The World Is One Step Closer To Commercial Nuclear Fusion
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is the largest nuclear fusion experiment in the world. The mega-project is a collaboration funded and implemented by seven members: the European Union, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States, with the United Kingdom and Switzerland participating through the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). A massive constituency that represents a total of 35 countries, half the world’s citizens, and a whopping 85% of global GDP. The project, which is a massive tokamak that began construction last year, spans multiple projects 42 hectares in Saint Paul-lez-Durance, southern France – about the size of 60 soccer fields. This gigantic mega-project is considered to be one of the best means of mankind to achieve commercializable nuclear fusion. While nuclear fusion has been achieved before, it has always used significantly more energy than it produced. Fusing atoms, the process that powers our sun, is many times more powerful than splitting atoms – the process currently used in nuclear power generation. In addition, nuclear fusion can be achieved without emitting greenhouse gases or using radioactive nuclear fuel. This process creates hazardous waste that has been threatening human health for millennia – not to mention a huge financial burden on the US Taxpayers who finance the maintenance.
For these reasons, nuclear fusion was considered to be that holy grail of clean energy. And just like the Holy Grail itself, commercial nuclear fusion has proven to be as inaccessible as it is tempting. Projects like ITER have poured tens of billions of dollars into potentially world-changing technology, but generating net energy has so far proven elusive – until now.
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And the people who have just shown that their nuclear fusion model can achieve net electricity are opposing ITER as much as it can. Their breakthrough shows that the key to nuclear fusion may not be in massive mega-projects, but in a much, much smaller package. Researchers from San Diego, California’s General Atomics DIII-D National Fusion Facility, just released one paper in Nuclear Fusion shows that their new concept of a “compact nuclear fusion device” can achieve 200 megawatts (MW) net electricity after the energy costs of the fusion process by using relatively small, self-sufficient tokamaks operated with pressurized plasma.
The pressurized plasma component is key. Achieving high plasma density “means more energy for your money, takes up less space in the tokamak itself, and increases its relative energy output,” according to Popular Mechanics reported in this week. In the scientists’ own words: “This physics-based approach leads to new insights and a new understanding of reactor optimization. In particular, the leverage of high plasma density is identified, which increases fusion performance and self-directed “bootstrap currents” to reduce current drive requirements and enable high pressure net current on a compact scale. “
If everything goes according to plan, DIII-D, the largest nuclear fusion research facility in the United States, would be the first fusion power plant in history to generate more energy through fusion than was consumed in the fusion process itself. It’s hard to overstate how important this breakthrough would be and what a huge leap forward it represents. Currently, the best ratio of energy production that can be achieved with an existing nuclear fusion facility is only 67% of energy consumption.
While we are closer to commercial nuclear fusion than ever before, we still have a long way to go. The DIII-D model is extremely promising, but very theoretical. It’s not a blueprint, but a roadmap for future research and modeling. “While a traditional tokamak generating net power is at least 9-14 years away, a pressurized tokamak is almost certainly further away,” reports Popular Mechanics. Until then, it is difficult to say which form of nuclear fusion will be most effective and which project will be top priority. But no matter who wins it Fusion racesIn a commercial, scalable, and potentially infinitely clean energy scenario, we are all winners.
By Haley Zaremba for Oil Genealogie
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