Freelance Writer & Editor
By Susan Ladika | Fusion Advancing as Future Energy Source | March 31, 2009 | Think + Up
Researchers hope the new Obama administration’s commitment to alternative energy sources will fuel support for the accelerated development of fusion, making it a potentially viable energy source by the middle of the century.
With 80 percent of the world’s current energy supply coming from fossil fuels—fuels projected to run out in the coming decades—researchers “need to develop every source of energy we can possibly imagine. Fusion is not going to fix everything magically,” but instead needs to be part of a broad spectrum of solutions that include solar, wind and nuclear power, says Neil Calder, spokesman for ITER, which will be the largest experimental fusion facility in the world, based in Cadarache, France.
The project draws together scientists from around the globe who hope to help advance fusion from the research labs to commercially viable electricity-generating facilities. Conceived during a 1985 summit between then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, then head of the Soviet Communist Party, ITER now has seven members – the United States, European Union, Russia, China, India, Korea and Japan – and its operation is overseen by a council made up of representatives of the various members. The project is expected to cost $10 billion, with half spent on construction and the other half on operations.
Earth-moving work is almost completed at the ITER site, and contractors plan to begin digging foundations for the building in the spring to house the device, which is similar in size to a midsize aircraft carrier, Calder says.
Based on the energy source that powers the sun and stars, fusion research hopes to show that this can be harnessed to produce electricity in a safe and environmentally sound way.
But everyone agrees it won’t be a quick fix. The ITER facility isn’t expected to be up and running till 2018, and even under the best of circumstances, it’s not expected to prove that fusion works until 2025, Calder says. If it’s a success, he expects demonstration power plants to be up and running by 2040, and commercially viable facilities by 2050.
So that may leave people wondering: What’s the point? But to Stewart Prager, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) in Princeton, N.J., for a solution to address a major global issue “that time scale is pretty short.” To underscore his point, Prager says, “people take out mortgages for 30 years.”
It also doesn’t mean that the rest of the world is sitting around doing nothing while ITER comes out of the ground. At facilities around the world, researchers are working to advance the development of fusion energy. In fusion, two light atomic nuclei are forced together to form heavier ones, releasing energy.
While technically considered nuclear fusion, experts have shied away from using that name, and simply call the process fusion, because of the negative preconceptions the word “nuclear” conjures up. But unlike nuclear fission, fusion leaves behind little waste, waste that can’t be used to build nuclear weapons. At the same time, “if one little thing goes wrong it stops, so it’s inherently safe,” Calder says.
“Some people are never going to like fusion because it’s a nuclear process. Yet it’s how the sun operates,” says Mark Tillack, associate director of the Center for Energy Research at the University of California, San Diego.
Scientists are using two main approaches to try to develop a fusion as a viable energy source. One approach is magnetic fusion, like that at ITER. The ITER device is based on a tokamak concept, where hot gas is confined within a doughnut-shaped vessel, using a magnetic field. The gas is heated to more than 100 million degrees and produces 500 megawatts of fusion power.
The second approach is inertial confinement fusion, which is being undertaken at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., where construction of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) is nearing completion. There, the energy of 192 giant laser beams will be focused on a target the size of a BB, filled with hydrogen fuel, with the goal of igniting the atoms’ nuclei. Experiments are expected to begin at the facility in 2010.
One of the main goals of the NIF and other fusion experiments is to prove that more energy can be output than goes into the process. That has been a key stumbling block when it comes to producing fusion energy.
A breakthrough came in December at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., at its Alcator C-Mod reactor, which is similar to that planned at ITER. Scientists have grappled with how to propel the hot plasma around the inside of the doughnut-shaped chamber and keep it from losing heat. MIT scientists found that radio-frequency waves can be used to keep the plasma in motion.
While the advances may seem incremental, Prager says the country’s fusion program began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but didn’t really take off until the 1970s. Now “we’re well beyond the halfway point.”
If the current obstacles can be solved, fusion “will move from being a research project to being an energy application project,” says Mickey Wade, director of DIII-D Experimental Science at General Atomics in San Diego, a private company heavily involved in fusion research, with major funding from the DOE.
ITER’s goal is to produce 10 times more power than it consumes. If that’s the case, the next step would be building energy-producing fusion demonstration plants, and then getting commercial ventures involved.
Wade predicts that if ITER is a success “there will be a rapid move by many countries to try to make this commercially viable.”
“Funding is the real bottleneck now,” Wade says. The other issue is the lack of researchers and experts who are familiar with fusion “to really move at a very rapid pace.”
Part of the problem, contends Tillack, is that starting in the mid-1990s, the federal government was reluctant to spend much money to develop fusion. For the past two years, the U.S. failed to fund its ITER commitments, but this year’s omnibus energy bill contains $140 million for the project, along with millions for other fusion work.
He calls it a “Catch-22” as the government is reluctant to spend money to see if fusion energy is practical, but only research will tell if it is practical. “We don’t really know yet if this is the final solution.”
In addition, in the United States, “industry is extremely conservative about spending its own money” to develop fusion, Tillack says. So if industry won’t pay, it falls on shoulders of government or ratepayers to do so.
Tillack believes that with $10 billion, the fusion community can “give you a plan to do it, but can’t promise you it would work.”
Five or 10 years ago, that would have been considered far too much money, but with an $800 billion stimulus bill, and energy prices that have soared, “$10 billion in that context is not that much,” he says.
Currently, the U.S. fusion community is in the process of laying out a game plan, working under the auspices of the Department of Energy, Prager says. The issue has been divided into five topics, and workshops are being held. In June, one big workshop is planned to bring all five pieces together and “more carefully lay out approaches” of the government, universities and private industry.
If something major isn’t done to address the dwindling supply of fossil fuel, and increasing demand, Calder predicts international tensions will rise. “It’s not just a question of comfort. It’s also a question of security.”