Fusion Confusion

Fusion Confusion

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm, announced:

“The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to supporting our world-class scientists—like the team at NIF—whose work will help us solve humanity’s most complex and pressing problems, like providing clean power to combat climate change and maintaining a nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing.”

Dr. Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and technology added:

“Many advanced science and technology developments are still needed to achieve simple, affordable inertial fusion energy (IFE) to power homes and businesses, and DOE is currently restarting a broad-based, coordinated IFE program in the United States.” 

U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (CA), said:

“This monumental scientific breakthrough is a milestone for the future of clean energy”. 

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, said: 

“This astonishing scientific advance puts us on the precipice of a future no longer reliant on fossil fuels but instead powered by new clean fusion energy,” 

As can be seen, there was a concerted attempt to frame this breakthrough as important for clean power to fight climate change.

What are the facts?

    1. As many as 192 lasers injeted 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy into a special vessel called a Hohlraum, containing a tiny capsule of fusion fuel (deuterium and tritium) sparking an explosion that produced 3.15 MJ of energy.
    2. While there was an energy gain within the Hohlraum, i.e., from 2.05 to 3.15 MJ, the lasers consumed around 300 MJ from the grid.
    3. The system therefore, including the power from the grid, used more energy than it produced.

From a scientific perspective, the real significance of the experiment was to confirm that it was possible to produce more energy than was used to spark the reaction … proof that fusion could work.

The experiment did not, however, demonstrate that fusion was about to create a new source of clean energy.

The attached diagram from the Financial Times provides a schematic of how the experiment worked.

Another important result of the experiment was to confirm the United States was still a leader in weapons technology. It demonstrated confidence in DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) Stockpile Stewardship Program.

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Professors Koonin and Powell, governors of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said:

The U.S. nuclear deterrent is effective only if there’s confidence that the weapons remain effective. Laser ignition demonstrates to the world a deep understanding of weapons science and will be important in sustaining confidence in the coming decades.

In terms of clean energy, we are decades, perhaps 50 or more years, away from generating electricity on a commercial scale from this approach to fusion power, i.e., inertial fusion energy (IFE).

It may very well be that an alternative approach, i.e., magnetic confinement (using a doughnut-shaped reactor called a tokamak), could achieve the goal sooner. 

ITER is a multinational effort, located in France, that is developing a fusion reactor based on the Tokamak design. It’s scheduled for its first demonstration of sustained plasma in 2025. The intent of ITER is to provide the scientific knowledge over a “multi-decade program” that could result in fusion being used to generate electricity.

In another scientific development, a team of MIT scientists, at Commonwealth Fusion Systems, achieved “an indisputable scientific advance by using a new type of superconducting material to build the most powerful magnet of its kind.” 

“In a test last September [2021], the magnet achieved a field strength of 20 tesla. It’s nearly twice as strong as ITER’s comparable magnet, which relies on earlier superconducting materials.” 

At some point, fusion will produce electricity that is, hopefully, less costly than using fossil fuels.

No one should believe, however, that fusion will replace fossil fuels within the foreseeable future.

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15 Replies to “Fusion Confusion”

  1. “While there was an energy gain within the Hohlraum, i.e., from 2.05 to 3.15 MJ, the lasers consumed around 3.00 MJ from the grid.“

    I think you’ve missed a decimal point here. The lasers are about 1% efficient so the input power to the lasers was between 300 to 400 MJ. Just considering this one step the process is still two orders of magnitude away from breakeven.

    • Thanks. You are correct.
      I made a mistake and accidentally inserted a decimal point.
      I’ve corrected the article.
      I appreciate your bringing this to my quick attention.
      Many thanks.

    • If breakeven is generate the same amount of ELECTRICITY that went into the process we are more like 3 or 4 orders of magnitude … nobody has a clue how to take the heat generated and use it for electrical generation via a steam turbine … it’s never even been tried in any configuration of a fusion reactor … it’s not as simple as running water pipes thru the vessel …

      • Right, no one knows how to convert fast neutrons into steam in a practical way. Also, this is a batch process, not continuous. They use one pea sized deuterium-tritium pellet and then have to reset the whole apparatus. One run a day is the best they can do. And where do we get the fuel from? Deuterium can be extracted from seawater but what about the cost and energy of that step? Tritium doesn’t exist in nature and has a short half life. It would have to be made as needed in a nearby nuclear reactor. And on and on.

        Not that I oppose research that, some day, may be practical. But don’t pretend this is going to replace practical energy sources any time soon.

  2. Another problem is that this fusion reaction (deuterium plus tritium) produces large fluxes of 14 million volt neutrons, which produce nuclear reactions with many different materials and yielding radioactive species.
    Another issue is that the period of fusion lasted only about one-tenth of a nano-second, whereas the lasers require much longer times to prepare for another pulse. That won’t sustain the fusion reaction.
    Still another issue is how to utilize very high temperatures produced by sustained fission to drive an electrical power generator, without the high temperature destroying the lasers and the encapsulating facility.
    Controlled fusion has been sought for over four decades. It may require another four.

      • I’ve been following fusion research since the mid 70’s and it’s been “10 years from commercialization” every year … what a complete waste of money … a fraction of it spent on designing the next generation of fission power plants would have solved the problem of electricity generation 20 or 30 years ago …

        • I can’t help but agree with you, except the main problem with fission power plants is that the public is afraid of radiation and current boiling water reactors are far too expensive to build. Hopefully, small modular reactors can solve the cost problem.

          • Hi Donn, if you haven’t done so already, you should download Wade Allison’s excellent “Radiation and reason” it points out that low levels of radiation are quite safe. The fact is that nuclear power is the safest generation that we have and it is high time that the nuclear industry started boasting about safety rather than how much safer the latest reactor is than the previous ones (so they must’ve been dangerous?). Anyway, there is huge potential in different types of reactors such as the Moltex and various other small modular reactors. For my money, this is where the effort should be going.

          • Great to hear from you.
            Yes, I have Wade Allison’s book. I have featured it on several occasions in my articles, but not recently.
            You have a good point with respect to talking about new reactors being safer with the inference that earlier reactors weren’t safe.
            I agree. SMRs could be the future for nuclear power, but they need to demonstrate they can be built at a competitive cost, probably no more than $3,000 per KW.
            Have a great new year.

  3. Fusion is only viable in stars, where fusion can occur because of the maintained, extremely high pressures and temperatures, not sustainable on Earth for more than a split microsecond. The fusion program is merely another profiteering racket of the parasite owned and run alternate energy industry. We already have fission power nuclear plants that could easily provide incredibly inexpensive electrical energy and heat, but because the parasite clan can’t make enough profit from it, the clan has falsely posed nuclear fission radiation as extremely dangerous and life threatening, requiring endless, expensive safety measures to “protect” society. It’s in the “protection” that the mafia clan rakes in its profit, its usual problem-solution method of raping and pillaging humanity.

    • Thanks for your comments.
      Our nuclear program using fission and boiling water reactors is extremely safe, though environmentalists have done all they could to plant fear about radiation into people’s minds.