For 60 years, scientists have been pursuing the dream of low cost energy using nuclear fusion.
For the past 30 years, scientists from 35 nations have been focused on ITER, a project in southern France that is building the world’s largest fusion device using a tokamak design. Tokamak describes the manner in which magnetic coils are assembled to create a magnetic field that can concentrate a gaseous hydrogen fuel as a plasma, such that more energy is produced than is consumed.
While earlier experiments have demonstrated an ability to create the plasma, no design has ever produced more energy than was consumed … and this has been the nexus of the problem with nuclear fusion.
Scientists in Germany at Greifswald, a Baltic coastal city, recently started a new type of fusion experiment, using a different magnetic coil structure to make the device more reliable and controllable.
The device is known as a stellarator. It uses the same doughnut shape of magnets as a tokamak, but incorporates a complicated system of magnetic coils to control the plasma rather than using electrical currents for maintaining control of the plasma.
The goal of the Greifswald experiment is to keep the plasma stable for 30 minutes by 2025, rather than for the few seconds in the initial experiment.
It has taken twenty years and a billion dollars to reach this point, but the scientists involved in the Greifswald experiment were enthusiastic over the initial results.
There are a dozen similar stellarator experiments being conducted around the world, but the Greifswald experiment is the first to have matched the tokamak design.
While this progress in the development of nuclear fusion energy is significant, it could be decades before nuclear fusion experiments can be expected to produce more energy than is being consumed, and additional decades before a practical fusion installation can be built that can produce electricity for the grid.
There are, of course, other experiments taking place around the world. Lockheed Martin and the University of Washington have both announced nuclear fusion programs, coupled with claims that nuclear fusion could be available in ten years. See, Implications of Fusion Power.
Unless there is an unforeseen breakthrough, such as being claimed by Lockheed Martin and the University of Washington, it’s likely that nuclear fusion won’t become practical until late in this century … and possibly, not even then.
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