If there is an ideal energy form, it is nuclear fusion. But the technology is one of those that is always within reach but still so far away. With that, though, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that it is advancing the ball, as is a group of nations hard at work trying to build the first fusion reactor before 2035.
ITER, or the International Nuclear Fusion Project, is a partnership among the Europe Union’s member states, the United States, Russia, China, India and South Korea to get a fusion demonstration project up -and-running. At least $20 billion has gone into that research and development – and far more will be required.
“Despite fusion’s tantalizing benefits, it has been largely ignored in energy policy discussions because it is viewed as a technology too immature to affect energy production over the next few decades, when it is most needed,” says the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The lab, which is part of a $3.5 billion research effort to help commercialize fusion, says that the United States is in a “unique position to change this paradigm.”
ITERs’ critics are saying that it is pipe dream, or the equivalent of Star Wars that was purported in the 1980s to be the next great defensive weapon that would insulate the United States from all nuclear bombs. ITER’s supporters, however, are responding that nuclear fusion must be commercialized because the fuel alternatives will not solve the world’s energy woes.
Meantime, MIT researchers have created the highest plasma temperatures and pressures ever within the scope of its test reactor, called the Alcator C-Mod. What that does is force atoms to fuse together, which creates enormous amounts of energy.
“This is a remarkable achievement that highlights the highly successful Alcator C-Mod program at MIT,” says Dale Meade, former deputy director at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, in an MIT release. “The record plasma pressure validates the high-magnetic-field approach as an attractive path to practical fusion energy.”
Today’s nuclear reactors use fission that produces energy when atoms are split apart. In contrast, fusion releases energy as atoms are combined — a process that thus far consumes more energy than it generates. The aim is to heat hydrogen gas to more than 100 million degrees Celsius so that the atoms will fuse together instead of bouncing off one another. The end result of that fusion process is the production of 10 million times more power than a typical chemical reaction, such as the burning of fossil fuel.
It’s will be a long slog ahead. By the time the science is primed, the energy landscape may look very different from what it does today. Nevertheless, there are immediate benefits to the nations that helping to fund ITER: Magnet technology is one area, which is used in medical devices such as magnetic resonance imagery that allows doctor’s see completely inside the human brain.
The good news with regard to fusion is that some of the technical hurdles are getting solved. Today, scientists are said to be able to heat that the hydrogen gases to the extreme levels that are needed to start the fusion process. Some, such as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, are trying to figure out “cold fusion” that is a low temperature nuclear reaction.
Advocates of fusion say that the science can be conquered. It’s the political will that is required to edge ahead. They say that the current global energy market is now valued at $3 trillion a year — an amount that will expand proportionately as developing nations modernize their economies. Much of that consumption is fossil fuel-fired and any energy source that can displace that value would help better the human condition and the environment, they say.
“Nuclear fusion is the process by which the sun works,” says a statement by Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works fusion program. “Our concept will mimic that process within a compact magnetic container and release energy in a controlled fashion to produce we can use.”
Lockheed goes on to say that its truck-sized reactor could provide energy for 100,000 people. Why so small when most such projects would take up a football field? It says the concept uses a high fraction of the magnetic field pressure to make its devices 10-times smaller than previous projects.
And not only is it smaller, but it is then able to handle temperatures of up to hundreds of millions degrees, which can be released in a controlled fashion. That heat will then drive turbine generators by replacing combustion chambers with simple heat exchangers, says Lockheed.
The central question, though, is whether the process can ever yield enough heat to fuse permanently those atoms that are needed to commercialize such power. And by extension, whether it will ever become commercially available.
“Fusion will never be a practical source because it requires vast resources and technical capital,” says John Kutsch, executive director of the Thorium Energy Alliance, in an earlier talk with this reporter. “On paper it looks awesome. But when you get down to practicalities, it is beyond our capabilities.”
Nevertheless, there are some believers out there, including Peter Thiel, who is a venture capitalist advising President-elect Donald Trump. He is investing in Helion Energy. Then there’s also Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is investing in Canada-based General Fusion while Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is investing in Irvine, Calif.-based Tri-Alpha Energy.
Scientists and engineers are actively working on the next generation nuclear reactors that utilize fission. Those are just around the corner and they are very real. Nuclear fusion, however, is more distant, and nations are driven to solve more immediate problems. That’s why its supporters are keeping up the political pressure as a way to move the technology ahead.