How Far Away is Fusion? Unlocking the Power of the Sun

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I’d like to think we’re smarter than the Sun.

Let’s compare and contrast. Humans, on the one hand, have made enormous advances in science and technology, built cities, cars, computers, and phones. We have split the atom for war and for energy.

What has the Sun done? It’s a massive ball of plasma, made up of mostly hydrogen and helium. It just, kind of, sits there. Every now and then it burps up hydrogen gas into a coronal mass ejection. It’s not a stretch to say that the Sun, and all inanimate material in the Universe, isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

And yet, the Sun has mastered a form of energy that we just can’t seem to wrap our minds around: fusion. It’s really infuriating, seeing the Sun, just sitting there, effortlessly doing something our finest minds have struggled with for half a century.

Why can’t we make fusion work? How long until we can finally catch up technologically with a sphere of ionized gas?

Our Sun in all its intense, energetic glory. When life appeared on Earth, the Sun would have been much different than it is now; a more intense, energetic neighbor. Image: NASA/SDO.
Our Sun in all its intense, energetic glory. Credit: NASA/SDO.

The trick to the Sun’s ability to generate power through nuclear fusion, of course, comes from its enormous mass. The Sun contains 1.989 x 10^30 kilograms of mostly hydrogen and helium, and this mass pushes inward, creating a core heated to 15 million degrees C, with 150 times the density of water.

It’s at this core that the Sun does its work, mashing atoms of hydrogen into helium. This process of fusion is an exothermic reaction, which means that every time a new atom of helium is created, photons in the form of gamma radiation are also released.

The only thing the Sun uses this energy for is light pressure, to counteract the gravity pulling everything inward. Its photons slowly make their way up through the Sun and then they’re released into space. So wasteful.

How can we replicate this on Earth?

Now gathering together a Sun’s mass of hydrogen here on Earth is one option, but it’s really impractical. Where would we put all that hydrogen. The better solution will be to use our technology to simulate the conditions at the core of the Sun.

If we can make a fusion reactor where the temperatures and pressures are high enough for atoms of hydrogen to merge into helium, we can harness those sweet sweet photons of gamma radiation.

Tokamak
Inside a Tokamak. Credit: Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

The main technology developed to do this is called a tokamak reactor; it’s a based on a Russian acronym for: “toroidal chamber with magnetic coils”, and the first prototypes were created in the 1960s. There are many different reactors in development, but the method is essentially the same.

A vacuum chamber is filled with hydrogen fuel. Then an enormous amount of electricity is run through the chamber, heating up the hydrogen into a plasma state. They might also use lasers and other methods to get the plasma up to 150 to 300 million degrees Celsius (10 to 20 times hotter than the Sun’s core).

Superconducting magnets surround the fusion chamber, containing the plasma and keeping it away from the chamber walls, which would melt otherwise.

Once the temperatures and pressures are high enough, atoms of hydrogen are crushed together into helium just like in the Sun. This releases photons which heat up the plasma, keeping the reaction going without any addition energy input.

Excess heat reaches the chamber walls, and can be extracted to do work.

The spherical tokamak MAST at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (UK). Photo: CCFE

The challenge has always been that heating up the chamber and constraining the plasma uses up more energy than gets produced in the reactor. We can make fusion work, we just haven’t been able to extract surplus energy from the system… yet.

Compared to other forms of energy production, fusion should be clean and safe. The fuel source is water, and the byproduct is helium (which the world is actually starting to run out of). If there’s a problem with the reactor, it would cool down and the fusion reaction would stop.

The high energy photons released in the fusion reaction will be a problem, however. They’ll stream into the surrounding fusion reactor and make the whole thing radioactive. The fusion chamber will be deadly for about 50 years, but its rapid half-life will make it as radioactive as coal ash after 500 years.

External view of Princeton’s Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor which operated from 1982 to 1997. Credit: Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (CC BY 3.0)

Now you know what fusion power is and how it works, what’s the current state, and how long until fusion plants give us unlimited cheap safe power, if ever?

Fusion experiments are measured by the amount of energy they produce compared to the amount of energy you put into them. For example, if a fusion plant required 100MW of electrical energy to produce 10 MW of output, it would have an energy ratio of 0.1. You want at least a ratio of 1. That means energy in equals energy out, and so far, no experiment has ever reached that ratio. But we’re close.

The EAST facility’s tokamak reactor, part of the Institute of Physical Science in Hefei. Credit: ipp.cas.cn

The Chinese are building the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, or EAST. In 2016, engineers reported that they had run the facility for 102 seconds, achieving temperatures of 50 million C. If true, this is an enormous advancement, and puts China ahead in the race to create stable fusion. That said, this hasn’t been independently verified, and they only published a single scientific paper on the milestone.

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology’s Wendelstein 7-X (W7X) stellarator. Credit: Max-Planck-Institut für Plasmaphysik, Tino Schulz (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany recently announced that their Wendelstein 7-X (W7X) stellarator (I love that name), heated hydrogen gas to 80 million C for only a quarter of a second. Hot but short. A stellarator works differently than a tokamak. It uses twisted rings and external magnets to confine the plasma, so it’s good to know we have more options.

The biggest, most elaborate fusion experiment going on in the world right now is in Europe, at the French research center of Cadarache. It’s called ITER, which stands for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, and it hopes to cross that magic ratio.

The ITER Tokamak Fusion Reactor. Credits: ITER, Illus. T.Reyes

ITER is enormous, measuring 30 meters across and high. And its fusion chamber is so large that it should be able to create a self-sustaining fusion reaction. The energy released by the fusing hydrogen keeps the fuel hot enough to keep reacting. There will still be energy required to run the electric magnets that contain the plasma, but not to keep the plasma hot.

And if all goes well, ITER will have a ratio of 10. In other words, for every 10 MW of energy pumped in, it’ll generate 100 MW of usable power.

ITER is still under construction, and as of June 2015, the total construction costs had reached $14 billion. The facility is expected to be complete by 2021, and the first fusion tests will begin in 2025.

So, if ITER works as planned, we are now about 8 years away from positive energy output from fusion. Of course, ITER will just be an experiment, not an actual powerplant, so if it even works, an actual fusion-based energy grid will be decades after that.

At this point, I’d say we’re about a decade away from someone demonstrating that a self-sustaining fusion reaction that generates more power than it consumes is feasible. And then probably another 2 decades away from them supplying electricity to the power grid. By that point, our smug Sun will need to find a new job.

Mr. Fusion? Compact Fusion Reactor Will be Available in 5 Years Says Lockheed-Martin

The Farnsworth Fusor; Pons and Fleishmann. It seems the trail to fusion energy has long gone cold — stone cold, that is, and not cold as in cold fusion. Despite the promise of fusion providing a sustainable and safe energy source, fusion reactors are not a dime a dozen and they won’t be replacing coal fired power plants any time soon. Or will they? Lockheed-Martin Skunk Works announced a prototype compact fusion reactor that could be ready within five years. This revelation has raised eyebrows and sparked moments of enthusiasm.

But, let’s considers this story and where it all fits in both the history and future.

For every Skunk Works project that has made the runway such as the Stealth Fighter or SR-71 Blackbird, there are untold others that never see the light of day. This adds to the surprise and mystery of Lockheed-Martin’s willingness to release images and a detailed narrative describing a compact fusion reactor project. The impact that such a device would have on humanity can be imagined … and at the same time one imagines how much is unimaginable.

Lockheed-Martin engineers in the Skunkworks prepare a vessel, one component of an apparatus that they announced will lead to nuclear fusion in a truck-sized reactor within 5 years. An international effort is underway in Europe to create the worlds first practical tokamak fusion reactor, a much larger and costlier design that has never achieved the long sought "breakeven" point. (Photo Credit: Lockheed-Martin)
Lockheed-Martin engineers in the Skunkworks prepare a vessel, one component of an apparatus that they announced will lead to nuclear fusion in a truck-sized reactor within 5 years. An international effort is underway in Europe to create the world’s first practical tokamak fusion reactor, a much larger and costlier design that has never achieved the long sought “breakeven” point. (Photo Credit: Lockheed-Martin)

The program manager of the Skunk Works’ compact fusion reactor experiment is Tom Maguire. Maguire and his team places emphasis on the turn-around time for modifying and testing the compact fusion device. With the confidence they are expressing in their design and the ability to quickly build, test and modify, they are claiming only five years will be needed to reach a prototype.

What exactly the prototype represents was left unexplained, however. Maguire continues by saying that in 10 years, the device will be seen in military applications and in 20 years it will be delivered to the world as a replacement for the dirty energy sources that are in use today. Military apps at 10 years means that the device will be too expensive initially for civilian operations but such military use would improve performance and lower costs which could lead to the 20 year milestone moment if all goes as planned.

Their system uses magnetic confinement, the same basic principle behind the tokamak toroidal plasma confinement system that has received the greatest attention and government funding for over 50 years.

The ITER Tokamak Fusion Reactor is expected to begin operational testing in 2020 and begin producing deuterium-tritium fusion reactions in 2027. (Credits: ITER, Illus. T.Reyes)
The ITER Tokamak Fusion Reactor is expected to begin operational testing in 2020 and begin producing deuterium-tritium fusion reactions in 2027. (Credits: ITER, Illus. T.Reyes)

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is currently under construction in Europe under the assumption that it will be the first net energy producing fusion generator ever. It is funded by the European Union, India, Japan, People’s Republic of China, Russia, South Korea and the United States. But there are cost over-runs and its price has gone from $5 billion to $50 billion.

ITER is scheduled to begin initial testing in 2019 about the time Lockheed-Martin’s compact fusion reactor prototype is expected. If Lockheed-Martin succeeds in their quest, they will effectively have skunked ITER and laid to waste a $50 billion international effort at likely 1/1000th the cost.

There are a few reasons Lockheed-Martin has gone out on a limb. Consider the potential. One ton of Uranium used in Fission reactors has as much energy as 1,500 tons of coal. But fission reactors produce radioactive waste and are a finite resource without breeder reactors, themselves a nuclear proliferation risk. Fusion produces 3 to 4 times more energy per reaction than fission. Additionally, the fuel — isotopes of hydrogen — is available from sea water — which is nearly limitless — and the byproducts are far less radioactive than with fission. Fusion generators once developed could provide our energy needs for millions of years.

More pragmatically, corporations promote their R&D. They are in a constant state of competition. They present a profile that ranges from the practical to the cutting edge to instill confidence in their Washington coffers. Furthermore, their competitors have high profile individuals and projects. A fusion project demonstrates that Lockheed-Martin is doing more than creating better mouse-traps.

To date, no nuclear fusion reactor has achieved breakeven. This is when the fusion device outputs as much energy as is input to operate it. Magnetic confinement such as the various tokamak designs, Lawrence Livermore’s laser-based inertial confinement method, and even the simple Philo Farnsworth Fusor can all claim to be generating energy from fusion reactions. They are just all spending more energy than their devices output.

An example of a homemade Fusor. Originally invented in the 1960s by the inventor of the television, Philo Farnsworth. (Credit: Wikipedia, W.Jack)
An example of a homemade Fusor. Originally invented in the 1960s by the inventor of the television, Philo Farnsworth. (Credit: Wikipedia, W.Jack)

The fusor, invented in the 1960s by Farnsworth and Hirsh, is a electrostatic plasma confinement system. It uses electric fields to confine and accelerate ions through a central point at which some ions will collide with sufficient energy to fuse. Although the voltage needed is readily achieved by amateurs – about 4000 volts – not uncommon in household devices, no fusor has reached breakeven and theoretically never will. The challenge to reaching breakeven involves not just energy/temperature but also plasma densities. Replicating conditions that exist in the core of stars in a controllable way is not easy. Nevertheless, there is a robust community of “fusioneers” around the world and linked by the internet.

Mr Fusion, the compact fusion reactor that drove the 21st Century version of the DeLorian in Back to the Future. The movie trilogy grossed $1 billion at the box office. Mr Fusion could apparently function off of any water bearing material. (Credit: Universal Pictures)
Mr Fusion, the compact fusion reactor that drove the 21st Century version of the DeLorean in Back to the Future. The movie trilogy grossed $1 billion at the box office. Mr Fusion could apparently function off of any water bearing material. (Credit: Universal Pictures)

It remains to be seen who, what and when a viable fusion reactor will be demonstrated. With Lockheed-Martin’s latest announcement, once again, fusion energy is “just around the corner.” But many skeptics remain who will quickly state that commercial fusion energy remains 50 years in the future. So long as Maguire’s team meets milestones with expected performance improvements, their work will go on. The potential of fusion energy remains too great to dismiss categorically.

Source: Lockheed-Martin Products Page, Compact Fusion