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

Best Energy?

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.

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:

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.

Harvard Physicist Creates Metallic Hydrogen Using Diamond Vise

For some time, scientists have been fascinated by the concept of metallic hydrogen. Such an element is believed to exist naturally when hydrogen is placed under extreme pressures (like in the interior of gas giants like Jupiter). But as a synthetic material, it would have endless applications, since it is believed to have superconducting properties at room temperature and the ability to retain its solidity once it has been brought back to normal pressure.

For this reason, condensed matter physicists have been attempting to create metallic hydrogen for decades. And according to a recent study published in Science Magazine, a pair of physicists from the Lyman Laboratory of Physics at Harvard University claim to have done this very thing. If true, this accomplishment could usher in a new age of super materials and high-pressure physics.

The existence of metallic hydrogen was first predicted in 1935 Princeton physicists Eugene Wigner and Hillard Bell Huntington. For years, Isaac Silvera (the Thomas D. Cabot Professor at Harvard University) and Ranga Dias, a postdoctorate fellow, have sought to create it. They claim to have succeeded, using a process which they described in their recently-published study, “Observation of the Wigner-Huntington transition to metallic hydrogen“.

This cut-away illustrates a model of the interior of Jupiter, with a rocky core overlaid by a deep layer of liquid metallic hydrogen. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikimedia Commons

Such a feat, which is tantamount to creating the heart of Jupiter between two diamonds, is unparalleled in the history of science. As Silvera described the accomplishment in a recent Harvard press release:

“This is the Holy Grail of high-pressure physics. It’s the first-ever sample of metallic hydrogen on Earth, so when you’re looking at it, you’re looking at something that’s never existed before.”

In the past, scientists have succeeded in creating liquid hydrogen at high temperature conditions by ramping up the pressures it was exposed to (as opposed to cryogenically cooling it). But metallic hydrogen has continued to elude experimental scientists, despite repeated (and unproven) claims in the past to have achieved synthesis. The reason for this is because such experiments are extremely temperamental.

For instance, the diamond anvil method (which Silvera and Dias used a variation of) consists of holding a sample of hydrogen in place with a thin metal gasket, then compressing it between two diamond-tipped vices. This puts the sample under extreme pressure, and a laser sensor is used to monitor for any changes. In the past, this has proved problematic since the pressure can cause the hydrogen to fill imperfections in the diamonds and crack them.

While protective coatings can ensure the diamonds don’t crack, the additional materials makes it harder to get accurate readings from laser measurements. What’s more, scientists attempting to experiment with hydrogen have found that pressures of ~400 gigapascals (GPa) or more need to be involved – which turns the hydrogen samples black, thus preventing the laser light from being able to penetrate it.

Microscopic images of the stages in the creation of metallic hydrogen: Transparent molecular hydrogen (left) at about 200 GPa, which is converted into black molecular hydrogen, and finally reflective atomic metallic hydrogen at 495 GPa. Credit: Isaac Silvera

For the sake of their experiment, Professors Ranga Dias and Isaac Silvera took a different approach. For starters, they used two small pieces of polished synthetic diamond rather than natural ones. They then used a reactive ion etching process to shave their surfaces, then coated them with a thin layer of alumina to prevent hydrogen from diffusing into the crystal structure.

They also simplified the experiment by removing the need for high-intensity laser monitoring, relying on Raman spectroscopy instead. When they reached a pressure of 495 GPa (greater than that at the center of the Earth), their sample reportedly became metallic and changed from black to shiny red. This was revealed by measuring the spectrum of the sample, which showed that it had become highly reflective (which is expected for a sample of metal).

As Silvera explained, these experimental results (if verified) could lead to all kinds of possibilities:

“One prediction that’s very important is metallic hydrogen is predicted to be meta-stable. That means if you take the pressure off, it will stay metallic, similar to the way diamonds form from graphite under intense heat and pressure, but remain diamonds when that pressure and heat are removed. As much as 15 percent of energy is lost to dissipation during transmission, so if you could make wires from this material and use them in the electrical grid, it could change that story.”

Superconducting links developed to carry currents of up to 20,000 amperes are being tested at CERN. Credit: CERN

In short, metallic hydrogen could speed the revolution in electronics already underway, thanks to the discovery of materials like graphene. Since metallic hydrogen is also believed to be a superconductor at room temperature, its synthetic production would have immense implications for high-energy research and physics – such as that being conducted by CERN.

Beyond that, it would also enable research into the interior’s of gas giants. For some time, scientists have suspected that a layer of metallic hydrogen may surround the cores of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. Naturally, the temperature and pressure conditions in the interiors of these planets make direct study impossible. But by being able to produce metallic hydrogen synthetically, scientists could conduct experiment to see how it behaves.

Naturally, the news of this experiment and its results is being met with skepticism. For instance, critics wonder if the pressure reading of 495 GPa was in fact accurate, since Silvera and Dias only obtained that as a final measurement and were forced to rely on estimates prior to that. Second, there are those who question if the reddish speck that resulted is in fact hydrogen, and some material that came from the gasket or diamond coating during the process.

However, Silvera and Dias are confident in their results and believe they can be replicated (which would go far to silence doubts about their results). For one, they emphasize that a comparative measurement of the reflective properties of the hydrogen dot and the surrounding gasket suggest that the hydrogen is pure. They also claim their pressure measurements were properly calibrated and verified.

In the future, they intend to obtain additional spectrographic readings from the sample to confirm that it is in fact metallic. Once that is done, they plan to test the sample to see if it is truly metastable, which will consist of them opening the vise and seeing if it remains in a solid state. Given the implications of success, there are many who would like to see their experiment borne out!

Be sure to check out this video produced by Harvard University that talks about the experiment:

Further Reading: Science Magazine, Harvard Gazette

What Are The Uses Of Electromagnets?

Electromagnetism is one of the fundamental forces of the universe, responsible for everything from electric and magnetic fields to light. Originally, scientists believed that magnetism and electricity were separate forces. But by the late 19th century, this view changed, as research demonstrated conclusively that positive and negative electrical charges were governed by one force (i.e. magnetism).

Since that time, scientists have sought to test and measure electromagnetic fields, and to recreate them. Towards this end, they created electromagnets, a device that uses electrical current to induce a magnetic field. And since their initial invention as a scientific instrument, electromagnets have gone on to become a regular feature of electronic devices and industrial processes.

Continue reading “What Are The Uses Of Electromagnets?”