Big leap for fusion

"Researchers in the US have overcome a key barrier to making nuclear fusion reactors a reality. In results published in Nature, scientists have shown that they can now produce more energy than put into igniting fuel, at least on an experimental scale. The use of fusion as a source of energy remains a long way off, but the latest development is an important step toward that goal. Nuclear fusion is the process that powers the Sun and billions of other stars in the universe. If mastered, it could provide an unlimited source of clean energy because the raw materials are plentiful and the operation produces no carbon emissions. During the fusion process, smaller atoms fuse into larger ones releasing huge amounts of energy. To achieve this on Earth, scientists have to create conditions similar to those at the center of the Sun, which involves creating very high pressures and temperatures."  Ars Technica


 I find it difficult to imagine how a fusion technology could be made to work at the pressures and temperatures mentioned in the article or if the system did work how large the mechanism would have to be.

Nevertheless, the prospect of virtually unlimited energy supplies without any carbon emissions is certainly enticing.  pl

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34 Responses to Big leap for fusion

  1. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Col. Lang:
    The application of fusion energy to commercial power generation is still unfeasible because of the damage that the containment vessel sustains during its operation; every few months the fusion reactor has to be shut down and its containment vessel replaced.
    No commercially viable power plant can operate in that manner.
    Existing materials will not suffice; the required improvements in material properties – in terms of scientific and technologic leap that they would entail – are on the par with what would be required for the space elevator to become a reality.
    However, for space travel the fusion reactor might be useful; the containment vessel need not be maintained indefinitely and the reactor need not operate all the time; it would work to propel the ship while a fission reactor would supply the power to the other systems outside of the propulsion.
    It is interesting that the Princeton Plasma Laboratory, after 60 years of funding, still failed to come up with this….

  2. Bill H says:

    PL, your disbelief might have something to do with there being a slight misstatement in the piece, when they say that “they can now produce more energy than put into igniting fuel.” It’s true in that they produced more energy than was contained in the fuel, but later in the same piece they say the process “hasn’t yet reached the stated goal to achieve ‘ignition,’ where nuclear fusion generates as much energy as the lasers supply.”
    This is a big deal, to be sure, but they are a very long way from providing power by means of nuclear fusion. It’s like we’re travelling from California to Florida, and we finally cleared the San Diego city limits.

  3. Will says:

    interesting name for one of the leading researchers- Omar A. Hurricane. There is actually a Hurricane that was named Omar. haha

  4. hans says:

    Wonder if we could cancel the F-35 and devote that money to fusion? Whoever first brings a commercially viable fusion system will have done a great thing for humanity, hopefully in the nick of time. The transition to electric everything can happen very rapidly. Those countries whose only foothold in the world is the oil underneath them will fade quickly, and very emphatically won’t be missed.

  5. Valissa says:

    Interesting article, thanks! I think Babak’s comment quite on target. Space elevators and using fusion for space travel have long been popular in science fiction, and such ideas appeal to my inner techno-dreamer. However, my inner skeptic always responds with TANSTAAFL 🙂
    Thorium technology is the one nuclear technology these days that seems to have a better chance of becoming useful. Some links I have collected on that:
    From the World Nuclear Association… Thorium
    Bill Gates’ nuclear company explores molten salt reactors, thorium
    China blazes trail for ‘clean’ nuclear power from thorium
    On a somewhat different note, today I came across this fascinating article about the latest research into condom technology involving nanotechnology, graphene and other advances in materials science.
    Sheathing Cupid’s arrow

  6. GulfCoastPirate says:

    Let me play devil’s advocate. Given that we have a perfectly acceptable fusion reactor already working (the sun) and given that this fusion reactor is off world (which alleviates the types of problems we see in Japan with fission or other types of reactors that may be coming)shouldn’t we be putting more resources into finding the technologies that allow us to store this energy and transport it to where it is needed when it is needed?

  7. Joe100 says:

    Col. Lang & Babak –
    Some recent work on nuclear energy, with advice from some very experienced (with fusion) engineers, suggests the following:
    1. The NIF is basically a nuclear weapons technology in disguise;
    2. The big global fusion funding focused on ITER (magnetic containment fusion machine) is most probably a dead end.
    3. Creative fusion researchers left the mainstream national/global fusion programs twenty years ago – these programs become a fusion scientist sinecure.
    4. Several fusion energy start-up companies are exploring more creative approaches to conventional fusion (General Fusion, Helion, Tri-Alpha Fusion, etc.) and at least one of these companies has raised about $250 million (from some very experienced investors). Not clear that any of these start-ups will succeed, but they are examples of the diversity and creativity that we should be seeing in fusion R&D.
    5. We probably need a serious program that greatly diversifies research on innovative fusion, as that is the most likely path to a real, affordable fusion energy source – such a program is being designed and costs would be “noise on the margin” of the existing global conventional fusion R&D funding. No one is promising success in this area, but the pay-off for success suggests such a high-risk/high reward program would be useful.
    6. For those interested in learning more about the status of fusion, I suggest checking out the following (very lengthy) blog post and comments:
    7. And then there is Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) science/technology, which may or may not have promise, but some serious work is occurring in this area, including by the Naval Research Lab which has been tracking and funding work in this area for some time (and NRL has and continues to fund important work in innovative fusion and companies like Lockheed/Martin’s “skunkworks”.

  8. oofda says:

    Concur with the caution statements re: fusion. There is a long ways to go before it is a viable energy alternative. The safety aspects are daunting and a lot of questions have to be answered. And thorium has issues as well.

  9. Jose says:

    Babak, Material Scientist-Engineers are coming up so many new substances that are approaching science fiction. I truly believe they will figure out a material to make fusion work sooner, rather than latter.
    Space Elevators are coming!!!

  10. Babak Makkinejad says:

    I think are expressing something very close to a Religious Faith (in the advancement of science).

  11. Babak Makkinejad says:

    As long as the problem of the confinement vessel is not solved, commercial fusion power plants is not even a pipe-dream.

  12. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Anything you put in space to collect solar energy and send it back to Earth may be construed as a weapons (of mass destruction) platform; before it is constructed some one is going to shoot it down.

  13. r whitman says:

    We have heard this story before. Older science/technology investors will remember the splash and publicity in the 1970’s from KMS Energy Co of Michigan and listed on the old American Stock Exchange. Every month or so Ken Siegel, the CEO would come out with some pronouncement on fusion power and fusion reactors in an attempt to kite the stock. Siegel died and everything just disappeared.
    This latest PR release is just an attempt to get more funding.

  14. Marco Naccio says:

    Joe100 touched on the point I was going to post. The fusion research is just a cover story. Maybe it will work, but not exactly, so far (as the news story admits).
    The real purpose of the NIF is nuclear weapons research. It’s essentially a way of testing nuclear weapons on an extremely small scale, which avoids the detectable seismic effect of “going critical” on an actual warhead.
    Basically, a way of circumventing the test ban treaty. This is hardly a secret; even a cursory search will turn up dozens of articles discussing this point. I suspect that part of the research has achieved great success, although those results won’t make the news.

  15. Jose says:

    Faith had nothing to do with it, I took my nephew to several good schools with excellent material science and engineering departments…lol

  16. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Yes, I agree.
    Just like the CERN collider that some how produced the “Higgs” Boson….after all that money was spent

  17. Ulenspiegel says:

    Gretchenfrage: What evidence do we have that a fusion reactor would generate cheaper electricity than alternatives like wind turbines or PV panels?
    All I have found so far were extrapolations from the costs of fission reactors, these are now much more expensive than alternatives.

  18. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Not at all – you need to improve certain material characteristics by 4 orders of magnitude to make the containment vessel a reality.
    It will not happen.
    Your initial statement reminds me of “In Jesus, all things are possible.”

  19. GulfCoastPirate says:

    Are you saying they didn’t find the Higgs?

  20. GulfCoastPirate says:

    Why does it need to be collected in space?

  21. Jose says:

    Millions of Birds are being killed by wind turbines and PV panels…they are false hopes…

  22. Babak Makkinejad says:

    I am having my doubts; I am trying to decipher the chain of reasoning and evidence.
    It is a slow process since I have to learn certain things.
    But the test of an experimental discovery used to be its duplication by others.
    Where is this result going to be duplicated?
    Reminds me of the 2 independent observational confirmations of the planet Vulcan orbiting the Sun – to account for the anomalous precession of the perihelion of the planet Mercury.
    But once the General Theory of Relativity was invented which could account for that anomaly; Vulcan disappeared.

  23. CK says:

    There might have been a spoon.
    There is no Higgs; the closest was a Higgins, two Dobermans and a Ferrari

  24. CK says:

    Fried birds near the solar boilers; diced birds under the blades; won’t someone think of the … children.

  25. Mark Logan says:

    Geothermal is another example of lacking the right materials.
    Are we closer to this than we are to fusion?

  26. Ulenspiegel says:

    that is stupid propaganda: Wind turbines do not make it in the 5 most important causes for killed birds. Sorry for destroying beloved prejudices:
    Your cat, your car and the windows of your home kill an order of magnitude more birds than the wind turbines providing your electricity.
    But your contribution was a least a nice try. 🙂

  27. GulfCoastPirate says:

    1. A Nobel Prize has been awarded for the experiment and its results.
    2. It’s not possible to ‘verify’ the experiment elsewhere as governments don’t devote enough funds to science to build multiple CERN’s. There will be additional experiments conducted but they will have to wait their turn in line as researchers from multiple states that contributed to the building of CERN have other priorities.
    3. GR was ‘verified’ by observing predictions made by GR to be correct. That’s what happened here. The Standard Model led to certain predictions as to the characteristics of this particular particle and those predictions have apparently turned out to be correct. I’m not sure why you accept the results in one area but not the other.

  28. Babak Makkinejad says:

    I am saying that I am agnostic about Higgs.
    Take a look at the E(38) Boson discovery at DUBNA – a respectable research laboratory in Russia.
    If E(38) is verified by others then the Standard Model is not correct and with it the Higgs.
    What is the Truth?
    It is not based on who has been awarded a Noble Prize, I should think.

  29. Ulenspiegel says:

    Please get hard numbers:
    How many wind turbines have been constructed, how many birds are killd per year by them and how many housholds are provided with electricity.
    Then compare these numbers with other case of bird deaths. You will find that pets (cats, dogs) in the housholds provided with wind energy kill at least two orders of magnitude more birds, the car one order of magnitude, windows of you home ….
    Get correct studies, at the moment you blow one aspect completely, we are talking about orders of magnitude, out of proportion and ignore the real problems.

  30. Allen Thomson says:

    Well, that NIF is primarily about understanding nuclear weapons isn’t much of a secret:
    “The chief mission of NIF is to provide experimental insight and data for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program. This experiment represents an important milestone in the continuing demonstration that the stockpile can be kept safe, secure and reliable without a return to nuclear testing. Ignition physics and performance also play a key role in fundamental science, and for potential energy applications.”
    As I understand it, although the Teller-Ulam design works, there are phenomena involved that haven’t yet been adequately modeled and need experimental study if theoretical projections of new or aging weapons performance are to be relied on. Hence NIF.
    Relevance to some future fusion power scheme is a nice-to-have spin-off and makes for better PR than talking about WMD. Note that NIF is of little relevance to other fusion power concepts, such as the various kinds of magnetic confinement.

  31. Tyler says:

    That sounds a lot like how they “proved” dark matter existed without ever finding any i.e. come to a conclusion (not a hypothesis) and then start inventing models around it.

  32. Frabjous says:

    Yes, we will need to be able to manipulate and convert between forms of both matter and energy in ways that are so far beyond our current understanding as to be impossible. As to the containment material, neutronium might suffice, if it exists and we can obtain/create/manipulate it. I suspect that the effective containment will rather be some type of field(s) magnetic and/or gravitic (or some other force we aren’t even aware of, switching at peta-hertz or faster), again at a level of control that is currently impossible.
    AND – what do we do with the power once we’ve created a stable, contained fusion reaction? We’re talking energy density far higher than anything presently available – except for a thermonuclear explosion and the big ball of fusion in the sky – and how do we convert that energy to electricity? Boiling water to spin turbines? Oy.
    We’re going to have to make advances in materials and energy as far beyond where we are now as we are now beyond Archimedes IMHO.

  33. Herb says:

    My sources tell me Japan is positioning to shut down ALL substantive nuclear power generation after the Fukushima disaster, and is paying cash money up front for the $10B dollar LNG plants that are planned for construction in the US gulf coast. They are seeking to ensure a more certain energy source alternative. Given the very stable political (and security) situation in the US (compared to the alternatives), and Japan’s long-term relationship with us, this makes a lot of sense.

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