simple. When the heavy water is injected into the reaction chamber, a process is applied to cause it to break into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen is vented to atmosphere and the hydrogen remains in the chamber to become a hot (glowing) plasma.
I had an early glimpse of plasma research when I worked in a university physics lab side-by-side with a research assistant who was exploring magnetic confinement of plasma. The setup looked like an over-sized fluorescent light tube minus the phosphors — just a clear quartz glass tube filled with a mixture of gasses at low pressure. This was placed inside a set of electromagnets — donut-shaped coils with a diameter of about 3 feet. The grad student would run a current through the gasses that caused them to glow. Then he would apply power to the magnets, compressing the plasma into a thin strand. Invariably, as the plasma would become brilliant and would steady itself, a stream of glowing gas would emerge from the strand and connect to the glass wall. The plasma would cool and dissipate.
Although this was a relatively simple manually controlled system, it demonstrated the central problem with magnetic confinement. Before fusion can occur, the plasma must be compressed and stabilized.
This is where technology shines. The scientists have done the bulk of the scientific work, and as I mentioned earlier, technology is catching up. It reached a point a few years ago where many of the barriers to this were removed through development of new materials and control systems.
I realize that I have only touched on how the fusion reaction happens. Here is a link that might help and I am writing a followup article on the subject.
While fusion may become part of the solution to climate change, projects are likely to be relatively large if they are to be economical. Many will be led by big business and big government. Make no mistake. They will require financing through long-term bonds. It is important that we elect lawmakers who know and understand all the interrelated parts of this development, and who act with a high degree of moral integrity. The way the change to fusion happens will affect the future of our world.
This is not to say that smaller plants would be excluded. As projects move forward, engineers may find that more power plants of lesser size, spread throughout communities could provide more reliable power and be less vulnerable to attack.
Establishing a fusion power plant system could also spell major opportunities for small investors. They might find superb growth in the companies supplying not only the materials of construction but in development of software and systems that will control the plasma beam.
Regarding big business influence, I would not be too surprised to see Exxon, for example, make an appearance. In the mid-1970s they bought out an early fusion system including intellectual property. The firm was called KMS Fusion. The company was created by a small group of scientists from the University of Michigan and was making great strides. In fact, publication of their results in physics journals attracted the attention of the federal government. They were using a technique called inertial confinement which is distinctly different from the approach being used by ITER. Regardless, it was nuclear fusion. In the interest of national security, the firm was forbidden to publish any further results or designs and they were not to share information anywhere. This resulted in bankrupting the little company. When that occurred, Exxon purchased the firm. While Exxon may or may not be involved any longer, there are several other large companies that are solidly and openly in the fusion race.
ITER is the largest project right now. Others are being led by startups that include investors like Elon Musk and Bill Gates and use a range of technologies. These are the subjects of future articles.