January has been an unusually busy month for developments in fusion power.
Or more to the point, for developments in government funding of fusion.
Last week, the European Commission called for a ministerial level meeting to assure continued commitment from the countries that back the €13 billion ($17.4 billion) International Thermonuclear Reactor Experiment (ITER). At around the same time ITER awarded a €500 million ($673 million) contract for construction of the main buildings at Cadarache, including the facility housing the giant fusion machine, known as a tokamak.
Not to be outdone in the big money, South Korea is embarking on a 1 trillion won (nearly $1 billion) fusion project called K-DEMO, the journal Nature reported. This is in addition to South Koreas’ involvement in Cadarache (along with the EU, U.S., Russia, China, India and Japan) and its own K-STAR tokamak project, and is expected to employ 2,400 people in the first phase alone, through 2016.
All of which begs two questions: Will fusion ever be ready, and why aren’t some of those state funds going into alternative forms of fission such as thorium and molten salt and the other reactor types we’ve written about here at Weinberg?
First, in case you need reminding: Fusion is a form of nuclear energy that throws atoms together rather than splits them apart as happens in today’s fission. Many people regard it as the Holy Grail of energy, as in principle its fuel – typically isotopes of hydrogen – would be abundant, it would operate safely without threat of a meltdown, and it would not leave long-lived waste. Fusion, not fission, gave rise to the nearly 60-year-old promotional tag line about nuclear that has yet to live up to its promise – “too cheap to meter.”
THE LONGEST 30 YEARS
Huge government-backed projects like ITER and other state-backed fusion behemoths – for instance the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, Calif. – are impressive in their own right as ambitious science projects. And for variety’s sake, it is reassuring to note that each takes a decidedly different approach: ITER (and South Korea) wants to confine small amounts of superheated fuel contained in a huge space by superconducting magnets, while NIF is compressing its fuel into a tiny cube zapped by nearly 200 lasers that travel almost a mile to their target.
But they are concrete examples of the overriding problem that has afflicted fusion ever since physicists began seriously proposing it in the 1950s: They are a long way away from making fusion a reality. The simple problem with fusion is the amount of energy that it takes to create and sustain a meaningful fusion reaction exceeds the amount of energy captured from the reaction. A British phsycist named Martin Lawson established the conditions to overcome this back in 1955, throwing down a gauntlet known as the Lawson criterion.
The wry joke about fusion is that it is always 30 years away. And if you look at the timelines espoused by ITER, South Kroea and NIF, they all play right into that humor. When I interviewed ITER deputy director Richard Hawryluk a year–and-a-half ago for my Kachan & Co. report on alternative nuclear power, he did not foresee useful, grid-connected fusion power until at least 2040 (I haven’t spoken with him since, but in this field of molasses-like progress, I doubt much has changed).
NIF’s website calls for market penetration in the “2030s and beyond.” Call me jaded, but given the history of this science as well as recent NIF difficulties noted by the San Francisco Chronicle, and I’ll key in on the “beyond.” In the Chronicle story, one scrutinizing, unnamed Congressional expert said that NIF is still “very, very far away” from its goal.
The Nature story suggest that South Korea could produce a commercial reactor by 2036 – so that’s starting to sound a little sooner than three decades.
Lest I sound dismissive, let me say that NIF, ITER and other colossal projects are making useful scientific findings. And they certainly stand a chance of licking Lawson.
THE FUSION ENTREPRENEURS
But what has gone largely unnoticed in the shadows of these giants is that a number of much smaller, privately held and in some cases venture capital-backed companies are also pursuing fusion. “Small” and “privately held” in no way guarantees that they’ll break through where the big boys keep trodding along but I chose to believe, perhaps with a dash of naiveté, that the entrepreneurial spirit behind them will get at least one or two of the little ones there first.
Each of them is working on considerably smaller fusion contraptions than the 20-story “tokamak” building that will rise at Cadarache and the 10-story tall, 3-football field long facility housing 192 lasers that each zig zag their way nearly a mile to hit a tiny target of hydrogen isotopes in Livermore.
And each (I mention only some below) is developing its own particular take on fusion.
Two of the startups, Tri-Alpha Energy of Irvine, Calif. and Lawrenceville Plasma Physics (LPP) of Middlesex, New Jersey, are working on a technology called “aneutronic” fusion that directly creates electricity. Other approaches to fusion use the heat of hot neutrons released in the reaction to drive a turbine. Aneutronic fusions tends to use fuel that differs from the deuterium and tritium (both hydrogen isotopes) of “conventional” fusion. Rather, it tends to use regular hydrogen and boron.
One thing that distinguishes LPP is its collaborative approach – it is boldly reaching out to Iran, a world leader in aneutronic fusion research, to jointly develop this peaceful form of nuclear power in an initiative that LPP president Eric Lerner calls Fusion for Peace.
And when I think of what sets Tri-Alpha - a stealth company – apart from the others, I think of funding. It has received over $140 million in venture funds, including tranches from Goldman Sachs, Venrock, Vulcan Capital New Enterprise Associates, and reportedly from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
FUSION AND THE OIL INDUSTRY
Another fusion startup that has venture backing – about $32 million last time I counted – is General Fusion of Burnaby, Canada, near Vancouver. Its funders include Amazon.com founder CEO Jeff Bezos, through his Bezos Expeditions investment company.
Notably, General Fusion also has backing from a Canadian oil sands company, Cenovus Energy. (Oil interest in fusion is not new. In the 1970s, for example, Exxon Corp. was investigating laser-based fusion). One could imagine a small-sized fusion machine providing the heat or electricity to assist in the extraction of bitumen from the Canadian praries. .
In fact, that same idea applies to alternative fission reactors. As I’ve written many times, small reactors could serve as excellent sources of process heat to industries like oil, petrochemicals, steel, cement and others that require high temperatures. This could not just small versions of conventional uranium fueled, water cooled reactors, but also unconventional and potentially superior designs like molten salt, pebble bed and others.
Which circles back to the second question I raised at the top of this article: Why aren’t governments putting more money into the research and development of alternative fission reactors?
FUSING WITH FISSION
They would be well advised to do so. Alternatives like thorium fuel and unconventional fission reactors can offer superior safety, efficiency, performance, waste management, and weapons-proliferation resistance – many of the attributes associated with the more heralded field of fusion.
They also share some of the same design challenges as fusion. For instance, molten salt, pebble bed and fast neutron reactors – all fission alternatives – operate at considerably higher temperatures than conventional fission, and thus face materials issues as do the even considerably hotter fusion machines.
And, in a best of both worlds scenario, there is even a prospect for a hybrid fusion/fission reactor. Fusion designs typically include a fission stage in which neutrons bombard lithium to produce tritium, one of the two hydrogen isotopes that fuels fusion reactions (another fusion startup, Redmond, Wash.-based Helion Energy, notes that the process also yields helium, which has many uses – it is falling short in supply). Some physicists and engineers believe that this could be extended to include fission reactions that deliver power on top of the fusion power.
So, it seems that, to the extent that states are funding nuclear research, they should be channeling into fission as well as fusion. Certainly China is. Other countries should be doing the same.
Photos: Jeff Bezos from Amazon.com. Eric Lerner from Lawrenceville Plasma Physics.
NOTE: There are other fusion initiatives large and small, too numerous to name in detail in this particular blog post. Feel free to tell us below about your favourite.