Major Breakthrough Puts Dream of Unlimited, Clean Energy Within Reach


Nuclear fusion facility: JET interior with superimposed plasma. Nuclear fusion energy could be a pivotal sustainable energy source to complement renewables. Credit: UKAEA

The old joke is that nuclear fusion is always 30 years away. However, the dream of plentiful clean energy is no laughing matter as we meet an ITER researcher to catch up on progress at the reactor facility.

By creating light and heat through nuclear fusion, the Sun has fueled life on Earth for billions of years. Given that incredible power and longevity, it seems there can hardly be a better way to generate energy than by harnessing the same nuclear processes that occur in stars, including our own sun.

Nuclear fusion reactors aim to reproduce this process by fusing hydrogen atoms to create helium, which releases energy in the form of heat. Sustaining this at a large scale has the potential to produce a safe, clean, almost inexhaustible power supply.

The quest began decades ago, but could a long-running joke that nuclear fusion is always 30 years away soon start to look dated?

Some hope so, following a major breakthrough during a nuclear-fusion experiment in late 2021. This came at the Joint European Torus (JET) research facility in Oxfordshire, UK, in a giant, doughnut-shaped machine called a tokamak.

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Inside, superheated gases called plasmas are generated in which the fusion reactions take place, containing charged particles that are held in place by powerful magnetic fields. Such plasmas can reach temperatures of 150 million degrees Celsius, an unfathomable 10 times hotter than the Sun’s core.

In a sustained five-second burst, researchers in the EUROfusion consortium released a record-breaking 59 megajoules (MJ) of fusion energy. This was almost triple the previous 21.7 MJ record set at the same facility in 1997, with the results touted as “the clearest demonstration in a quarter of a century of the potential for fusion energy to deliver safe and sustainable low-carbon energy.” Follow the link to learn more about the successful nuclear fusion experiment at JET.

JET Experimental Fusion Reactor Plasma

View of JET experimental fusion reactor plasma. Credit: © EUROfusion consortium (2022)

The results provided a major boost ahead of the next phase of nuclear fusion’s development. A larger and more advanced version of JET known as ITER (meaning “The Way” in Latin) is under construction on a 180-hectare site in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, southern France.

ITER, which is being built as a collaboration between 35 nations, including those in the EU, is aimed at further firming up the concept of fusion. One of the most complicated machines ever to be created, it was scheduled to start generating its first plasma in 2025 before entering into high-power operation around 2035 – although researchers on the project expect some delays because of the pandemic.

Major milestone

The results at JET represent a major landmark, said Professor Tony Donné, program manager of the EUROfusion project, a major consortium of 4,800 experts, students, and facilities across Europe. “It’s a huge milestone – the biggest for a long time,” he said.

“It’s confirmed all the modeling, so it has really increased confidence that ITER will work and do what it’s meant to do.” While the energy generated at JET lasted just a few seconds, the aim is to ramp this up to a sustained reaction that produces energy.

The results were the culmination of years of preparation, with Prof Donné explaining that one of the key developments since 1997 involved changing the inner wall of the JET vessel.

“It’s a huge milestone in nuclear fusion – the biggest for a long time. It’s confirmed all the modelling.”

— Prof Tony Donné, EUROfusion

Previously, the wall was made of carbon, but this proved too reactive with the fuel mix of deuterium and tritium, two heavier isotopes – or variants – of hydrogen used in the fusion reaction. This resulted in the formation of hydrocarbons, locking up the tritium fuel in the wall.

In the rebuild, which involved 16 000 components and 4 000 tonnes of metal, the carbon was replaced with beryllium and tungsten to reduce tritium retention. Ultimately, the team was able to cut the amount of trapped fuel by a large multiple, contributing to the success of the recent fusion shot.

DEMO run

In preparation for the next stage of fusion’s epic journey, upgrades to JET ensured that its configuration aligns with the plans for ITER. Further in the future, the next step beyond ITER will be a demonstration power plant known as DEMO, designed to send electricity into the grid – leading on to fusion plants becoming a commercial and industrial reality.

“ITER is a device which will create 10 times more fusion energy than the energy used to heat the plasma,” said Prof Donné. “But as it is an experimental facility, it will not deliver electricity to the grid. For that, we need another device, which we call DEMO. This will really bring us to the foundations for the first generation of fusion power plants.”

Prof Donné added: “JET has shown now that fusion is plausible. ITER has to show that it’s further feasible, and DEMO will need to demonstrate that it really works.”

Planned to provide up to 500 megawatts (MW) to the grid, he thinks it is realistic for DEMO to come into operation around 2050. “We hope to build DEMO much faster than we built ITER, making (use of the) lessons learned,” he said.

Yet there are other key challenges to overcome on the way to getting nuclear fusion up and running. Not least is that while deuterium is abundant in seawater, tritium is extremely scarce and difficult to produce.

“If we get fusion up and running, then really we have a very safe and clean energy source which can give us energy for thousands of years.”

— Prof Tony Donné, EUROfusion

The researchers, therefore, plan to develop a way of generating it inside the tokamak, using a “breeding blanket” containing lithium. The idea is that high-energy neutrons from the fusion reactions will interact with the lithium to create tritium.

Essential energy

Prof Donné said nuclear fusion could prove a pivotal green and sustainable energy source for the future. “I would say it’s essential,” he said. “I’m not convinced that by 2050 we can make the carbon dioxide transition with only renewables, and we need other things.”

And although he says the current method of creating nuclear energy through fission is becoming safer and safer, fusion has key advantages. Proponents for ITER talk of benefits such as an absence of meltdown risk, adding that nuclear fusion does not produce long-lived radioactive waste and that reactor materials can be recycled or reused within 100 to 300 years.

“It’s definitely much safer,” said Prof Donné. Referencing the stigma carried by nuclear energy, he said, “What we see when we interact with the public is that people very often haven’t heard about nuclear fusion. But when we explain the pros and cons, then I think people get positive.”

Referring to Lev Artsimovich, dubbed the “father of the tokamak,” he said, “Artsimovich always said fusion will be there when society really needs it. If we get fusion up and running, then really we have a very safe and clean energy source which can give us energy for thousands of years.”

Research in this article was funded by the EU.

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research & Innovation Magazine.

The Future Of Energy Isn’t Fossil Fuels Or Renewables, It’s Nuclear Fusion (Really?)


 

Co State Nuc Fussion 2Colorado State University scientists, using a compact but powerful laser to heat arrays of ordered nanowires, have demonstrated micro-scale nuclear fusion in the lab.

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that the climate doesn’t matter. That we’re completely ignoring the connection between carbon dioxide, the Earth’s atmosphere, the greenhouse effect, global temperatures, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise. From a long-term point of view, we’d still need to plan for our energy future. Fossil fuels, which make up by far the majority of world-wide power today, are an abundant but fundamentally limited resource. Renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric power have different limitations: they’re inconsistent. There is a long-term solution, though, that overcomes all of these problems: nuclear fusion.

Even the most advanced chemical reactions, like combusting thermite, shown here, generate about a million times less energy per unit mass compared to a nuclear reaction.

Even the most advanced chemical reactions, like combusting thermite, shown here, generate about a million times less energy per unit mass compared to a nuclear reaction.NIKTHESTUNNED OF WIKIPEDIA

It might seem that the fossil fuel problem is obvious: we cannot simply generate more coal, oil, or natural gas when our present supplies run out. We’ve been burning pretty much every drop we can get our hands on for going on three centuries now, and this problem is going to get worse. Even though we have hundreds of years more before we’re all out, the amount isn’t limitless. There are legitimate, non-warming-related environmental concerns, too.

Even if we ignored the CO2-global climate change problem, fossil fuels are limited in the amount Earth contains, and also extracting, transporting, refining and burning them causes large amounts of pollution.

Even if we ignored the CO2-global climate change problem, fossil fuels are limited in the amount Earth contains, and also extracting, transporting, refining and burning them causes large amounts of pollution.GREG GOEBEL

The burning of fossil fuels generates pollution, since these carbon-based fuel sources contain a lot more than just carbon and hydrogen in their chemical makeup, and burning them (to generate energy) also burns all the impurities, releasing them into the air. In addition, the refining and/or extraction process is dirty, dangerous and can pollute the water table and entire bodies of water, like rivers and lakes.

Wind farms, like many other sources of renewable energy, are dependent on the environment in an inconsistent, uncontrollable way.

Wind farms, like many other sources of renewable energy, are dependent on the environment in an inconsistent, uncontrollable way.WINCHELL JOSHUA, U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

On the other hand, renewable energy sources are inconsistent, even at their best. Try powering your grid during dry, overcast (or overnight), and drought-riddled times, and you’re doomed to failure. The sheer magnitude of the battery storage capabilities required to power even a single city during insufficient energy-generation conditions is daunting. Simultaneously, the pollution effects associated with creating solar panels, manufacturing wind or hydroelectric turbines, and (especially) with creating the materials needed to store large amounts of energy are tremendous as well. Even what’s touted as “green energy” isn’t devoid of drawbacks.

Reactor nuclear experimental RA-6 (Republica Argentina 6), en marcha. The blue glow is known as Cherenkov radiation, from the faster-than-light-in-water particles emitted.

Reactor nuclear experimental RA-6 (Republica Argentina 6), en marcha. The blue glow is known as Cherenkov radiation, from the faster-than-light-in-water particles emitted.CENTRO ATOMICO BARILOCHE, VIA PIECK DARÍO

But there is always the nuclear option. That word itself is enough to elicit strong reactions from many people: nuclear. The idea of nuclear bombs, of radioactive fallout, of meltdowns, and of disasters like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima — not to mention residual fear from the Cold War — make “NIMBY” the default position for a large number of people. And that’s a fear that’s not wholly without foundation, when it comes to nuclear fission. But fission isn’t the only game in town.

Watch the Video: Nuclear Bomb – The First H Bomb Test

 

In 1952, the United States detonated Ivy Mike, the first demonstrated nuclear fusion reaction to occur on Earth. Whereas nuclear fission involves taking heavy, unstable (and already radioactive) elements like Thorium, Uranium or Plutonium, initiating a reaction that causes them to split apart into smaller, also radioactive components that release energy, nothing involved in fusion is radioactive at all. The reactants are light, stable elements like isotopes of hydrogen, helium or lithium; the products are also light and stable, like helium, lithium, beryllium or boron.

 

The proton-proton chain responsible for producing the vast majority of the Sun's power is an example of nuclear fusion.

The proton-proton chain responsible for producing the vast majority of the Sun’s power is an example of nuclear fusion.BORB / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

So far, fission has taken place in either a runaway or controlled environment, rushing past the breakeven point (where the energy output is greater than the input) with ease, while fusion has never reached the breakeven point in a controlled setting. But four main possibilities have emerged. img_0787

  1. Inertial Confinement Fusion. We take a pellet of hydrogen — the fuel for this fusion reaction — and compress it using many lasers that surround the pellet. The compression causes the hydrogen nuclei to fuse into heavier elements like helium, and releases a burst of energy.
  2. Magnetic Confinement Fusion. Instead of using mechanical compression, why not let the electromagnetic force do the confining work? Magnetic fields confine a superheated plasma of fusible material, and nuclear fusion reactions occur inside a Tokamak-style reactor.
  3. Magnetized Target Fusion. In MTF, a superheated plasma is created and confined magnetically, but pistons surrounding it compress the fuel inside, creating a burst of nuclear fusion in the interior.
  4. Subcritical Fusion. Instead of trying to trigger fusion with heat or inertia, subcritical fusion uses a subcritical fission reaction — with zero chance of a meltdown — to power a fusion reaction.

The first two have been researched for decades now, and are the closest to the coveted breakeven point. But the latter two are new, with the last one gaining many new investors and start-ups this decade.

The preamplifiers of the National Ignition Facility are the first step in increasing the energy of laser beams as they make their way toward the target chamber. NIF recently achieved a 500 terawatt shot - 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time.

The preamplifiers of the National Ignition Facility are the first step in increasing the energy of laser beams as they make their way toward the target chamber. NIF recently achieved a 500 terawatt shot – 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time.DAMIEN JEMISON/LLNL

Even if you reject climate science, the problem of powering the world, and doing so in a sustainable, pollution-free way, is one of the most daunting long-term ones facing humanity. Nuclear fusion as a power source has never been given the necessary funding to develop it to fruition, but it’s the one physically possible solution to our energy needs with no obvious downsides. If we can get the idea that “nuclear” means “potential for disaster” out of our heads, people from all across the political spectrum just might be able to come together and solve our energy and environmental needs in one single blow. If you think the government should be investing in science with national and global payoffs, you can’t do better than the ROI that would come from successful fusion research. The physics works out beautifully; we now just need the investment and the engineering breakthroughs.

Special Contribution to Forbes by: Ethan Siegel 

China: Russia: U.S Seek to Build Hybrid Fusion-Fission Reactor by 2030: Why? How Does it Work? Is it Feasible?


*** Departing from GNT™‘s ‘normal’ Nanotechnology beat, we turn to in this series of 3 articles the subject “matter” (pardon the punny) of Nuclear Fission, Fusion and Hybrid Fission-Fusion. The interesting cross-pollination of course is the future of “clean, abundant, cheap energy” for our planet of 7 Billion+ people now and going toward 9 Billion by 2042. Please share with us and our readership, your thoughts and any comments.

“Great Things from Small Things!” ~ Team GNT™

GNT Thumbnail Alt 3 2015-page-001“Discover ~ Develop ~ Position ~ Commercialize ~ Exit”  

August 3, 2015

China Fission MSRE_ReactorChina is going to build its first hybrid fusion-fission reactor by 2030, according to local media reports. The reactor is expected to recycle nuclear waste making energy production more environmentally friendly.

The ambitious plan is in the works at the top secret Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics in Sichuan, where China develops its nuclear weapons, China Daily Mail reports. The plans were announced in a study published in the Science and Technology Daily, an official newspaper of the Ministry of Science and Technology.

The experimental research platform will be built by 2020 while the whole system could be launched by 2030, said Huang Hongwen, the deputy project manager, China Daily Mail reported Saturday.

Researchers believe that hybrid reactors will generate twice as much electricity as modern reactors. These reactors are also believed to be safer as they can be immediately stopped by cutting the external power supply.

Today reactors use only fission technology which means dividing atoms in half while future fusion-fission technology will merge two atoms in one. The core of the new hybrid reactor will be a fusion reactor which will be powered by a 60 trillion amperes fission reactor.

The basic principle of the hybrid reactor is recycling uranium-238, which is the main component of nuclear waste, into new fuel. Such a reactor will become a breakthrough in environmentally friendly technologies and in particular a solution of nuclear wastes problem for China, who lacks recycling facilities and has to store the waste inside nuclear energy plants.

Hybrid fusion-fission reactors can also solve another vital problem for China – uranium shortages. According to the study China can meet its uranium demands for only a century, while using fusion-fission technologies will provide it with uranium for several thousand years.

Some scientists have doubts over whether Chinese plans are realistic. “A viable fusion reactor is nowhere in sight, not to mention a hybrid,” an unnamed physicist from Tsinghua University told the SCMP.

“It’s like talking about hybrid cars before the internal combustion engine was even invented. We will be lucky to have the first fusion reactor in 50 years. I don’t think a hybrid can be built way before that”, he added.

China is not the only country which has tried to create a hybrid fusion-fission reactor. Similar projects are being developed in Russia, Japan, the EU and the USA. China, however, is the first country to have planned exact dates.

Russia develops hybrid fusion-fission reactor, offers China role

October 15, 2014

Russian Fusion 14Russia is developing a hybrid nuclear reactor that uses both nuclear fusion and fission, said head of leading nuclear research facility. The project is open for international collaboration, particularly from Chinese scientists.

A hybrid nuclear reactor is a sort of stepping stone to building a true nuclear fusion reactor. It uses a fusion reaction as a source of neutrons to initiate a fission reaction in a ‘blanket’ of traditional nuclear fuel.

The approach has a number of potential benefits in terms of safety, non-proliferation and cost of generated energy, and Russia is developing such a hybrid reactor, according to Mikhail Kovalchuk, director of the Kurchatov Research Center.

“Today we have started the realization of a distinctively new project. We are trying to combine a schematically operational nuclear plant reactor with a ‘tokamak’ to create a hybrid reactor,” he told RIA Novosti, referring to a type of fusion reactor design.

“This project is open for our colleagues, the Chinese in the first place. It’s being discussed,” he added.

Being a leading producer in civilian nuclear energy industry, Russia would benefit from improving its plant designs. A hybrid fusion-fission reactor may be several times more efficient than a traditional fission reactor. And building one is “a goal for tomorrow” rather than the distant future, as is the case for a fusion reactor like the famous France-based International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) that Russia collaborates on, Kovalchuk said.

International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor.(AFP Photo / Gerard Julien)

Harnessing nuclear fusion for energy generation has been elusive for years. So far no industrial-scale design managed to produce more energy than it consumes to start the reaction, though the California-based National Ignition Facility (NIF) was reported to have achieved this goal on lab-scale by bombarding a fuel pellet with 192 powerful lasers.

But nuclear fusion produces neutrons, and those can initiate fission in traditional nuclear fuel like uranium or plutonium. In a hybrid reactor the core fusion zone consumes energy to heat up outer fissile blanket, which on its part generates energy.

A hybrid reactor plant would likely be even more costly that regular nuclear power plants are, considering the complexities of the design. But it is inherently safer, since the reaction in the fissile blanket would be sub-critical, that is, it won’t sustain itself. In an emergency it could be simply stopped in a matter of seconds by turning off the fusion core, as opposed to using dampening rods in a traditional reactor.

Another benefit of a hybrid design is that it ‘burns down’ fissile materials leaving little by-products. So it won’t produce radioactive waste and can even treat spent nuclear fuel from regular reactors.

Rather than taking NIF’s pellet-and-lasers design for the fusion reactor, Russia wants to use a tokamak, a reactor that suspends superheated plasma with powerful magnetic fields, as the core of a hybrid reactor. ITER uses the design too.

A similar tokamak-based project of a hybrid fusion-fission nuclear reactor is being developed at the University of Texas at Austin, although researchers there eye nuclear waste disposal rather than electricity generation as the goal.

February 13, 2014

Nuclear fusion breakthrough: US scientists make crucial step to limitless power

A metallic case called a hohlraum holds the fuel capsule for NIF experiments (Image from llnl.gov)
A team of scientists in California announced Wednesday they are one step closer to developing the almost mythical pollution-free, controlled fusion-energy reaction, though the goal of full “ignition” is still far off.

Researchers at the federally-funded Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory revealed in a study released Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature that, for the first time, one of their experiments has yielded more energy out of fusion than was used in the fuel that created the reaction.

In a 10-story building the size of three football fields, the Livermore scientists “used 192 lasers to compress a pellet of fuel and generate a reaction in which more energy came out of the fuel core than went into it,” wrote the Washington Post. “Ignition” would mean more energy was produced than was used in the entire process.

“We’re closer than anyone’s gotten before,” said Omar Hurricane, a physicist at Livermore and lead author of the study. “It does show there’s promise.”

The process ultimately mimics the processes in the core of a star inside the laboratory’s hardware. Nuclear fusion, which is how the sun is heated, creates energy when atomic nuclei fuse and form a larger atom.

“This isn’t like building a bridge,” Hurricane told USA Today in an interview. “This is an exceedingly hard problem. You’re basically trying to produce a star, on a small scale, here on Earth.”

A fusion reactor would operate on a common form of hydrogen found in sea water and create minimal nuclear waste while not being nearly as volatile as a traditional nuclear-fission reactor. Fission, used in nuclear power plants, works by splitting atoms.

Hurricane said he does not know how long it will take to reach that point, where fusion is a viable energy source.

“Picture yourself halfway up a mountain, but the mountain is covered in clouds,” he told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “And then someone calls you on your satellite phone and asks you, ‘How long is it going to take you to climb to the top of the mountain?’ You just don’t know.”

The beams of the 192 lasers Livermore used can pinpoint extreme amounts of energy in billionth-of-a-second pulses on any target. Hurricane said the energy produced by the process was about twice the amount that was in the fuel of the plastic-capsule target. Though the amount of energy yielded equaled only around 1 percent of energy delivered by the lasers to the capsule to ignite the process.

“When briefly compressed by the laser pulses, the isotopes fused, generating new particles and heating up the fuel further and generating still more nuclear reactions, particles and heat,” wrote the Washington Post, adding that the feedback mechanism is known as “alpha heating.”

Debbie Callahan, co-author of the study, said the capsule had to be compressed 35 times to start the reaction, “akin to compressing a basketball to the size of a pea,” according to USA Today.

While applauding the Livermore team’s findings, fusion experts added researchers have “a factor of about 100 to go.”

“These results are still a long way from ignition, but they represent a significant step forward in fusion research,” said Mark Herrmann of the Sandia National Laboratories’ Pulsed Power Sciences Center. “Achieving pressures this large, even for vanishingly short times, is no easy task.”

Livermore is the site of the multi-billion-dollar National Ignition Facility, funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration. Fusion experiments aren’t the only function of the lab; for example, it also studies the processes of nuclear weapon explosions.

Long-pursued by scientists dating back to Albert Einstein, fusion energy does not emit greenhouse gases or leave behind radioactive waste. Since the 1940s, researchers have employed magnetic fields to contain high-temperature hydrogen fuel. Laser use began in the 1970s.

“We have waited 60 years to get close to controlled fusion,” said, Steve Cowley, of the United Kingdom’s Culham Center for Fusion Energy. He added scientists are “now close” with both magnets and lasers. “We must keep at it.”

Stewart Prager – director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which studies fusion using magnets – told the Post he was optimistic about fusion energy’s future.

“In 30 years, we’ll have electricity on the grid produced by fusion energy – absolutely,” Prager said. “I think the open questions now are how complicated a system will it be, how expensive it will be, how economically attractive it will be.”