Thursday, January 22, 2015

why it's taking the u.s. so long to make fusion work...,

HuffPo |  Fusion scientists make an incredible proposition: We can power our cities, they say, with miniature, vacuum-sealed stars. According to those who study it, the benefits of fusion power, if it ever came to fruition, would be enormous. It requires no carbon drawn from the ground. Its fuel -- hydrogen harvested from seawater -- is inexhaustible. It emits no gases that warm the planet. And unlike its cousin fission, which is currently used in nuclear power plants, fusion produces little radioactive waste, and what it does produce can be recycled by the reactor. 

The only hurdle, as many U.S. physicists tell it, is the billions of dollars needed before the first commercially viable watt of power is produced. Researchers lament the fact that the U.S. hasn't articulated a date for when it hopes to have fusion go online, while China and South Korea have set timetables to put fusion online in the 2040s.

A so-called magnetic confinement fusion reactor would work by spinning a cloud of hydrogen until it reaches several hundred million degrees Celsius -- at which point it would be so hot that no known material could contain it. Instead, high-powered magnets in a vacuum would envelop the ring of hydrogen plasma.

Spun with enough heat and pressure, the positively charged hydrogen atoms, stripped of their electrons, would begin to overcome their usual tendency to stay apart. They would fuse into helium, spitting out an extra neutron. When those neutrons embed into a surrounding blanket of lithium, they would warm it enough to boil water, spin a turbine and make electricity. The long-term goal is to create a self-sustaining reaction that produces more energy than is put in.

The oil shortages of the 1970s kick-started federally funded fusion research. When petroleum-pumping nations in Middle East turned off the spigot in 1973 and then again in 1979, much of the world, including the U.S., was rattled by gas shortages and high prices. With Americans waiting in mile-long lines to fill up their tanks, there was a keen national interest in finding any fuel to replace oil.

The crises prompted Congress and President Jimmy Carter to create the Department of Energy, which immediately began to channel funding into alternative energy programs, including fusion. By the end of the '70s, experimental reactors were being built at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Princeton -- including the latter's Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor, the "TFTR" whose outdated sign Michael Williams now walks past.

Adjusted for inflation, the U.S. was spending over $1 billion per year on magnetic confinement fusion research by 1977, according to Department of Energy figures collected by Fusion Power Associates, a nonprofit that promotes fusion research. But by the time Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, gas prices had dropped. Eyeing cuts to government spending, Reagan and his Republican colleagues in Congress tightened funding for research into fusion and other alternative energy sources.

"The Republicans hated the Department of Energy because they were messing around with the private sector energy business," said Steve Dean, a former Department of Energy official who oversaw fusion experiments in the 1970s and now runs Fusion Power Associates.


ken said...

Lockheed Martin is trying to create some excitement around fusion. I suspect the forward looking video within the link touting a smaller enclosure approach have them hoping to have some investors jump in the risk tank with them. I do think they may have something when trying smaller to make smaller confinements.