The timeline for fusion

by Milan on September 16, 2010

in Nuclear power, Power plants

When it comes to the problem of powering the global economy without fossil fuels, people sometimes point to completely new energy generation techniques as solutions. For example, space-based solar power and nuclear fusion.

While it is possible such technologies will play an important role in the long term, it is important to be realistic about both costs and timeframes for development and deployment. Excavation has just begun for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), in France. This machine, when completed, will be a prototype for a prototype for a commercial nuclear fusion power station. It is hoped that this device will teach scientists enough about controlled fusion to make a machine that could actually produce energy, rather than just consuming it by heating up fusion components and keeping them close together with powerful electromagnets. Achieving that will require a number of substantial technical advancements.

Contrast that with the kind of global emission pathway that is necessary to avoid 2°C of temperature increase, and thus ‘dangerous’ climate change. Given that little is happening in the United States, hoping for global emissions to peak by 2011 seems excessively optimistic. If they peak in 2020 – which would be a major achievement, requiring cooperation from developing states – the world would need to cut emissions to zero by 2040. It really doesn’t seem plausible that fusion could help with that, though it could play a role later on.

That said, there is some chance that somebody will find a way to achieve success with fusion more rapidly. It certainly makes sense to devote some fraction of our total research resources toward technologies that may be very promising in the long term. At the same time, we shouldn’t bet on breakthrough technologies solving our climate problem. We need to be ready to do it by improving and deploying existing technologies, while remaining open to the possibility that novel developments will end up making the process easier.

Physics buzz has more information on the current status of ITER.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Byron Smith September 16, 2010 at 12:06 pm

So if we manage to peak in 2020, we need to be at zero by 2040? (I assume you’re aiming for 450 ppm of CO2?)

We’re so screwed.

Milan September 16, 2010 at 1:09 pm

That is to maintain a 75% chance of keeping warming to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The climate sensitivity used in the calculation is 3°C, which is based on paleoclimatic data.

It is worth noting that we can follow a less aggressive pathway and experience warming of more than 2°C but which is nonetheless not catastrophic for humanity.

. October 14, 2010 at 11:11 am

Key component contract for Iter fusion reactor

By Jonathan Amos Science correspondent, BBC News

The multi-billion-euro facility being built in France will attempt to harvest energy by exploiting the same nuclear processes that power the Sun.

AMW, an Italian consortium, will construct most of the doughnut-shaped vessel at the centre of the reactor.

Iter is not expected to begin operations until much later this decade.

Even then, these will be shake-down tests; full fusion power will not be achieved until the 2020s.

In a fusion reaction, energy is released when light atomic nuclei – the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium – are fused together to form heavier atomic nuclei.

To use controlled fusion reactions on Earth as an energy source, it is necessary to heat these gases to temperatures exceeding 100 million Celsius – many times hotter than the centre of the Sun.

This will be done inside a vacuum vessel. AMW has now been given a 300m-euro contract to make the basic shell of this device.

. September 25, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Fusion power

Next ITERation?

Generating electricity by nuclear fusion has long looked like a chimera. A reactor being built in Germany may change that

AS THE old joke has it, fusion is the power of the future—and always will be. The sales pitch is irresistible: the principal fuel, a heavy isotope of hydrogen called deuterium, can be extracted from water. In effect, therefore, it is in limitless supply. Nor, unlike fusion’s cousin, nuclear fission, does the process produce much in the way of radioactive waste. It does not release carbon dioxide, either. Which all sounds too good to be true. And it is. For there is the little matter of building a reactor that can run for long enough to turn out a meaningful amount of electricity. Since the first attempt to do so, a machine called Zeta that was constructed in Britain in the 1950s, no one has even come close.

At the moment, the main bet being placed by fusion enthusiasts is on ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a research machine that can hold 840 cubic metres of hot, gaseous fuel. It is being bolted together at a projected cost of €15 billion ($22 billion) in the south of France. ITER is what is known as a tokamak, a doughnut-shaped device invented in Russia at about the same time Zeta was active. Deuterium (along with an even heavier hydrogen isotope called tritium, which is made by bombarding either deuterium or lithium with neutrons) is injected into the doughnut, heated to the point at which its electrons break free and it forms a plasma, and squeezed by magnetic fields.

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