Saturday, April 27, 2013

Fusion Power on the Horizon

The horizon being a place you can never reach.  However, the Europeans are still working at it, and announced plans to spend another $20 billion (with a "b")  to get there.

£13bn Iter project makes breakthrough in the quest for nuclear fusion, a solution to climate change and an age of clean, cheap energy
The international nuclear fusion project – known as Iter, meaning “the way” in Latin – is designed to demonstrate a new kind of nuclear reactor capable of producing unlimited supplies of cheap, clean, safe and sustainable electricity from atomic fusion.

If Iter demonstrates that it is possible to build commercially-viable fusion reactors then it could become the experiment that saved the world in a century threatened by climate change and an expected three-fold increase in global energy demand.

This week the project gained final approval for the design of the most technically challenging component – the fusion reactor’s “blanket” that will handle the super-heated nuclear fuel.
"If" being the key waffle word in this passage.
“It is the largest scientific collaboration in the world. In fact, the project is so complex we even had to invent our own currency – known as the Iter Unit of Account – to decide how each country pays its share,” says Carlos Alejaldre, Iter’s deputy director responsible for safety.
 Because the Euro has worked out so well...
“We’ve passed from the design stage to being a construction project. We will have to show it is safe. If we cannot convince the public that this is safe, I don’t think nuclear fusion will be developed anywhere in the world,” Dr Alejaldre said. “A Fukushima-like accident is impossible at Iter because the fusion reaction is fundamentally safe. Any disturbance from ideal conditions and the reaction will stop. A runaway nuclear reaction and a core meltdown are simply not possible,” he said.
That is one advantage to fusion for sure, but with lots of neutrons whizzing around, I'm sure there's lots of neutron activation and creation of radioactive materials in the unit itself, much the way there is in a fission reactor. And remind me again how many people died at Fukushima from radiation?  Oh, zero you say
Several experimental tokamak reactors around the world, including one at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, have shown nuclear fusion is theoretically possible, but the giant tokamak at Iter will be the first to generate more power than it needs to attain the very high temperatures required for nuclear fusion...It is the first experimental fusion reactor to receive a nuclear operating licence because of its power-generating capacity. For every 50 megawatts of electricity it uses, it should generate up to 500mw of power output in the form of heat.
Will be, being the key words.  So they haven't yet achieved break even yet.

Fusion has been the "energy of the future" since before since before I was born.  This time line is sobering:
1929: Scientists use Einstein’s equation E=mc² to predict release of large amounts of energy by fusing atomic nuclei together.
1939: German-born physicist Hans Bethe, pictured, demonstrates that nuclear fusion powers stars.
1950: Andrei Sakharov and Igor Tamm in the USSR propose a “tokamak” fusion reactor.
Note that I was born in 1951.  So, literally they have been talking about fusion power since I was born.
1956: Tokamak programme begins in strict secrecy.
1969: Tokamak results declassified, astounding Western scientists.
1973: Design work begins on Joint European Torus (Jet), a tokamak-type reactor in Europe.
1983: Jet completed at Culham, Oxfordshire, on time and to budget.
1985: USSR proposes an international fusion-energy project.
1988: Design work begins for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, later known as simply Iter. 1992: Design phase begins for Iter.
1997: Jet produces 16 megawatts of fusion power, the current world record.
2005: Cadarache, France, chosen as Iter site.
2021-22: “First plasma” scheduled, when ionised gases will be injected into the Iter tokamak.
2027-28: Iter “goes nuclear” with injection of tritium.
2030s: First demonstration fusion reactor to produce electricity for grid.
2050s onwards: First commercial nuclear fusion power plants.
2051: Sierra Club holds protests at first commercial fusion plant
I may have added that last one.

It must be wonderful working on a science project where the ultimate proof of concept is generations away.  You never have to show any actual progress.

I'm certainly looking forward to cooking my first cup of Raman Noodles using fusion power...  Faster, please. Literally.

I really do want fusion power to succeed.  To say I'm frustrated with the slow pace would be an understatement.

1 comment:

  1. It's get fusion or go back to the dark ages. No real alternatives...