Fusion reactors soon?

When I was in undergrad school I took several classes related to energy conversion, generation, and transmission. I ended up not getting a job in that field but I still have some interest in the topics. Hence, I sort of follow what’s happening with fusion reactors.

So what is going on? I’m seeing two divergent stories in the media. This is the long running, slow progress, version:

ITER announced last year that it hopes to complete the construction of the world’s largest tokamak nuclear fusion reactor by 2025. The goal of the project is to prove that commercial nuclear fusion is possible by demonstrating that a reactor can produce more energy than it consumes. But even if the ITER experiment is successful, it would likely take until at least 2050 for a nuclear fusion power plant to come online.

And another:

A PROTOTYPE nuclear fusion plant with a value predicted value of £1billion has been tipped to generate £11billion and create thousands of jobs as the UK races to create limitless clean power and solve the energy crisis.

So far, no fusion reactor has been able to use up less energy than it produces.

But the UK is racing to crack the code, and the prototype for a proposed site to host a nuclear plant near Goole in East Yorkshire has been given the green light by the Government.

This is the programme, which was supported by an initial £222million by the Government, to construct a prototype fusion energy plant that will one day create limitless clean energy.

This is the version from some alternate reality:

The U.S. government wants to send a tiny nuclear fusion reactor into space, and it has partnered with a private company to get a prototype operational by 2027.

There are even stores about do it yourself nuclear fusion but I suspect these are probably getting radiation from something other than fusion. And if there are actually some fusion occurring it is producing less energy than the input to the reactor.

But the “tiny reactor going into space in 2027” story seems to be in a different class than the DIY reactors. My hunch is that it is just wishful thinking by someone who doesn’t really know what they are doing. But they managed to tell a good enough story to get a government grant from some agency that needed to get rid of some money before they lost it for lack of use.

Thoughts anyone?


16 thoughts on “Fusion reactors soon?

  1. I’m certain there are “black” government programs, a la the Skunkworks, that have working or near-working prototypes of all kinds of things that look like they’d come from at least a a few decades in the future, if not centuries. But actually delivering on cheap, problem-free energy would have so many problematic political and economic side-effects and consequences (for the powers that be) they are being kept “in the bag” until they are really, for real, absolutely needed. You cannot surprise an enemy with something they know about and have gamed dealing with. Cheap, locally-generated, waste-free energy would totally reshape the entire world economic system, and take the political and banking system with it. I can think of a few political and banking families who might be just a tad miffed at that.

    • I worked at a government lab for several years and, to the best of my knowledge, had the highest-level clearance possible. The people and projects I worked on and knew about were mostly crap. Only perhaps 2% of the people would have been smart enough to get a job at Microsoft. I was constantly amazed most of them were considered smart enough to collect a mediocre paycheck.

      And if they had working fusion reactor, they would have licensed it to private business and made ton of money for the lab (like what they did with the CD ROM). The government wouldn’t have gotten the license money, the government would just get a free license to use it.

  2. I do recall that several governments were pouring money into the development of flying machines until a couple bicycle makers from Ohio beat them to it. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a breakthrough in nuclear fusion sooner or later.

    A practical small fusion reactor would eventually challenge the use of oil as fuel but it wouldn’t happen overnight. It took about a half century before early automobiles really began to replace the horse. Things move faster today but there’s a whole infrastructure that would have to be created and until this anticipated fusion reactor is built and demonstrated, we have no idea what sort of infrastructure would be required.

    The use of oil will never go away. We would still need oil for lubricants, paving and feedstock for various chemical processes. In addition, we would be smarter to harvest our hydrogen from hydrocarbons; strip off the hydrogen and bury the carbon. Electrolyzing water for hydrogen is literally burning water.

    • “we would be smarter to harvest our hydrogen from hydrocarbons; strip off the hydrogen and bury the carbon. Electrolyzing water for hydrogen is literally burning water.”
      Or just keep heating the carbon till the bonds open up. And make pure carbon fiber out of it.
      It’s one of the reasons hydrogen never took off as a fuel. (Other than storage was a nightmare.)
      As the cheapest source of hydrogen was, and is, in crude oil.
      Can’t have those evil oil companies can we?
      Burning water works good. If you have the spare 69,000 KCAL’s laying around to split it up in the first place.
      As with some reactor or solar field.
      But then you still have the storage problem.
      Hydrogen fuel was a cure, looking for a problem.

  3. Fusion is the energy source of the future -and always will be.

  4. I had a chance to work on the Tokamak at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in the late 1980’s. They made plasma in the unit, then Uncle Sam pulled the plug on Princeton and Grumman.

    It takes a large amount of energy to start to energize the coils so they used two huge flywheels to store power as kinetic energy.

    Very impressive, no magnetic metals anywhere near the coils.

  5. I’ve done a whole bunch of reading about the work of the late Dr. Robert Bussard. It’s very interesting because it proposes a “non-thermal” fusion system. That has a couple of potential benefits. One of them is that it can perform reactions that can’t be done in a thermal system like a Tokamak; an example is the proton plus boron-11 reaction that produces 3 alpha particles. That one is neat because those can be captured by an electrostatic field, producing electricity directly — no heat engines, no moving parts. And in addition, it produces no neutrons.
    By contrast, the thermal systems all are focused on the D-T fusion reaction, which is “easiest” (all the others require substantially higher particle energies, i.e., temperatures). But that also produces high speed neutrons, with consequences a whole lot worse than the radioactivity problems of fission (uranium) reactors. The popular press notion that “fusion is clean because it only uses water and only produces helium” is utterly false for D-T and for that matter for the more difficult D-D reaction.
    Nor are tokamaks particularly safe. They have to be very large in plausible “net energy” machines. That means very large superconducting magnets, with very high stored energy. If you get a coolant leak in one of those, the result would be a spectacular explosion due to the very large current flowing through a no longer superconducting wire. And that, in turn, will spray lots of radioactive materials over the landscape, unless the whole thing is contained in a strong containment vessel.
    Because of their larger size and greater complexity, thermal fusion systems are likely to be far more expensive than fission reactors. So while taxpayer funded labs can tinker with these things, it’s not so clear how one could afford to generate electricity with them.

  6. Bill gates is ass-deep in some chloride reactor here in Idaho through a company called Terrapower.
    Not sure what it’s all about. Or feasibility. Other than the fact he has to keep the lights on for the “golden-billion”, of people him and his friends want to keep around.
    As for small reactors. Haven’t we been using those on subs and aircraft carriers for like 50-60 years now?
    One would think osmosis would have made improvements by now.
    Just like the hyper-sonic thing the Russians and the Chinese now have. Didn’t we have the SR-71 blackbird’s scramjet engines back in the 60’s? They never went full throttle.
    I don’t trust government at all. And business little more.
    To me the biggest problem to overcome is that hydrocarbons are bad. And that photo-synthesis is one of the best stores of energy we will ever find.
    Now that we can make light, sweet crude oil from grass-clippings. We would be putting ourselves into a short carbon cycle. (Not that a long carbon cycle is bad.)
    What we put out this year in CO2, could be harvested as plant bio-mass that fall.
    Turned into crude and burned all winter.
    We got more sun than we need. The system is very well proven and reliable.
    Reactors are great. But they’re a big corporate answer, built for profit. And will no doubt be used to enslave you.

  7. Sending fissile material into space sounds to me something like the Voyager spacecraft’s battery cells.

  8. Fusion reactors that actually had a net production of energy have been “just around the corner” since before I could read SciFi stories. And I’m no spring chicken. The
    ugly reality is that the odds are virtually certain that a working fusion reactor cannot exist ANYWHERE except inside a very large gravitational field….. i.e the SUN.
    Because it’s very very probable that it takes a MASSIVE gravitational field to overcome the inherent repulsion that hydrogen atoms have for each other. Want a working fusion reactor? Best bet is to learn to manipulate gravity. Because short of that fusion is likely to remain at best a boutique experimental technology.

  9. I remember reading about fusion reactors, and the possibility of having them for home use, in the mid 80’s. This was mere dreaming, of course, by a man who was a ham radio visionary who was looking for the next big thing. I think that if fusion ever does pan out, the idea of having them for home use, or for small groups of homes, as is more likely, is the way to go.
    Just imagine the possibilities. You could do away with a ton of the infrastructure that not only cost so much, but pose a risk of EMP, and design a new infrastructure from the ground up, avoiding not only EMP but also other dangers such as power poles being damaged by auto accidents, environmental issues when being forced to cross places that are habitat to plants and animals that are endangered. By sharing the cost of installation of a small reactor, for say a group of one hundred homes, they could cut down on the price per home. And fuel for such an endeavor could be much cheaper and safer than what is used now.
    In just a quick search, it seems that fuel for a fusion reactor could be a problem, but by building a breeder reactor, it could be self sufficient, making tritium and needing only sea water to not only sustain itself, but also making a small amount of tritium to fuel future start up for other reactors as they come online.
    I am just a simple person, but the ideas of this type of reactor appears to be part of the answer to much of our future energy needs. I think that we will have to rely upon a number of sources, instead of just one or two, to supply an ever increasing demand for more and more power, as the desire for more technology to make life easier and physical labor less demanding. And to make leisure time more enjoyable, including travel, to not only other places in our own countries, but to other countries as well, so that a 4 day vacation could include a possible long weekend in Paris for someone from New York or such. With trans Atlantic flights that took only a couple of hours, instead of the long and tiring flights that we see now.
    The next 50 years will change much faster than the last 50 years, of that I have no doubt. I hope that human beings figure out a way to get along better, to make our way of life more in tune with the possibilities of our technology. Or else, it will be pretty pointless.

    • I believe the device you’re talking about is the Farnsworth fusor. I think that can do fusion, but not (or not likely) net gain. Bussard’s Polywell is a generalization of that idea, which from my limited understanding seems more likely to be capable of net gain. But while test units are desktop size, a net gain unit would be quite a bit larger. Still much smaller than a hypothetical net gain Tokamak, though; the reason the Navy was sponsoring Bussard’s research is that there was some reason to believe his devices could be made to work in a ship reactor size device.

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