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.

Is Earth’s Magnetic Field Ready to Flip?

Illustration of the invisible magnetic field lines generated by the Earth. Unlike a classic bar magnet, the matter governing Earth's magnetic field moves around. The flow of liquid iron in Earth's core creates electric currents, which in turn creates the magnetic field. Credit and copyright: Peter Reid, University of Edinburgh
Illustration of the invisible magnetic field lines generated by the Earth. Unlike a classic bar magnet, the matter governing Earth’s magnetic field moves around. The flow of liquid iron in Earth’s core creates electric currents, which in turn creates the magnetic field. Credit and copyright: Peter Reid, University of Edinburgh

Although invisible to the eye, Earth’s magnetic field plays a huge role in both keeping us safe from the ever-present solar and cosmic winds while making possible the opportunity to witness incredible displays of the northern lights. Like a giant bar magnet, if you could sprinkle iron filings around the entire Earth, the particles would align to reveal the nested arcs of our magnetic domain. The same field makes your compass needle align north to south.

We can picture our magnetic domain as a huge bubble, protecting us from cosmic radiation and electrically charged atomic particles that bombard Earth in solar winds. Satellites and instruments on the ground keep a constant watch over this bubble of magnetic energy surrounding our planet. For good reason: it’s always changing.

Earth's magnetic field is thought to be generated by an ocean of super-heated, swirling liquid iron that makes up its the outer core 1,860 miles (3000 kilometers) under our feet. Acting like the spinning conductor in one of those bicycle dynamos or generators that power lights, it generates electrical currents and a constantly changing electromagnetic field. Other sources of magnetism come from minerals in Earth’s mantle and crust, while the ionosphere, magnetosphere and oceans also play a role. The three Swarm satellites precisely identify and measure precisely these different magnetic signals. Copyright: ESA/ATG Medialab
Earth’s magnetic field is thought to be generated by an ocean of super-heated, swirling liquid iron that makes up its the outer core 1,860 miles (3000 kilometers) under our feet. Acting like the spinning conductor similar to a bicycle dynamo that powers a headlight, it generates electrical currents and a constantly changing electromagnetic field. Other sources of magnetism come from minerals in Earth’s mantle and crust, while the ionosphere, magnetosphere and oceans also play a role. The three Swarm satellites precisely identify and measure precisely these different magnetic signals. Copyright: ESA/ATG Medialab

The European Space Agency’s Swarm satellite trio, launched at the end of 2013, has been busy measuring and untangling the different magnetic signals from Earth’s core, mantle, crust, oceans, ionosphere (upper atmosphere where the aurora occurs) and magnetosphere, the name given to the region of space dominated by Earth’s magnetic field.

At this week’s Living Planet Symposium in Prague, Czech Republic, new results from the constellation of Swarm satellites show where our protective field is weakening and strengthening, and how fast these changes are taking place.


Based on results from ESA’s Swarm mission, the animation shows how the strength of Earth’s magnetic field has changed between 1999 and mid-2016. Blue depicts where the field is weak and red shows regions where the field is strong. The field has weakened by about 3.5% at high latitudes over North America, while it has grown about 2% stronger over Asia. Watch also the migration of the north geomagnetic pole (white dot).

Between 1999 and May 2016 the changes are obvious. In the image above, blue depicts where the field is weak and red shows regions where it is strong. As well as recent data from the Swarm constellation, information from the CHAMP and Ørsted satellites were also used to create the map.


The animation shows changes in the rate at which Earth’s magnetic field strengthened and weakened between 2000 and 2015. Regions where changes in the field have slowed are shown in blue while red shows where changes sped up. For example, in 2015 changes in the field have slowed near South Africa but changes got faster over Asia. This map has been compiled using data from ESA’s Swarm mission.

The animation show that overall the field has weakened by about 3.5% at high latitudes over North America, while it has strengthened about 2% over Asia. The region where the field is at its weakest – the South Atlantic Anomaly – has moved steadily westward and weakened further by about 2%. Moreover, the magnetic north pole is also on the move east, towards Asia. Unlike the north and south geographic poles, the magnetic poles wander in an erratic way, obeying the movement of sloshing liquid iron and nickel in Earth’s outer core. More on that in a minute.

The ‘South Atlantic Anomaly’ refers to an area where Earth's protective magnetic shield is weak. The white spots on this map indicate where electronic equipment on a TOPEX/Poseidon satellite was affected by radiation as it orbited above. Credit: ESA/DTU Space
The ‘South Atlantic Anomaly’ refers to an area where Earth’s protective magnetic shield is weak. The white spots on this map indicate where electronic equipment on a TOPEX/Poseidon satellite was affected by radiation as it orbited above. The colors indicate the strength of the planet’s magnetic field with red the highest value and blue the lowest.  Credit: ESA/DTU Space

The anomaly is a region over above South America, about 125-186 miles (200 – 300 kilometers) off the coast of Brazil, and extending over much of South America, where the inner Van Allen radiation belt dips just 125-500 miles (200 – 800 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface. Satellites passing through the anomaly experience extra-strong doses of radiation from fast-moving, charged particles.

This cutaway of planet Earth shows the familiar exterior of air, water and land as well as the interior: from the mantle down to the outer and inner cores. Currents in hot, liquid iron-nickel in the outer core create our planet's protective but fluctuating magnetic field. Credit: Kelvinsong / Wikipedia
This cutaway of planet Earth shows the familiar exterior of air, water and land as well as the interior: from the mantle down to the outer and inner cores. Currents in hot, liquid iron-nickel in the outer core create our planet’s protective but fluctuating magnetic field. Credit: Kelvinsong / Wikipedia

The magnetic field is thought to be produced largely by an ocean of molten, swirling liquid iron that makes up our planet’s outer core, 1,860 miles (3000 kilometers) under our feet. As the fluid churns inside the rotating Earth, it acts like a bicycle dynamo or steam turbine. Flowing material within the outer core generates electrical currents and a continuously changing electromagnetic field. It’s thought that changes in our planet’s magnetic field are related to the speed and direction of the flow of liquid iron and nickel in the outer core.

Chris Finlay, senior scientist at DTU Space in Denmark, said, “Swarm data are now enabling us to map detailed changes in Earth’s magnetic field. Unexpectedly, we are finding rapid localized field changes that seem to be a result of accelerations of liquid metal flowing within the core.”

The magnetic field and electric currents in and around Earth generate complex forces that have immeasurable impact on every day life. The field can be thought of as a huge bubble, protecting us from cosmic radiation and charged particles that bombard Earth in solar winds. It’s shaped by winds of particles blowing from the sun called the solar wind, the reason it’s flattened on the “sun-side” and swept out into a long tail on the opposite side of the Earth. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab
The magnetic field and electric currents in and around Earth generate complex forces that have immeasurable impact on every day life. The field can be thought of as a huge bubble, protecting us from cosmic radiation and charged particles that bombard Earth in solar winds. It’s shaped by winds of particles blowing from the sun called the solar wind, the reason it’s flattened on the “sun-side” and swept out into a long tail on the opposite side of the Earth. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Further results are expected to yield a better understanding as why the field is weakening in some places, and globally. We know that over millions of years, magnetic poles can actually flip with north becoming south and south north. It’s possible that the current speed up in the weakening of the global field might mean it’s ready to flip.

Although there’s no evidence previous flips affected life in a negative way, one thing’s for sure. If you wake up one morning and find your compass needle points south instead of north, it’s happened.