Posts Tagged ITER

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.

FUSION’S PROMISE

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.

IN AND OUT

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.

FLiBe’S FUSION HISTORY

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. 

The UK embarks on its alternative nuclear venture, hat in hand

Posted by Mark Halper on March 29th, 2013

Beddington RoadmapAnnounce Halper

Chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington “cannot see a future” for UK energy without nuclear, but says that the new nuclear R&D programme will need more funding.

Watching a panel of top British scientists set the UK on the road to new forms of nuclear power this week looked a bit like a scene from an American film where an impoverished farmer puts his son on a bus with a five-dollar bill to start life anew in the big city.

There were plenty of wise words from the scientists – led by the government’s outgoing chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington – who were making public their year-long study and recommendations on nuclear research and development. There was that intriguing mix of promise and uncertainty.

As a bonus, there was even action, when over in a separate location government ministers announced they had taken some of the scientific advice to heart and were implementing measures to support new nuclear R&D.

But as with the underwhelming fiver handed over by the father, there was an unconvincing amount of money. The centrepiece investment was a £15 million starter kit to encourage industry, academia and government to work together – hardly an amount that will construct, say, a thorium molten salt reactor.

No doubt the vision and early groundwork was there, put forth by the scientists who besides Beddington included – among others – David MacKay, the chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC); John Perkins, the chief scientific adviser to the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS); and Robin Grimes, the chief scientific adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

NO FUTURE WITHOUT NUCLEAR 

Beddington said at the London gathering that he “cannot see a future” for the UK energy sector without nuclear.

“If it’s going to meet its obligations for greenhouse gas emissions and at the same time have some degree of resilience in the system, there has to be a significant component for nuclear,” noted Beddington, before he revealed the recommendations of a study that goes by various names including “Nuclear R&D Roadmap.”

The roadmap helped shape the simultaneous government announcement led by BIS and joined by DECC of a nuclear “industrial strategy.”

The strategy included £15 million for research at three institutions that will bring together government, academia and industrial interests – key in a deregulated energy environment like the UK, where market forces rather than government runs the energy sector.

It also included the expansion of DECC’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) into a full-fledged central government research and advisory institution.

MacKay Roadmap Halper4

DECC’s David MacKay says that in the highest nuclear scenario, nuclear could contribute as much as 86 percent of Britain’s electricity, possibly through a variety of reactor types.

NNL is a government owned, commercially operated group that has primarily conducted contract research programs. Its chief science and technology officer Graham Fairhall was part of the 6-person panel that presented the roadmap. NNL’s managing director Paul Howarth was another of the roadmap’s authors, as was Andrew Sherry, the director of the Rolls-Royce-backed Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester. Sherry participated on this week’s panel.

(For a full list of the report authors, click here and go to “Annex B”).

The scientists urged the development of alternative nuclear technologies if the country is to choose the more nuclear-intensive of the government’s proposed scenarios for cutting British CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2050.

DECC’s MacKay said that in a high nuclear scenario with 75 gigawatts of nuclear capacity, nuclear could provide up to 86 percent of the UK’s electricity, providing 525 terawatt hours (tWh) per year out of a total of 610 tWh, a level he noted is “comparable to France.” Nuclear today provides about 18 percent of the UK’s electricity.

“Clearly I think that if we’re going to be thinking about a significant expansion of nuclear capacity as we move toward our goal in 2050 of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, we need to keep options open,” Beddington said. “And part of those options is … having the R&D to think about taking it forward.”

NUCLEAR VARIETY SHOW

That “R&D” includes the development of a number of unconventional nuclear reactor types, elaborated MacKay, who noted that, “there are a variety of ways of delivering 75 gigawatts of nuclear.”  Among the alternatives that he and others mentioned: reactors such as “fast” reactors that can burn nuclear waste in a “closed fuel cycle”, molten salt reactors, thorium-fueled reactors, and fusion.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because I broke the story of the then forthcoming roadmap here on the Weinberg blog nearly two months ago.  I subsequently tipped it in The Guardian and on my CBS SmartPlanet blog.

During the course of their year-long study, the Beddington crew gave ongoing advice to the government. That has already resulted in action, as BIS secretary Vince Cable and his DECC counterpart Ed Davey announced the £15 million for coordinated industry, academic and government nuclear research at NNL, Dalton, and at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy near Oxford.

The government’s BIS-led “industrial strategy” announcement also noted that BIS has provided £18 million to 35 different nuclear R&D projects, including £6 million to OC Robotics, a Bristol, England company that makes a robot controlled laser cutting tool for decommissioning reactors (important for taking down old sites, but not a direct step toward new, alternative reactor technologies).

To further help coordinate industry, academia and government – a theme that the panel repeatedly emphasized – BIS and DECC announced an alphabet soup of agencies that will work under the government’s recently formed Nuclear Industry Council.

The new Nuclear Innovation Research Advisory Board (NIRAB) carries on the work of Beddington’s ad hoc Nuclear Research and Development Advisory Board, which wrote the advisory report. Another new group, the Nuclear Innovation Research Office (NIRO), will reside at NNL to advance NIRAB’s work.

Perkins Roadmap Announce Halper

BIS’ John Perkins hopes for much more industry, academia and government collaboration, including between fission and fusion research.

The government stated in its BIS-led announcement that, “It is keen to explore opportunities to back future reactor designs, including the feasibility of launching a small modular reactor (SMR) R&D programme to ensure that the UK is a key partner of any new reactor design for the global market.”

On a related note, the Beddington advisory panel recommended that the UK join SMR development efforts with the U.S. where the Department of Energy (DOE) has a $450 million SMR development programme.

“There’s a potential synergy by working with the Department of Energy in the USA, which is actually setting up a fairly large programme with significant finance in it,” said Beddington.  “In a sense we can work with them, and that is rather attractive. It generates a potential for piggybacking on work that’s going to be done in working closely with the Department of Energy.”

SMRs provide utilities and other end users with lower cost options for adding incremental power, and provide cleaner and lower cost energy in remote areas, where dirty and expensive diesel generators typically serve.

While SMR designs come in conventional uranium-fueled water-cooled varieties, many of the alternative reactors such as molten salt, pebble beds and fast reactors lend themselves to small form factors. In fact various fusion companies are also trying to develop small fusion reactors.

FUSION MEETS FISSION

BIS scientific adviser Perkins described fusion “as a long term opportunity, where the UK has a significant position,” given its research at Culham, which participates in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) fusion project in Cadarache, France. Perkins pointed out that, “there are crossovers in R&D between fusion research and fission research,” as both involve developing materials that can withstand intensive neutron bombardment.

At the scientific advisers’ press conference, Beddington said it is too early to choose any one SMR technology.

Other recommendations by the scientific advisers included that Britain:

  • Rejoin the international Generation IV International Forum on nuclear development
  • Participate in EU and other spent fuel recycling research
  • Invest in “closed fuel” cycles and reactors that don’t require constant replenishing of fuel as conventional reactors do
  • Work on nuclear development with other countries including key partners France, the U.S., China, India, Japan and South Korea. (Such as with NNL’s recently announced £12.5 million project at the Jules Horowitz test reactor in France)
  • Invest in nuclear fuel fabrication and infrastructure
  • Develop exportable nuclear expertise

Back to my farmer’s analogy.

That £15 million is a good start. But like junior’s five-spot, it’s barely a token in an industry that the government this week valued at £1 trillion globally.

Serious development of alternative reactors will require serious money. To single out just one example, anyone I’ve ever talked to about building a thorium molten salt reactor sets the ultimate development cost in the billions of dollars. The £15 million pales next to that. So does the £12.5 million that DECC’s NNL two weeks ago said it was investing in the Jules Horowitz test reactor in France, which to be facetious, could buy some pumps and valves and several cases of Chateau Pétrus, but won’t come anywhere near getting the job done.

Grimes Roadmap Panel Halper2

Foreign Office’s Robin Grimes expects an additional £10 million next year for irradiation studies.

Nonetheless, these are undoubtedly significant developments.

Beddington called this week’s announcement “an important and exciting first step,” that “will reverse the years of decline in taking nuclear R&D seriously.”

And additional government funding appears set for next year, when Grimes anticipates another £10 million for irradiation studies.

At some point, though, those numbers will have to grow by an order of magnitude.

“We probably do need to up the investment in nuclear R&D,” Beddington said. “Unless we get that, I have concerns that there are issues around the nuclear program. But we’ve set out a fairly comprehensive R&D roadmap which I think will have an implication of additional money.”

CHINA ENVY

Given that the UK handed over real control of its energy sector to the market 20-some years ago in Prime Minister Thatcher’s privatization movement, the hope might have to be that the newly strengthened industry-academia-government collaboration instigates more financial interest from industry.

To make up an example: How about if BP invests in SMR development? It’s not so far fetched. Oil giant Shell has shown recent interest in a molten salt reactor.

In what looks like another step to help catalyze industry involvement, BIS – the government’s business department – rather than DECC, ran this week’s nuclear industrial strategy announcement. Prime Minister David Cameron echoed that same business emphasis later in the week when he gave BIS’ business minister Michael Fallon the second job of energy minister within DECC (under secretary Davey), replacing former energy minister John Hayes, who is now an adviser to Cameron.

Fallon should encourage private investment across different energy sectors, including nuclear.

Until industry ponies up large sums for nuclear R&D, the government will continue to suffer from China envy, watching Beijing pour money into nuclear R&D, which it can do because it – not the market – controls the energy sector.

Once the real funding arrives in the UK, the ride could lead somewhere. Maybe even on an electric bus powered by nuclear.

Photos by Mark Halper

The government published a number of in-depth documents this week relating to the UK’s nuclear future: 

 

 

The hidden faces of fusion power

Posted by Mark Halper on January 28th, 2013

Amazon.com 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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/sep/16/nuclear-fusion-iter-jet-forshaw

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

http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-Contracts_for_Iter_components_awarded-0410124.html

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