Safer, more efficient, fusion-generated electricity is on the horizon

Oct 12, 2012 by Joseph Mcclain
An artist's conception of what the right half of the DIII-D tokamak looks like when energized with plasma.

Fusion-fueled power generation has been the energy of the future for several decades.

"There's always been this sense that fusion is fifty years away," Saskia Mordijck says, but she adds that the horizon for safer and more efficient fusion-based in our homes is really, truly getting closer.

Mordijck, a research assistant professor based in the Computer Science Department at William & Mary (with adjunct positions in physics and applied science), has received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to continue her investigation of fusion energy. She says most people are only vaguely aware of how fusion works and therefore have little idea of the advantages is offers over "traditional" nuclear power.

"Fusion energy is the exact opposite of what we have across the river in Surry where we have a nuclear power plant," she explained. "In a nuclear power plant they actually bombard their material with small particles so it splits apart so there is energy released—that's fission."

To accomplish fusion, she says, you take two very small particles and heat them at high enough temperatures so that they fuse together. "As a result of their fusing together they actually will release energy," Mordijck explained. "This is all in Einstein's famous equation E=mc2. That's one most people recognize even if they have not had any physics."

Many advantages over fission

When it comes to , fusion has a number of advantages over fission and many of them relate to safety. Mordijck says that the usual causes of anxiety over generation just don't exist with fusion. Fukushima/Chernobyl-type incidents are not part of the equation.

"The nice thing about a fusion reaction is that if somehow it would go out of control, it would just stop itself automatically. If a fission reaction goes out of control, it can really go out of control," Mordijck explained. "You can't stop it and it actually might go into a nuclear meltdown."

The second set of fusion-over-fission benefits centers around radioactive waste. Mordijck acknowledges that certain amount of waste is inescapable, but a fusion power plant would generate only a fraction of the amount of nuclear waste that even the most efficient fission plants produce. Not only is the amount smaller, but waste from a fusion plant also stays dangerous for much shorter periods of time.

"In a fission power plant we create a lot of radioactive waste which lasts for a very long time. It lasts longer than most things that we have here on Earth, and so we have to store it somewhere. We cannot clean it any way or form," Mordijck explained. "Whereas in a fusion power plant, the lifetime of this waste is very short. After 50 to 100 years, it will be completely gone and it will not be more radioactive than the surrounding environment and it won't be able to contaminate anything."

Funding cuts hinder progress

Fusion energy has been working in the sun, where the fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium has been keeping us warm for years. Despite all the potential advantages, fusion remains an experimental technology and an underfunded one at that, Mordijck says.

"When people say that fusion always seems to be perpetually fifty years off, we fusion scientists point out that our funding has been cut every single year, so it's hard to make any progress," she noted.

Mordijck says that to get fusion past the experimental stage, she and her fellow scientists must solve several problems—scientific and engineering. One of the knottiest sets of problems involves thermal transfer. The challenges begin with the necessity of having something very hot next to something very cold.

"So, imagine you're heating something to temperatures that are hotter than the sun, but two or three feet away you need super-cooling magnets," she said. The high temperatures are necessary to induce fusion and the magnets are needed to contain the product of the fusion, a state of matter known as plasma.

Once fusion is achieved, the problem becomes how to get the energy out of the plasma. Both coal-fired and fission use the heat generated to boil water to spin turbine blades. Fusion, generating temperatures beyond the sun's, offers a problem of too much heat too quickly for most materials to handle.

Containing the plasma

Mordjick's own research focuses on containing the plasma by using magnetic fields. She explains that solar plasma is contained by the sun's massive gravity.

"But we can't create a sun here on earth," she says, "so we do it through magnetic fields. But the plasma has a tendency to leak out, so you lose particles. I've been working on how you lose those particles."

Fusion-control experiments are most often conducted in instruments known as tokamaks. A tokamak is a chamber shaped like a donut, designed to accommodate the magnetic fields needed to contain the plasma. Mordijck has worked extensively with the General Atomics DIII-D tokamak in San Diego. She notes that DIII-D is one of the leading tokamaks in the world, but said that newer and more advanced machines are being constructed in well-funded Asian programs.

Among physicists, the movement of particles is known as "transport," and Mordijck would say that she studies "perturbative transport" to investigate the loss of particles that are supposed to be confined by the magnetic fields of a tokamak. It boils down to an attempt to measure a phenomenon that is essentially immeasurable.

"It is impossible to measure transport," she explains. "So you have to kind of infer it."

She said that she can't even distinguish between the two types of transport—convective and diffusive—when she prepares computational models of particle loss, let alone in the control room of a tokamak. This is where the "perturbative" part comes in. Mordijck designs her experiments to introduce a new element, such as a gas puff, into the experiment.

"We add more gas to the experiment, but we do it in very short bursts with some time in between," she says."

The gas penetrates the plasma quickly and comes out slowly. Mordijck monitors the gas and says the perturbative effect of the gas on the plasma gives her insight into the particle transport.

"From the changes you can see in the measurements, you can infer the convective and the diffusive values," she explains.

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User comments : 43

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boater805
2 / 5 (33) Oct 12, 2012
Another meaningless puff article with no facts and simply hyping the "give me more money in grants" mantra of those that first hail fusion as the wonder power that makes stars shine. It does, its powered by CONVERTING gravitational energy into confinement energy driving the fusion though (Something that is not possible on earth). So the efforts on earth are not the same as "the process which powers the stars" at all.
The entire money sump of magnetic confinement fusion power for net energy production is a dream that will never be realized on this planet.
Deathclock
4 / 5 (27) Oct 12, 2012
boater... in stars gravity serves as the force to compress the gasses enough to initiate fusion... on Earth we have trillion watt lasers... We have already ignited fusion reactions on Earth, you realize?

Your objections are infantile, and if it were that simple then hundreds of top physicists wouldn't be spending their entire lives and careers working on it. I am sure you are not in the same league as they are, why do you think your opinion matters? Do you honestly believe you know more about the topic than the worlds most intelligent and talented physicists who have been working on it, studying it, for years?

This is a classic case of delusions of grandeur, no different really than the millions of armchair quarterbacks who convince themselves that they would have lead their team to victory, if only they were on the field and not in their la-z-boy recliner...
ShotmanMaslo
3.7 / 5 (18) Oct 12, 2012
""In a fission power plant we create a lot of radioactive waste which lasts for a very long time. It lasts longer than most things that we have here on Earth, and so we have to store it somewhere. We cannot clean it any way or form," Mordijck explained."

Its incorrect that we cannot clean it in any way. Waste burning reactors such as LFTR and IFR can transmutate long-lived isotopes into short-lived ones, making the waste reach safe levels after just 300 years, instead of tens of thousands of years. In addition, these reactors would produce much less waste per unit of energy.

Generation IV nuclear fission reactors can offer almost all the benefits that fusion would offer, but are much less hard to develop. This is what we should pursue.
Benni
1.7 / 5 (11) Oct 12, 2012
The whole problem with the concept of building a fusion generating containment vessel on planet Earth is of course "containment" as pointed out in the article. Substituting "energy field" containment for "gravity field" containment, as on the sun, probably will never work because gravity fields are unaffected by temperature whereas energy field containment (photons) is continually distorted by high temperatures associated with fusion.

In short, trying to substitute "energy field containment" for "gravity field containment" will probably never work. This is because "gravity fields" do not inherently break down because they do not need a continual exterior input source for containment, energy fields are just the opposite because they are mass/energy components.

"Energy fields" break down when there is not a continual flow of energy into it for maintenance of the physical properties of the containment vessel that must be exterior to the containment vessel.
deatopmg
2.8 / 5 (5) Oct 12, 2012
The most serious problem w/ the magnetic confinement of the D/T fusion reaction is the massive flux of neutrons. No known material can stand up to this flux for more than several months w/o losing it's physical integrity. Solving this problem is far more difficult than reaching/maintaining a breakeven reaction.

The publicly supported magnetic confinement industry is well adept at both sweeping this problem under the rug and keeping a portion of any funds from being used to investigate other, non-neutron generating fusion schemes.
plaasjaapie
1.5 / 5 (13) Oct 12, 2012
I agree with boater. This is a puff piece with plenty of misleading spin to it. Not worth the text space wasted on it.
El_Nose
4.6 / 5 (5) Oct 12, 2012
@benni -- what in the world are you talking about?? plasmas which are very hot ion fields -- think of the flame of a match, which is a small plasma field -- are contained by magnetic fields. Because they are ions and have charge they bend to magentic field lines -- that is why a tokamak is shaped like a torus and the outside is surrounded by superconducting magnets --

at least look up the words you don't know before commenting

--

and yes there is nothing in this article that is new information -- it is literally a waste of space on a science article site.
Husky
5 / 5 (3) Oct 12, 2012
thiss article make it sound if fusion is like 60 years away....
jimbo92107
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 12, 2012
I'm trying to plug my computer into the blue sky, but it's not working...
robert_steinhaus
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 12, 2012
PACER Fusion - While there are a (large) number of competing fusion concepts, there is only one system that actually produces Gigawatt levels of net energy and practical fusion power.
U-233 Ignited PACER Fusion -
There is a tested, practical, fission ignited fusion technology devised by America's most skillful and experienced nuclear designers at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Labs that produces net energy at Gigawatt levels and requires no technical breakthroughs to build. That technology is called PACER fusion, and in the Lawrence Livermore implementation, it is a molten salt U-233/Thorium assisted fusion technology that burns abundantly available nuclear fuels that can be extracted from sea water while producing only non-radioactive helium as nuclear waste.
DoubleD
not rated yet Oct 12, 2012
"You can't stop it and it actually might go into a nuclear meltdown."

Guessing she doesn't know much about negative moderator temperature coefficents.
Scottingham
4 / 5 (3) Oct 12, 2012
We cannot clean it any way or form," Mordijck explained

bullshit...you can use 98% of the 'waste' as fuel in 4th gen reactors.
nappy
1.7 / 5 (7) Oct 12, 2012
There is absolutely nothing in this article that leads me to believe that we are any closer to controlled exothermic fusion than we were 10 years ago. A fluff piece obvioulsy written for politicians to get more stolen tax dollars to throw away. It should not be on a science site.
PPihkala
1.8 / 5 (5) Oct 12, 2012
for safer and more efficient fusion-based electricity in our homes is really, truly getting closer

Quite ironic choice of words. Yeah, we will see fusion in our homes when we get one of those coming LENR devices like E-CAT in. High temperature fusion, if we are lycky, can maybe one day be seen as a big industrial complex like today's fission plants. But my bet is that LENR devices will kill it before it is ready for use.
ryggesogn2
2.8 / 5 (11) Oct 12, 2012
Fusion is always 'on the horizon'.
Benni
2.3 / 5 (9) Oct 12, 2012
@benni -- what in the world are you talking about?? plasmas which are very hot ion fields -- think of the flame of a match, which is a small plasma field -- are contained by magnetic fields. Because they are ions and have charge they bend to magentic field lines -- that is why a tokamak is shaped like a torus and the outside is surrounded by superconducting magnets --

at least look up the words you don't know before commenting

--

and yes there is nothing in this article that is new information -- it is literally a waste of space on a science article site.


That it is "literally a waste of space on a science article site" is essentially what I said. Gravity cannot be "bottled up" to provide encapsulation for energy as can be done on stellar masses,
therefore any other means for doing it is almost certainly forever out of reach. Your matchstick analogy is silly because it is not remotely analogous to temperatures encountered in fusion processes.
Neurons_At_Work
5 / 5 (3) Oct 12, 2012
This article sounds suspiciously like a high school report I wrote on this very subject. In fact, if I did not know better, I'd say much of it was plagiarized--especially the part, "the horizon for safer and more efficient fusion-based electricity in our homes is really, truly getting closer." That is word for word what I wrote. I got an 'A' on that report at the time; problem is I'm currently 54 years old. Guess the horizon is never quite as close as it seems.
Judgeking
2 / 5 (4) Oct 12, 2012
They've been trying to make these tokamaks work for 50 years. After reading this, seems like they're still stuck on the same old problems. Time to try something else, magnetic bottles, something.
robert_steinhaus
2.3 / 5 (3) Oct 13, 2012
PACER Fusion - Practical Fusion which produces Gigawatt levels of net energy - goo.gl/NLtlR
(It is not necessary to wait 50 years for fusion – LLNL Field Test Division has been able to reliably produce controlled fusion energy on demand since the Ivy Mike nuclear test in 1952)
Egleton
1 / 5 (4) Oct 13, 2012
Get a copy of The Limits to Growth model. Play with it. See if you can do better than I.
I always crash the population at AD2500.
They do not have an infinite horizon of time to get this energy thing right.
They are stringing us a line. But the game is up boys and girls. No matter how you shout and stamp your foot, LENR is coming.
We are trying to raise a pittance to manufacture demonstration models of real repeatable devices from real scientists and engineers to blow away this "that has been debunked" urban myth.
Professor Hagelstein has solved the riddle of the theoretical model on his 282 attempt.
ubavontuba
1.4 / 5 (9) Oct 13, 2012
Fusion Confusion
by Ubavontuba:

Fusion confusion, infusion and more
Funding required, greenbacks for sure
Hydrogen heated with lasers that cook
Energy forever, if they get it to work

Polywell, Pinch, Tokamak and more
Fusion alternatives they wish to explore
Billions of dollars spent on a whim
"Hurry!" I say, "...my bulbs grow dim!"

Consumption presumption, gumption and more
Heat from a source, like from the sun's core
"It's coming soon." they assert yet again
Here I'm wondering, will I be here then?

Conflagration fiction, confliction and more
It passes from fact to myth then to lore
"Unlimited energy." I hear them yet say
Just burn the money ...it's cheaper that way
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (4) Oct 13, 2012
The hot nuclear fusion is limited with Lawson's criterions, for example. This criterion essentially says, if you decrease the temperature of the fusion, then you should prolonge the time. Hot fusion uses the increasing of temperature for increasing yield, the cold fusion prolonges the time instead. The decreasing of temperature is not linear effect for large atoms, because the atoms of nickel or palladium are surrounded with many electrons, which decrease the repulsive Coulombic barrier for another protons. It's visible with the ease, in which these atoms form metallic hydrides after all: the protons can migrate beneath the surface of electronic shells and they can get an effective negative charge there.
zaxxon451
3 / 5 (2) Oct 14, 2012
Interesting how tax dollars are only "stolen" when they're spent on something we don't agree with.

There is absolutely nothing in this article that leads me to believe that we are any closer to controlled exothermic fusion than we were 10 years ago. A fluff piece obvioulsy written for politicians to get more stolen tax dollars to throw away. It should not be on a science site.

TheGhostofOtto1923
3.2 / 5 (24) Oct 14, 2012
"The nice thing about a fusion reaction is that if somehow it would go out of control, it would just stop itself automatically."

-Yeah we've been through this. Tokamaks can explode catastrophically, destroying much of the plant and $billions in damages.

"Significant system faults may cause a tokamak discharge to rapidly terminate, or "disrupt," losing its entire plasma current in a few hundredths of a second. The rapid drop in current during a disruption can accelerate electrons in the plasma to near the speed of light, forming a beam of high-energy runaway electrons."

-This would breach containment vessels, expose the molten lithium or sodium blanket to air, and destroy the facility.

Unless of course they can find a(nother) innovative solution.

Bulk plasma storage, manipulation, and transport will be essential for many future technologies. Tokamaks and stellerators are the only way to do this. The public is being sold on free energy in order to develop this capability.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (26) Oct 14, 2012
I always crash the population at AD2500.
They do not have an infinite horizon of time to get this energy thing right.
This is an ancient and well-understood equation. War, famine, and plague are the hidden factors which have always been used to preserve civilization in spite of it.

These Factors can be unimaginably Beneficial if they can be Planned and Executed at the Proper Time, in order to achieve the Proper Result.

They can be, and they are. Our civilization and our existence are the direct result of this magnificent Process.
http://www.bibleg...esiastes 3&version=NIV
Estevan57
1.9 / 5 (27) Oct 14, 2012
The National Ignition Facility in the US and Laser Mégajoule in France use Inertial (laser) confinement.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.9 / 5 (25) Oct 14, 2012
The National Ignition Facility in the US and Laser Mégajoule in France use Inertial (laser) confinement.
Uh so what? What does this have to do with the article esai? You just trying to get your belly rubbed?
Estevan57
1.9 / 5 (27) Oct 15, 2012
Unless of course they can find a(nother) innovative solution.

Bulk plasma storage, manipulation, and transport will be essential for many future technologies. Tokamaks and stellerators are the only way to do this.
- That dumbass Otto.

It would be a response to your own post, Otto.

How could it NOT be related to the article? Read the article dumbass, its not about famine or religion!

Just tryin to help with that ignorance problem you seem to have lately. Tokamaks being the Ford Pinto of plasma confinement and all.
If you want to rub something do it in private, you nasty creature.

And your buddies war, plague, and famine are related to the article how?

Dumbass.
Urgelt
5 / 5 (3) Oct 15, 2012
I'll have to row along with some of the other commenters here. Nothing in the article lends weight to the breathless excitement of the lede. It's a fluff piece.

Recommendation: go back to Mordijck and get her to explain *why* working fusion power is closer than most people think. If she thinks it is, it would be worth communicating her point of view.

Hint: it's not about the funding streams. It's about our ability to engineer containment systems, sustain reactions, transport heat energy, and do so with durable mechanisms and reasonable costs. If we're close to to a feasible solution set, the public would like to know it.
rbrtwjohnson
1 / 5 (1) Oct 15, 2012
Electrostatic fusion machine is far more energy-efficient, much closer to harness nuclear fusion energy with net gain to produce directly an awesome quantitative of electric power with no neutron emission and no radioactive waste. http://youtu.be/ro5-QYqqxzM
rbrtwjohnson
not rated yet Oct 15, 2012
Electrostatic fusion is essentially the principle of fuzor, which works with very low yield. The atom nuclei are tiny and they're difficult to collide them effectively when they're repulsing mutually.

but constrained by magnetic fields, the atom nuclei are easier to fuse with each other. Just imagine, billions and billions of atoms in few micrograms, and even perhaps catalyzed by their own electrons to overcome the Coulomb barrier, the probability of fusion reactions is effectively high.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.3 / 5 (23) Oct 15, 2012
Electrostatic fusion is essentially the principle of fuzor, which works with very low yield. The atom nuclei are tiny and they're difficult to collide them effectively when they're repulsing mutually.
Actually it's a complex fusion-fission process using boron.

"The direct conversion process is extremely efficient. About 95% of the [beryllium] fission energy is turned into electricity."
http://www.emc2fu...News.pdf

-But polywell has not been able to secure sufficient funding for a proof-of-concept machine of adequate size.
chromosome2
3.7 / 5 (3) Oct 15, 2012
Seriously, all the other articles about advancements in fusion technology on this site and everyone's all pessimistic? Dude, there's an article on here every other day about some breakthrough with mathematical modelling of plasma behavior or means of maintaining higher plasma stability.. ITER is having its foundations laid right *now*. This stuff is getting built. Sure, it takes money, what doesn't. It'll be worth it, easily.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (5) Oct 15, 2012
Seriously, all the other articles about advancements in fusion technology on this site and everyone's all pessimistic?
This is a realism: as we remember, how long all these articles are already here. Only stupid and naive people don't use their memory and act atemporaly like blind particles of gas.
This stuff is getting built. Sure, it takes money, what doesn't.
The ITER will never work (in the same way, like the NIF) - and I hope, it will not be ever constructed. Such a nonsensical adventurous projects may emerge only in socialistic and bureaucratic European Union, which is already separated from practical reality in many other areas.

The naive people like you are just helping for the safe life the extensive lobby of physicists and private companies, involved in the ITER project.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.3 / 5 (23) Oct 15, 2012
The ITER will never work (in the same way, like the NIF) - and I hope, it will not be ever constructed
Oh come on. It WILL work in the same fashion as every tokamak has already worked, in advancing our knowledge about how to work with plasma. It is already working by initiating preparatory projects in labs around the world in preparation for it.

Will you not acknowledge that plasma tech will be central to our future? And that we need to start now to develop it? And that this effort requires investment in large machines like ITER and ITF? And that this is important enough that the public be promised whatever it takes in order to garner their support for these multi-billion $$ projects? And that it might even require the active suppression of competing tech like LENR?

No Tech Before its Time. Tokamaks and inertial confinement R&D today will give us antimatter drive tomorrow. It will give us knowledge of plasma and spur the development of materials and methods of controlling it.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (5) Oct 15, 2012
It WILL work in the same fashion as every tokamak has already worked
Which means, it didn't produce an useful energy. But the lobby of researchers and private companies involved needs the continuity of their jobs and salaries and the consequences are corresponding.
No Tech Before its Time
Which Time? Do you mean the time before or after the WWW III? We observed cold fusion before fifty years. From this time we devastated nature, many people died of powerty and now we are facing another nuclear war for the rest of oil sources. And why exactly? Because close group of physicists has its own research priorities and it lacks the public feedback... Lets face the reality from its general long-term perspective.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.3 / 5 (23) Oct 15, 2012
Which means, it didn't produce an useful energy.
Information is more important than energy.
Which Time? Do you mean the time before or after the WWW III?
The next war will only happen if it is SUPPOSED to happen. We all paid very good money for it. It ought to be a very Fruitful one.
many people died of powerty
-This is both directly and indirectly caused by religion...the result of forced procreation and the resulting overpopulation. Mainly. Overwhelmingly. Providing more resources only increases the SCALE of the problem.
Because close group of physicists has its own research priorities and it lacks the public feedback...
It has all the public feedback it can generate. including yours.
rossr
not rated yet Oct 16, 2012
Is it true that very large quantities of lithium would be consumed in the fusion process?
rbrtwjohnson
not rated yet Oct 17, 2012
Is it true that very large quantities of lithium would be consumed in the fusion process?

It is not always true.
There are other types of fusion reactions.
http://en.wikiped...c_fusion
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.3 / 5 (23) Oct 17, 2012
There are other types of fusion reactions.
http://en.wikiped...c_fusion
Molten lithium is proposed for breeding tritium and converting fast neutron energy to heat.

"In a production setting, the neutrons would be used to react with lithium in order to create more tritium. This also deposits the energy of the neutrons in the lithium, which would then be transferred to drive electrical production. The lithium neutron absorption reaction protects the outer portions of the reactor from the neutron flux. Newer designs, the advanced tokamak in particular, also use lithium inside the reactor core as a key element of the design. The plasma interacts directly with the lithium, preventing a problem known as "recycling". The advantage of this design was demonstrated in the Lithium Tokamak Experiment."

-Lithium can explode when exposed to air, making this proposal a dangerous one. Fast quench of cryo magnets or electron discharge increase potential for catastrophe.
ValeriaT
1 / 5 (5) Oct 17, 2012
Italian scientist, Francesco Celani, has built a cold fusion cell that he has shown publicly at scientific events on several occasions. It generates about 2.8 times more heat out than it takes to run it. Several groups and individuals are replicate it and building a public kit based on it. Where is the mainstream physics, which is supposed to do such a research from our taxes?
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.2 / 5 (22) Oct 17, 2012
Where is the mainstream physics, which is supposed to do such a research from our taxes?
Where is the patience, to wait for free enterprise to do for free what is would take the govt millions to do? You from some socialist country perhaps?
ziphead
1 / 5 (4) Oct 18, 2012


...ra,ra,ra,...

This is a classic case of delusions of grandeur, no different really than the millions of armchair quarterbacks who convince themselves that they would have lead their team to victory, if only they were on the field and not in their la-z-boy recliner...


angry boy