Fusion: Far and Near, Slow and Fast

Politically Correct Fusion by 2060 or Later

… ITER’s workers often liken themselves to stonemasons hewing blocks for a cathedral: They may not get to see the fruits of their efforts in their own lifetimes. To the researchers at fusion start-ups, the whole thing seems downright medieval. They don’t want to be stonemasons working on a large geopolitical science project; they want to transform the electrical grid, pronto. __ https://cen.acs.org/energy/nuclear-power/Fusion-start-ups-hope-revolutionize/96/i32

If we wait for the grand international ITER project to give us usable nuclear fusion power, we will probably wait until the latter half of the 21st century. More likely the project would collapse long before that for lack of “other people’s money” — and because small-scale entrepreneurial fusion companies had already beaten them to the finish line.

Or We Can Try Something Smaller, Quicker, More Affordable

Want to make a quick $trillion? A better type of energy to replace fossil fuels is a good bet, if you can make it work. That is why you see people such as Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos investing in advanced nuclear reactor projects.

Almost two dozen private ventures are trying to crack the fusion challenge, backed by a combined total of more than a billion dollars of private investment, said Chris Mowry, the CEO of Vancouver, B.C.-based General Fusion. (One Seattle venture, CTFusion, is currently looking for lab space.) __ https://www.geekwire.com/2018/commercial-fusion-ventures-learn-lessons-engineering-expectations/

One of the relatively small start-up approaches to nuclear fusion energy is TAE (Tri Alpha Energy), working out of a hangar-type space in Orange County, California. TAE is working with Google, and is one of the better-financed fusion startups in the field of contenders.

On either side of the TAE reactor is a pair of long quartz tubes. Hydrogen gas gets injected into these tubes, and metal coils wound around the tubes pump it with radio-frequency pulses generated by those clanging electrical discharges. The pulses convert the gas into plasma, and the two plasma streams rush down the tubes, colliding head-on in the center of the reactor. Magnetic fields hold the colliding plasmas steady, while beams of protons streaming out of four particle accelerators bombard the plasma. The beams are aimed so that the plasma forms a tirelike, spinning toroid.

The energy injections from TAE’s particle accelerators help make the plasma stiffer, so the magnetic fields don’t have to be so strong. The TAE reactor uses some magnets to guide the plasma jelly, but they are much smaller than those needed for a tokamak. As a result, the TAE reactor is relatively compact. __ Source

TAE is not planning on waiting until 2060 to achieve its fusion targets.

Jeff Bezos is Helping to Fund General Fusion

In the Pacific Northwest, Jeff Bezos has joined the Canadian and Malaysian governments in funding another small fusion energy startup (General Fusion) with high hopes for grabbing a piece of the jackpot of $trillions.

General Fusion is raising hundreds of millions for 70% scale demo system to be completed around 2023. The next system after the 70% scale system will be a full commercial system. They have a pulsed system without the need for plasma containment. General Fusion feels if they can prove out end to end power generation that scaling to higher energy return will not be a hurdle.

Simulation will be used to validate the economics and design specifics to move to a 100% system.

The Demo system will cost several hundred million dollars… General Fusion had received over $100 million in funding from a global syndicate of investors and the Canadian Government’s Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) fund. __ Brian Wang

Small Tokamak Startups With Big Plans

Commonwealth Fusion Systems, the company spun off of the MIT [tokamak] project, has an aggressive schedule. The company plans to build an experimental reactor based on these new magnets in three years—and they expect that reactor to produce twice as much energy as needed to run it. If all goes as planned, this first reactor will produce 100 MW, one-fifth of ITER’s expected power output, at about one sixty-fifth of the volume.

Tokamak Energy in England is also banking on new magnet materials, though its reactor has a slightly different design. Instead of encouraging plasma to form a doughnut shape, Tokamak Energy uses magnetic fields to shape plasmas into a thicker toroid that looks like an apple with the core taken out. Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory experimented with this plasma shape back in the 1980s. The shape can, in theory, allow for a smaller reactor. Executive Vice Chair Kingham says the company’s reactors could be on the grid in 2030. __ Source

Several other startup projects continue to refine their various approaches to small nuclear fusion, including Helion Energy, LPP Fusion, Lockheed Compact Fusion, and more than a dozen others in the lineup. Many of these small companies have been working on their projects for ten years or more, with varying degrees of progress to show their investors.

With two dozen fusion startups, and about four dozen advanced fission projects, innovation in the nuclear power industry is pressing forward — and attracting private investors.

The promise of $trillions in rewards for a successful breakthrough in advanced nuclear energy is tugging at the purses of some of the same tech billionaires who are also financing some of the ambitious outer space projects — including the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos. That is not surprising, given that advanced energy and outer space resources and access are two of the hottest paths to $trillionaire status available at this time.

No Single Project Has a High Probability of Success

It is only in hindsight that radical breakthroughs seem inevitable. From this side of the bifurcation, none of these approaches offer a sense of inevitability. But the application of human ingenuity to problems generates a multiplicity of possible solutions. Only in an opportunity society that provides multiple means of financing innovative problem-solving are we likely to see big winners coming out of nowhere — such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, SpaceX, and other household names that weren’t always that way.

Low corruption, high opportunity societies that are capable of generating projects from the ground up — seemingly “out of nowhere” — are likely to continue to surprise people of sedate and unimaginative dispositions.

As always, hope for the best. Prepare for the worst. Consider a Dangerous Childhood ©, if not for yourselves, then for your children.

Dangerous Children are trained specifically to operate skillfully in uncertain times and situations. And unless the US is taken over by the cabal of the stagnant mindset — as almost happened two years ago — smart persons will prepare to be surprised.

More: A Few of The Challenges that Need to be Addressed

Future fusion reactors may need to be made of heat- and radiation-resilient materials that don’t exist yet. But most people working at fusion companies and even in academic groups are plasma physicists. Wade says the field needs help from materials scientists to do experiments on what will happen to materials when they’re bombarded with uncontrollable neutrons, each carrying a potentially atom-shaking 14 MeV of energy.

There are some high-strength alloys that probably come close to being able to withstand the neutron bombardment, says Laila El-Guebaly, a materials scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Fusion Technology Institute. But there’s nothing on Earth like a fusion reactor, so it’s hard to know for sure, and it’s difficult to test new materials under extreme conditions today. “The lack of a 14-MeV neutron source provides a huge hurdle for the development of fusion worldwide,” El-Guebaly says. ITER may offer the first chance to investigate these questions, Wade adds.

Tokamak Energy’s Kingham agrees that shielding materials from neutrons is a big challenge. Because of the geometry of the company’s spherical tokamak reactors, the magnets will be particularly vulnerable to neutron bombardment. The company is developing shielding materials to protect them, and he expects they may need to be as thick as 60 cm.

Then there’s the tritium fuel problem. The isotope has a half-life of just 12 years, so there’s not much of it on Earth. As a result, fusion facilities will have to produce the radioactive material on-site to keep running over long periods. Fusion researchers usually envision doing this inside the reactor, with the help of those wild neutrons. Part of ITER’s project is to explore materials for “breeding” tritium from lithium and energetic neutrons. General Fusion’s Mowry says his company has addressed this issue in its designs. It plans to dope the liquid-metal walls of its reactor with lithium. But no one has demonstrated lithium breeding in a full reactor yet. __ https://cen.acs.org/energy/nuclear-power/Fusion-start-ups-hope-revolutionize/96/i32

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4 Responses to Fusion: Far and Near, Slow and Fast

  1. ROBERT SYKES says:

    Fusion is one of the greatest scientific frauds of all time, on a par with AGW. ITER in particular has wasted the professional lives of literally thousands of physicists, and has done nothing other than provide a few elite scientists and bureaucrats a Jet Set life style.

    There is no cheap, small scale route to fusion. The plasma temperature must be over 10 M K. No machine has anywhere near the requirements for fusion, and none ever will.

    • alfin2101 says:

      What you say about ITER may be true. Large and costly international projects tend to be money drains and gathering places for corrupt bureaucratic minds.

      As for your second paragraph, I was with you until the words “none ever will.” What you say constitutes a prediction, and in order to bolster your credentials as a prophetic personage, you will need to submit a list of at least four dozen well-documented accurate predictions about important technological or scientific develoopments which were made at least five years before their fulfillment.

      Thank you for your attention to this matter.

  2. Joe Wooten says:

    I noticed you did not include the Lockheed Skunk Works fusion project.

    The director gave a lecture to engineers at Westinghouse 4-5 years ago and their approach is interesting. Again, it is a small flexible proposal. Lockmart is still working on it


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