Posts Tagged Fusion

Leaving Euratom: the government should reconsider

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on January 27th, 2017

It has been confirmed that the UK intends to leave the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) as part of the Brexit process. Following their loss in the Supreme Court last week, the government has produced a bill on triggering Article 50 to put to a commons vote. As part of the explanatory notes of this very short bill, was the revelation that Britian will be leaving both the EU and Euratom. Euratom, a separate legal entity to the EU but governed by EU institutions, has controlled nuclear power in Europe since 1957.

The move has been met with shock by the industry, with Dr Paul Dorfman, honorary senior researcher at the Energy Institute at University College London, calling it a “lose-lose situation” due to the potential for reduced competitiveness and reduced safety. There will be increased pressure on the already under-resourced Office for Nuclear Regulation to cover all of Euratom’s responsibilities including non-proliferation inspections, authorizing the sale of nuclear material and safeguarding power, fuel fabrication and waste sites. Alternatively the UK would need to negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency for help with this new burden. The decision will likely impact the UK’s plans for new power stations, research, skills development and dealing with the waste legacy.

The decision will also likely mean the eventual loss of the world leading Fusion experiment based in Culham, Oxfordshire, involving 350 scientists and funding from 40 countries, to another country such as Germany or France. This loss could risk perpetrating across the nuclear research space, with the isolation from Euratom making the UK far less attractive for research and innovation leading to a funding and brain drain at the very time the UK is trying to reinvigorate its nuclear leadership through it’s Industrial Strategy.

A complex set of negotiations will now have to take place as most nuclear co-operation with the UK relies on safeguards provided through Euratom. It may not be possible to agree and ratify new agreements before Britain leaves the EU in 2019. According to Vince Zabielski, a senior lawyer at law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, “current new build projects will be placed on hold while those standalone treaties are negotiated” meaning possible delays at Hinkley as well as Bradwell, Moorside and Wylfa.

The decision however is not just bad for the UK, but for nuclear as a whole. With the UK one of the last big supporters of the technology, weakening its strength in the field will give power to anti-nuclear camps across the continent.

Weinberg Next Nuclear is very concerned that the departure from Euratom could severely damage the UK’s nuclear industry, with impacts on energy security, industrial competitiveness and decarbonisation objectives. We find no reason why such drastic action needs to be taken. Article 50 deals with the two Treaties of Lisbon: the Treaty on the European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. However the Euratom treaty is separate, not mentioned in either of the above treaties thus there is no reason for including Euratom in any part of Article 50 debate. As Jonathan Leech, a senior lawyer and nuclear expert at Prospect Law said, “there doesn’t seem to have been any real explanation as to why, because we are going towards the unknown at great speed. Legally we don’t have to [leave Euratom because the UK is leaving the EU],”.

Weinberg Next Nuclear thus urges the government to reconsider and avoid the highly damaging consequences this unnecessary withdrawal could have on the UK’s nuclear future.

Helion Fusion Engine Artist Rend

Fancy bow tie. Helion’s Fusion Engine fires plasmoids of deuterium and tritium at each other from either   end. They collide and fuse in the middle, giving off direct electricity as well as heat captured by a coolant that could be FLiBe.

The paradox of fusion energy is that it is always 40 years away, and has been for some 60 years.

So scoff the fusion skeptics. And if you look at the projected timelines of the large intergovernmental fusion projects like ITER in France and NIF in California, you could easily join the ranks of those not holding their breath.

But as I’ve written here before, there are a number of smaller and privately-backed fusion initiatives that could solve the fusion riddle long before the ITERs or NIFs do.

One of those companies is Helion Energy, a Redmond, Washington-based company that claims it will build a 50-MWe pilot of its “Fusion Engine” by 2019 after which licensees will begin building commercial models by 2022. That’s hardly the 40-year odyssey we’ve long heard about.

Helion will obviously have to overcome many challenges in order to take the express lane to fusion land. I won’t write about all of them in this post.

But what strikes me as particularly relevant to Weinberg readers is how Helion (and the fusion community in general) is facing materials challenges and decisions that are similar to those confronting developers of alternative fission technologies like fast reactors and molten salt reactors (MSRs).

For example, Helion is contemplating the use of FLiBe – the molten salt that’s part of MSR designs – as a coolant and an electrical insulator. It’s also examining the abilities of different metals to withstand ferocious neutron bombardment – just the sort of thing that many fission researchers are also investigating as they try to move away from conventional fission reactors and to higher temperature and other alternatives.


Before I dive in to Helion, and in case anyone needs a refresher:  Fusion joins atoms together rather than splits them apart as fission does. Many experts regard its as the Holy Grail of energy sources, noting among reasons that fusion does not leave long-lived high-level waste; that it requires comparatively little fuel and its fuel is to a large extent easy to obtain and plentiful; and that it cannot meltdown (even if it does require temperatures of over 100 million degrees C) and leak harmful radioactivity. (It also creates helium, a substance with many uses but one that is in increasingly short supply).

“Fusion has the potential to provide nearly limitless, clean energy for both baseload and on-demand power,” notes David Kirtley, Helion’s interim CEO, who I spoke with via Skype recently. “Fusion fuels are inexpensive, sustainable and can be supplied with minimal environmental footprint.

Helion FusionExperiment

Don’t try this at home. Helion has built and tested an experimental version of the engine, without the    coolant and heat exchanger.

Helion’s small “Fusion Engine” uses principles of magnetism to generate heat that induces istopes of hydrogen to fuse. But it bears little visual resemblance to the giant 20-story “tokamak” that ITER is building in Cadarahce, France using different techniques of magnetism.

The Fusion Engine is a 28-meter long, 3-meter high bow tie-shaped device that at both ends converts gases of deuterium and tritium  (isotopes of hydrogen) into plasmoids  – plasma contained by a magnetic field through a process called FRC (field-reversed configuration). It magnetically accelerates the plasmoids down long tapered tubes until they collide and compress in a central chamber wrapped by a magnetic coil that induces them to combine into helium atoms. The process also releases neutrons.

The Fusion Engine provides energy in two ways. Like in a fission reactor, the energy of the scattered neutrons gives off heat that ultimately drives a turbine. Helion is also developing a technique that directly converts energy to electricity. The direct conversion will provide about 70 percent of the outgoing electricity according to Kirtley.


The overarching problem that Helion, ITER, NIF, and others are working to solve is that the amount of energy it takes to coax sustainable fusion reactions is greater than what can be harnessed from the reactions.

When you consider that temperatures inside many fusion designs hit 150 million degrees C, albeit briefly, then you can start to appreciate the amount of energy required to get things cooking. In Helion’s case, it is powering capacitors that convert the deuterium and tritium gas into plasmoids. It is also powering electromagnets that surround the narrowing cylinders through which the plasmoids shoot. The pulsing magnets induce the plasmoid to accelerate.

A fusion chamber also requires durable materials – doubly so since neutrons bombard the inside walls, severely testing their durability (except for in a process called “aneutronic fusion,” but more on that another time). Therein lies one of the main crossover points between fission and fusion development. Both are looking for materials that can handle high energy neutron bombardment and high temperatures. Although fusion has a kinder brand image than does fission, the fact is that it sets neutrons racing about just as fission does (again, aneutronic fusion does not do this).

For Helion, this means finding the right material to line the inside of the compression chamber where the plasmoids collide and release neutrons.

“This wall is exposed to high levels of radiation and high thermal load,” notes Kirtley. Helion is considering alloys including tungsten, beryllia and molybdenum. These materials will be familiar to engineers and scientists working on high temperature fission reactors. As Kirtley notes, “the tungsten alloy claddings in high-temperature reactors absolutely share material crossover.” Helion’s collaborators on so-called “first wall” development include the U.S. Department of Defense and the University of Washington, he says.

JohnSlough RedmondReporter

A man of two fusions. Helion co-founder John Slough and his company MSNW are designing a separate fusion reactor, called the Fusion Driven Rocket, meant for spacecraft propulsion.

As important as durability is, Helion has another ace up its sleeve. It has devised a technique that allows for “rapid replacement” of the wall, a breakthrough that Kirtley describes as “one of the key advantages” of the Fusion Engine. “We believe it is key to the engineering design of an economically feasible fusion energy system,” he says.

In Helion’s Fusion Engine, a coolant material will form a blanket that absorbs the neutrons and their heat after the neutrons escape through the wall. As is the case with some fission research companies, Helion is not yet sure what coolant it will use, although its preference is FLiBe – a molten salt of lithium fluoride and beryllium fluoride. The MSR reactor community will recognize FLiBe as one of the fluids that can serve as both a coolant blanket and a fuel carrier in an MSR. It is the substance that lends its name to Flibe Energy, the Hunstville, Ala. company that is developing a two-fluid FLiBe-based MSR.

Helion is also considering using lithium as the blanket coolant. Lithium is a common choice in fusion designs because it reacts with the neutrons to make tritium. Of the two hydrogen istopes commonly used in fusion – deuterium and tritium – tritium is the more difficult to obtain (deuterium is found commonly in seawater), so a process that replenishes tritium via interaction with lithium is a popular design among fusion engineers. Kirtley claims that Helion’s fusion process requires less tritium than do other fusion technologies and that the Fusion Engine makes some of its required tritium by fusing deuterium atoms in the collision.

“Our reactor design removes the majority of the complex tritium producing blanket,” says Kirtley.

Thus Helion has less need to breed tritium from lithium and it is therefore looking seriously at FLiBe, which is a more effective, less expensive and less problematic coolant than lithium, he notes.


The idea of using FLiBe as a fusion coolant is not new. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory has investigated it in partnership with Lockheed Martin, the aerospace stalwart that is also developing a fusion reactor.  Likewise, Ralph Moir, the physicist known for his interest in hybrid fission/fusion reactors , published a paper on a fusion FLiBe coolant over 20 years ago at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in which he notes that FLiBe avoids the fire hazards of lithium as a fusion coolant. MIT and Argonne National Laboratory published separate papers on FLiBe and lithium’s usefulness in fusion reactors in the 1970s.

FLiBe might serve a second purpose on Helion’s Fusion Engine as well. Kirtley says the company wants to use it to provide electrical insulation to the electromagnets. By using FLiBe for that function as well as for the coolant blanket, Helion would simplify its materials needs and lower its costs, he notes.

Helion’s design comes from company co-founder John Slough, who is also a research associate professor at the University of Washington and who runs Redmond-based space propulsion firm MSNW LLC.

Slough is a fusion enthusiast, to say the least. He is designing a separate fusion reactor intended as a propulsion device that in principle could send manned spacecraft to Mars in 30 days. That project known as the Fusion Driven Rocket, has funding from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The more earthly Fusion Engine has received about $7 million in funds from DOE, the Department of Defense and NASA. The company hopes to raise another $2 million by next year, $35 million in 2015-17, and $200 million for its pilot plant stage.

It will compete for development funds with other fusion initiatives, such as those at General Fusion, Lockheed Martin and the “aneutronic fusion” projects at Lawrenceville Plasma Physics and Tri-Alpha Energy. It will also compete against fission development. But given some of the material similarities with fission, it might also find itself in collaboration with some of those efforts.

Images provided by Helion. Photo of John Slough from Redmond Reporter via Helion. 

Latest entrant in the fusion sweepstakes: Lockheed Martin

Posted by Mark Halper on February 15th, 2013

Let’s get together. Charles Chase of Lockheed Martin says that putting atoms together in the company’s fusion device is the key to the world’s cheap, plentiful energy future free of CO2 emissions.

A few weeks ago, I noted that there is a growing stable of companies, many small and some venture-backed, that is tackling the elusive challenge of nuclear fusion.

Driven by entrepreneurial spirit and not by the colossal state budgets that define the large international governmental fusion projects such as Europe’s ITER and the U.S.’s NIF, one or more of these entities is likely to crack the fusion nut first, I said.

Almost on cue, another company has trotted into the fusion corral: U.S. aerospace stalwart Lockheed Martin.

Speaking last week at a Google “Solve for X” event (it’s a bit like a TED gathering, but organized by the ubiquitous search engine/media company), Charles Chase from Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” group described a transportable, 100-megawatt fusion machine that he said will be grid ready in 10 years and that – here’s a bold claim – could provide all the world’s baseload power by 2050.

“There are still 1.3 billion people in the world without electricity,” Chase says in a YouTube video of his presentation. Noting that the planet could nearly double its energy consumption by 2050 to 28 terawatt year, he says that the Lockheed fusion technology, “might be able to bring energy for everyone.”

Like the smaller start-up  companies that are gearing up to beat ITER and NIF to the grid, Lockheed’s fusion device shuns the massive size of the 20-story ITER tokamak under construction in France, and the 3-football-field-long NIF laser facility in Livermore, Calif., and does so by deploying technology that’s yet again different.  A short list of other companies working on fusion variations include General Fusion, Helion Energy, Lawrenceville Plasma Physics (LPP) and Tri-Alpha Energy.


The Lockheed machine heats deuterium gas with radio waves, generating a plasma that a magnetic field holds and confines. In principle, this confinement would hold long enough for deuterium to fuse with tritium –  both are isotopes of hydrogen – creating helium and the all important heat that would then drive a turbine.

It is a superior variation on the the ITER approach to magnetic confinement (NIF uses lasers, not magnets) that allows Lockheed to make a much smaller device, says Chase, whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as “senior program manager, revolutionary technology” at the Palmdale, Calif. Skunk Works division of Bethesda, Md.-based company.

Lockheed will build a sub-100MW prototype version by 2017 that will measure about 1-meter in diameter by 2-meters long. The 100MW grid-ready unit will be about twice that size, he says.

Listening to Chase talk, I’m struck by how similar his claims are to those made by leaders and developers of fission alternatives to conventional nuclear, such as thorium and molten salt reactors.

He describes a reactor that is meltdown proof, leaves no long-lived radioactive waste, emits no CO2, and has a ridiculously higher energy density than fossil fuels. He also talks about the ease of transporting the compact machine on a truck, about desalination uses, about decentralized power in developing region, and, being from an aerospace company about how the machine could propel a craft to Mars in a speedy one month.

Here’s a slide from his presentation, which I grabbed from the YouTube video:

You’ll see that his list also includes “no proliferation issues” and “unlimited, low cost fuel supply.” I’m not sure any nuclear technology could ever absolutely claim either of these.

On proliferation, let’s not forget that thermonuclear weapons rely on fusion technology. On a related note, California’s NIF facility is funded by a defense-oriented group at the U.S. Department of Energy, and one of NIF’s international partners is a U.K. Ministry of Defence group called the Atomic Weapons Establishment.

As for an unlimited supply of fuel, while deuterium is easy enough to obtain, tritium is a different story. Several fusion schemes call for extracting it in a fission reaction between lithium and neutrons emitted in the fusion process. And tritium’s radioactivity will require special attention.

Then again, there are other fusion techniques, such as the “aneutronic” approach under development at LPP, Tri-Alpha Energy and elsewhere, that use different processes and elements.


And of course there’s no guarantee that Lockheed will manage to do what all fusion projects have failed at so far: harnessing more continuous energy than what goes into the reaction in the first place.

To get there will require a top notch blend of science, engineering and money. On the money front, it is interesting to note that Chase presented in a Google forum. Google itself has made significant investments in sustainable energy including solar, wind and geothermal. One would assume it is contemplating nuclear.

Along the same lines, it was a venture capitalist, Steve Jurvetson, who broke the news about Chase’s Lockheed presentation last week – on the Flickr website. Juvertson is managing director of Silicon Valley VC firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, whose investment portfolio includes technology standouts such as Tesla Motors, SpaceX and Hotmail.

As I noted in my CBS SmartPlanet blog earlier today, Jurvetson said nothing about backing the Lockheed project. But in the grand slam, home run oriented world of venture capital, you’ve got to believe that the possibility of solving fusion would keep guys like Jurvetson swinging. General Fusion and Tri-Alpha have already drawn VC funds.

If the money bags are smart and broad in their thinking, they will also be looking at some of the fission alternatives. Fifteen percent of a thorium molten salt reactor company, anyone?

The hidden faces of fusion power

Posted by Mark Halper on January 28th, 2013 CEO Jeff Bezos has invested in General Fusion, one of a clutch of small, private companies pursing fusion power.

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.”


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.

Fusion peacenik Eric Lerner, president of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics in New Jersey, wants to           collaborate with aneutronic fusion experts in Iran.

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.


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.


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 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?


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 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.

Is the nuclear fusion “joke” having the last laugh

Posted by Laurence O'Hagan on September 16th, 2012

A global collaboration between China, Russia, Japan, India, South Korea and the United States, is making notable headway in building a demonstration power plant.  ITER is “the world’s largest and most advanced experimental nuclear fusion reactor” in Cadarache, France, currently scheduled to start operation in 2030.

Indian, Russian and US companies will supply components and services for the experimental reactor.

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