Fusion Electric Power. Who’s Going to Really Win?
New life for fusion! Climate change is making itself known and even some oil soaked, coal choked politicians are paying attention. Fusion development is ramping up rapidly. For decades, nothing substantial seemed likely to ever come from it beyond research papers. In fact, labs like the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawerence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) were far more likely to make advances in nuclear fusion weaponry than in fusion power to make electricity for our homes and businesses. Now, with the onset of some seriousness about climate change, fusion for electricity is looking real.
Ultimately, there is only one winner: the Sun. It is the ultimate fusion reaction — floating in space, self-sustaining, immensely powerful. The Sun taught us about fusion. It was what revealed the secret to scientists many years ago. And now we are trying to copy it and make a tiny version on Earth.
Both wealthy investors and entire countries have begun investing. Probably not heavily enough to bring the technology to fruition but at least there is real action. There are many detractors saying that fusion energy plants will never be real sources of energy. Of course, that seems to always be the case with almost all radically new science and technology.
Before looking into the competitors, let’s look at some basic fusion facts that all of them use at the core of their systems.
Fusion is often attacked on the basis of efficiency. Reports on the efficiency of fusion experiments can be confusing. Essentially, the scientists usually are talking about how much energy they feed into a plasma in order to produce a fusion reaction that produces energy. If the energy coming out of the plasma exceeds that required to make it fuse, then the process holds promise of being a source of electric power.
However, as many have pointed out, producing a fusion reaction, even if self-sustaining, is one thing while operating a useful power plant is entirely another. This is by no means trivial. It distinguishes the hype from reality. A fusion power plant has a wide variety of energy inputs: large superconducting magnets, radio frequency generators for plasma heating, high voltage power supplies, ion beam injectors, vacuum pumps, separator pumps to remove the helium produced during the reaction, high speed computers, massive instrumentation, and a wide variety of pumps, blowers, compressors, and other equipment. Also, energy losses arise from systems that capture heat from neutrons and from the fusion itself, heat exchangers to create steam to run turbines, etc. All of these must be taken into account.
Yet, there is one essential feature of plasma fusion: it is not combustion. This is the heart of the science. It is a nuclear reaction and that can be described by the equation from Albert Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.
E is the energy produced by the transformation of mass. M is the mass. And c is the speed of light. Squared, it is 90,000,000,000 (km sq/sec sq). PBS NOVA gave an example of what this means.
If you could turn every one of the atoms in a paper clip into pure energy — leaving no mass whatsoever — the paper clip would yield 18 kilotons of TNT. That’s roughly the size of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945.
The power generated by a plasma fusion plant is conversion of some of the mass of two hydrogen atoms that fuse to form helium. The mass of the helium is less than that of the two hydrogens. Nuclear fusion transforms matter into energy.
The big difference between this and fossil-fueled plants is that it produces zero carbon dioxide. It does produce heat and is probably going to be as inefficient as existing power plants, that is around 50%. Sounds awfully wasteful, but by the time the heat is captured and turned into high pressure steam, turbines are spun to drive generators, and so on, a lot of energy is lost. But fusion is not creating carbon dioxide as the power plant makes electricity. And, as we reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, this heat will readily dissipate into space.
Here is a short list. There are perhaps fifty commercial operations and labs chasing the dream and determined to turn it into reality. Climate change has radically accelerated their level of activity.
- Commonwealth Fusion Systems, Massachusetts
- General Fusion, Burnaby, BC (Vancouver)
- TAE Technologies, California
This is a very short list. I’ve reviewed many of the groups working on fusion, large to small, fully incorporated or not. These three are well funded and are showing significant progress. They are strong in not only science and engineering but in crucial collaborative relationships.
Government labs around the globe are also making significant progress but their goal is not to deliver power plants. They are studying the details of creating and using fusion. For example, SciTechDaily.com reported on a phenomenon called Edge Localized Modes that need to be understood and managed in applying fusion. This work is highly technical and beyond this article. It is being done at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory with General Atomics. LLNL in California is studying plasma created by inertial confinement driven by extremely large lasers — not practical but producing abundant insight into the nature of plasma and fusion. ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France is a massive collaborative effort by the EU, China, US, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, and the UK. It is an actual full-scale fusion reactor but is not designed to convert the fusion energy into deliverable electric power. ITER is to create stable plasma fusion and to collect massive amount of information on its operation. This will be shared with all the member countries and their enterprises to design complete power plants. ITER is nearing completion and plans to run plasmas in 2025 and full fusion in 2035. This seems slow given that Commonwealth Fusion, for example is targeting fusion in 2025.
When fusion works, we all win.