Without Fuel, the Fusion Game Is Over

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By Steven B. Krivit
July 18, 2022

Several months ago, New Energy Times broke the story that the fuel required to make energy from nuclear fusion does not exist. Fusion experts have now concurred.

The news is an astonishing contradiction to the 70-year narrative that the fuel for fusion is “abundant, virtually inexhaustible, and equally accessible to everyone.”

“No need to worry,” some fusion experts now say; there will be a way to make the fuel when it’s needed for commercial reactors. However, other fusion experts have been more realistic about the problem.

Today, I report my conversation with Tanabe Tetsuo, the editor of the book Tritium: Fuel of Fusion Reactors. I also report my interaction with Andrew Holland, the spokesman for a collection of private companies working on fusion research.

Fusion Fuel Basics

For decades, fusion scientists have been saying that there is enough fuel in ocean water to provide fusion power to humanity for billions of years. This is true only for the deuterium fuel source, an isotope of hydrogen.

Nearly all fusion reactor designs — certainly the most scientifically credible — require a 50-50 mixture of deuterium and tritium. Tritium is another isotope of hydrogen. Normal hydrogen won’t work for fusion on Earth. Deuterium alone won’t work well enough. Neither will tritium by itself.

Fusion scientists only occasionally told the public that tritium did not exist in nature as a fuel source. When they did disclose this fact, they said that sufficient quantities of enriched lithium, from which tritium could, in theory, be made, were available. They are not. Moreover, there is no environmentally acceptable method, let alone facilities based on such a method, to enrich lithium with the required levels of the lithium-6 isotope.

The Secret Leaks Out

Thiéry Pierre, a plasma physicist and senior scientist at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, in Marseille, France, was the first scientist to tell me about the absence of fusion fuel. After I published my news stories about the missing tritium and enriched lithium, Tony Donné, the program manager for EUROfusion, was the first fusion scientist to confirm my analysis.

Donné is the program manager for EUROfusion. Donné’s organization is responsible for designing the EU DEMO reactor, Europe’s successor to ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor under construction in France.

In February 2022, Donné’s colleagues published a 32-article special issue of a peer-reviewed journal discussing the DEMO design. Not one article addressed the fact that there is no non-military supply of enriched lithium-6, and thus no source of fuel for the EU DEMO or commercial fusion reactors.

Robert Louis Hirsch, the former head of the Controlled Thermonuclear Research division of the Atomic Energy Commission, was the second fusion scientist to confirm my analysis.

Tanabe Tetsuo

In June, I contacted Professor Tanabe Tetsuo, the editor of the Springer book Tritium: Fuel of Fusion Reactors. Tetsuo’s book includes contributed chapters about many facets of tritium as a fuel for fusion reactors. He and his co-authors obviously understood that tritium was scarce and that the element would need to be manmade, by breeding it from enriched lithium. However, the book says nothing about where they expect to get enriched lithium. The only thing Tetsuo had written about lithium sources applied to natural lithium, not to enriched lithium.

“Natural lithium … is quite abundant in nature when recovery of lithium from the sea water is developed,” Tetsuo wrote.

He knew that a cost-effective method of recovering lithium from seawater did not exist yet. In 2020, journalist Bob Service, writing for Science, explained that such efforts have not proved cost-effective compared to mined lithium.

I asked Tetsuo about whether he or his co-authors discussed anywhere in the book the absence of an environmentally acceptable method of producing enriched lithium. He said no.

I pointed out that he had said several times in the book that its purpose was to focus on the practical aspects needed to realize a fusion reactor as an energy source, specifically, as the title indicates, relating to the fuel.

I then asked him whether he had realized that an environmentally acceptable method to enrich lithium for fusion reactors did not exist. He initially denied that lithium enrichment was an issue.

“Various techniques for enrichment of any isotopes are well-established,” Tetsuo wrote. “The question on environmental contamination by the enrichment is dependent on the technique, but in general, it is possible without environmental contamination.”

In my previous research, I had located work by Thomas Giegerich and five co-authors about the challenges with lithium enrichment. I pointed out several facts that Giegerich et al. had stated in a slide presentation and in a peer-reviewed paper:

  1. No industrial-scale facility exists today that can meet the requirements for fusion power plants.
  2. Only the toxic mercury-based methods produce enriched lithium at high rates.
  3. Other enrichment methods have been tested in laboratories but have never reached high production values.
  4. Unavailability of lithium enrichment facilities that could meet the requirements of reactors after ITER is a threat to the success of fusion.

After providing this information to Tanabe, I asked whether he could scientifically defend his statement that “various techniques for enrichment” of lithium without environmental contamination are well-established.

“You are right,” Tanabe wrote, “I did not intend to deny the importance of Li enrichment.”

Tanabe said that the reason environmentally benign methods of enriching lithium had not yet been developed was that the only purpose for lithium-6 so far had been for nuclear bombs. He wrote that lithium enrichment for fusion at “an industrial scale will require significant research and development.”

Andrew Holland

In January, Andrew Holland, the chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based company Fusion Industry Association, gave a presentation to President Biden’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). FIA is not recognized as a tax exempt organization by the IRS, as listed in the Guidestar database, but its parent company, the American Security Project, is. Publicly available IRS filings show Holland in 2015 as a senior fellow employed by ASP and, by 2019, as secretary and chief operating officer of ASP. I knew that Holland was perpetuating the fusion fuel “sea water” claim.

Screen capture from Holland's Fusion Industry Association Web site.

Screen capture from Holland’s Fusion Industry Association Web site.

As Holland conveyed it, fusion was the panacea for all the world’s ills: “Fusion will light the darkness, provide the jobs and industrial base for the 21st century, and make for a more peaceful world.” Holland urged the council to encourage the federal government to give public money to private companies trying to commercialize fusion.

After Holland’s presentation, I spoke to the council and explained the problem. One of the PCAST members who contacted me afterward was Eric Horvitz, the chief scientific officer for Microsoft Corp.

“Thanks for the info on deuterium at the last meeting,” Horvitz wrote. “What is your high-level interest, and what is your overall assessment about prospects for fusion as feasible? Can you send a compact summary on the latter?”

I sent him my compact summary: “There’s no fuel source. The game’s over.”

I later sent a document package to the PCAST administrator, and she included this in the distribution packet to the PCAST members. It is available on the White House Web site. In my package, I also included my transcription of Holland’s presentation and fusion-related follow-up questions and answers during the meeting.

The council was not without self-interest. Maria Zuber is one of the three co-chairs. Zuber is a geophysics professor and the vice president for research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has been actively promoting, in press releases and news articles, the MIT collaboration with Commonwealth Fusion Systems since its inception. At MIT, Zuber is responsible for intellectual property, research integrity, and research relationships with the federal government. Katie Rae, an invited speaker to that PCAST meeting, is a director of Commonwealth Fusion Systems.

Holland’s Response

After I gave my presentation to the council about the non-existent fuel, Holland sent a rebuttal to the council. It’s included in the public comment packet. Holland does not have specific expertise in science, let alone nuclear science. His expertise is in government affairs and politics. We can be reasonably sure, however, that, in formulating his response, he consulted the best and brightest among his fusion industry constituents.

In his rebuttal, Holland confirmed that the fuel for nuclear fusion does not exist, but he did not use those words. Instead, he declared that “the U.S. will have stable, reliable fuel sources for fusion energy.” Nothing in Holland’s rebuttal explained how U.S. scientists planned to create or find those fuel sources.”

One statement in Holland’s rebuttal says that, for tritium, “the primary U.S. supply comes from the DOE Savannah River National Lab.”

Thirty years ago, the Savannah River Site did provide tritium to the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, also a DOE laboratory, for its Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor. Scott Shaw, a public affairs officer for SRNL, told New Energy Times that the tritium produced at the Savannah River Site will not be available for commercial applications, that it’s only for the military’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

In his rebuttal, Holland also told the council that “lithium can be extracted from ocean water, where reserves are practically unlimited.” Holland concluded with a pitch to accelerate public funding for what are now primarily private fusion efforts:

A fusion-powered economy would fundamentally end such concerns about the geopolitics of energy. Fusion turns energy from a resource that is mined or extracted to one that is manufactured. A fusion-powered future will be one where the only constraint on energy supplies and availability is the cost and availability of a manufactured good.

Holland’s claim of geopolitical energy harmony requires a vivid imagination. Five countries have 98 percent of the world’s lithium reserves, so the lithium for Holland’s fusion future would have to come from sea water. But no cost-effective way to extract lithium from sea water has been invented, despite the immense and present demand for it for batteries. After the invention of an economical sea water extraction method, Holland’s fusion future requires seven enrichment and breeding physics miracles.

As a follow-up, the White House and the Department of Energy conducted a meeting on March 17, 2022, called “Developing a Bold Vision for Commercial Fusion Energy” to promote fusion. The organizers said that “many technical achievements” have occurred. They listed the following three results from recent fusion experiments.

JET Experiment

The organizers said that Joint European Torus (JET) in the UK “doubled its 24-year-old record with a five-second, high-power pulse, limited only by the experimental hardware and not the plasma stability.”

However, the organizers didn’t explain what the “high-power” 59 MJ measurement really meant; it was just a measurement of the energy of the particles produced in the reaction last year. It had nothing to do with the energy consumed by the reaction, let alone consumed by the overall reactor.

The only measurement that will ever provide direct bearing on the practical application of fusion is net energy (or net power) produced by a reactor. In the case of JET, the reactor consumed 3,500 MJ of electricity compared with the 59 MJ of thermal energy produced with the fusion particles. The reactor didn’t produce energy; it lost 3,441 MJ of energy, electricity that it drew from the grid. This means that, in the 2021 experiments, the JET reactor lost 98 percent of the energy it needed to run. And that’s the closest a fusion reactor has ever come to breaking even.

But there’s another problem with the 2021 JET results, as shown in the blue and red curves in the image below. Although these two new experiments (DTE2 42 MJ and DTE2 59 MJ) produced fusion particles with double the energy produced in 1997 (DTE1 22 MJ), the 2021 experiments showed a consistent decrease in power over the 5-second runs. This is not a good omen. Daniel Jassby, a retired plasma physicist from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, provided more-extensive scientific examination on the new JET results in a May 2022 article.

2021 JET results (blue and red curves) compared with 1997 results (black curves)

2021 JET results (blue and red curves) compared with 1997 results (black curves)

National Ignition Facility

The organizers said that the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California “achieved an energy yield eight times higher than its previous record and reached the cusp of ignition, providing us a second fusion approach with similar physics performance as the tokamak.”

The organizers didn’t explain that, despite achieving ignition and despite running for an infinitesimal duration of one-billionth of a second, NIF — funded by U.S. taxpayers to the tune of $3.5 billion — consumed 400 MJ of energy, losing 99.7 percent of the energy it consumed.

China’s EAST Reactor

The organizers celebrated the fact that “China’s Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) sustained fusion reactions for 17 minutes at 126 million degrees Fahrenheit – five times hotter than the sun.”

The organizers didn’t explain that, in these experiments, researchers used only 100% deuterium fuel, which no credible fusion scientists think will be possible as a source of fusion energy on Earth. Although a 17-minute pulse certainly was useful to test some characteristics of the EAST reactor, power production was not one of them.

Generational Transference

In 2012, the international fusion community, through the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency, took a major step to promote fusion to younger generations. The IAEA published Fusion Physics, an 1,100-page book, intended to be “a tutorial book for post-graduate students.”

In Chapter 1, the authors made a “Case for Fusion,” based on three requirements of a new energy source. One was fuel availability.

“[It] must lead to sustainable development of the entire world, so must be based on virtually inexhaustible resources, available globally without having to depend on resources from politically unstable regions,” the authors wrote.

Here’s what the IAEA authors wrote about the fuel:

It has to be bred from lithium, which is widely available in the Earth’s crust and also in the oceans. … The fuel is therefore virtually inexhaustible and is likely to last several tens of thousands of years. Secondly, fusion fuel is readily accessible from everywhere. This gives tremendous energy security to all nations and is to be contrasted with the politically inflammable uneven distribution of fossil fuels such as oil (6% of the nations own more than 66% of the oil wealth of the world).

Let’s compare those numbers with lithium reserves: 3% of the nations in the world own more than 98% of the lithium wealth in the world.

The authors of the IAEA tome said nothing about the necessity, let alone lack, of enriched lithium. They said nothing about an effective way to harvest lithium from sea water.

To finish things off, credit is due to the following fusion scientists who, in 2020, courageously explained that, even if enriched lithium was available, there is no known way to breed tritium fast enough:

  • Mohamed Abdou, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Marco Riva, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Alice Ying, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Christian Day, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany
  • Alberto Loarte, ITER Organization
  • Baylor, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
  • Paul Humrickhouse, Idaho National Laboratory
  • Thomas F. Fuerst, Idaho National Laboratory
  • Seungyon Cho, National Fusion Research Institute, Republic of Korea
    (References and Sources)
Open Questions

In the past 70 years, who inside the fusion community knew that the fuel needed for commercial fusion reactors didn’t exist? What efforts did they make to inform their peers? Who inside the fusion community did not know? Why did they not know? How was a worldwide science effort, public and private, with billions of dollars invested, enmeshed in a multi-generational career track, founded and fostered in light of this fuel illusion?

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