Is nuclear fusion the best way to support rising energy demands?

Nuclear fusion could work – but only if we cough up some money

Author: Steven Cowley
September 16, 2015

This December, world leaders will gather in Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, where they will attempt – yet again – to hammer out a global agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Despite the inevitable sense of déjà vu that will arise as negotiators struggle to reach a compromise, they must not give up. Whatever the political or economic considerations, the fact remains: if global temperatures rise more than 2˚C from pre-industrial levels, the consequences for the planet will be catastrophic.

But the challenge does not end with reducing emissions. Indeed, even if we make the transition to a cleaner world by 2050, we will need to determine how to meet a booming global population’s insatiable appetite for energy in the longer term – an imperative that renewables alone cannot meet. That is why we need to invest now in other technologies that can complement renewables, and provide reliable electricity for many centuries to come. And one of the most promising options is nuclear fusion – the process that powers the sun and all stars.

[O]f course, holding the sun in a bottle is no
small challenge…

Foundations for fusion
Brought down to earth, nuclear fusion – a process fuelled primarily by lithium and deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen), both of which are plentiful in seawater and in the earth’s crust –could provide a major source of low-carbon energy. A fusion power station would use only around 450kg of fuel annually, cause no atmospheric pollution, and carry no risk of accidents that could lead to radioactive contamination of the environment.

But, while the fusion process has produced some energy (16 million watts of it, to be specific), scientists have yet to create a self-sustaining fusion ‘burn’. Indeed, unlike nuclear fission, which went from the laboratory to the power grid within two decades, fusion has proved a tough nut to crack.

The problem is that fusion involves joining two positively charged nuclei – and, as basic science shows, same-sign charges repel each other. Only at extremely high temperatures – over 100 million degrees Celsius, or almost 10 times hotter than the sun – do the nuclei move so rapidly that they overcome their repulsion and fuse.

Scientists have spent the last 60 years trying to figure out the best way to create these conditions. Today, the frontrunner is a device known as a ‘tokamak’, a magnetic bottle in which the fuel, held at 100-200 million degrees Celsius, fuses, unlocking huge amounts of energy. Of course, holding the sun in a bottle is no small challenge, especially when one considers that the systems must be engineered so that they can create electricity for a price consumers are willing to pay. But in a sunny corner of Southern France, a global megaproject is coming together that will, for the first time, test the technology on an industrial scale, creating the first controlled fusion burn.

Everything about the so-called ‘ITER reactor’ is big. It will be heavier than three Eiffel Towers; the material for its superconducting magnets would stretch around the equator twice; and it has a price tag of more than €15bn ($16.8bn), making it one of the largest international science endeavours in history. The ITER partners – China, the EU, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the US – represent half the world’s population. And, if it is successful, the reactor will produce half a gigawatt of fusion power and open the way for commercial reactors.

But the tokamak is not the only game in town. Other designs are emerging to join the race for fusion power. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility in California is getting impressive results by firing high-powered lasers at capsules of fuel, crushing the particles together to trigger fusion reactions.

Energy’s Holy Grail
Elsewhere, particularly in the US, privately funded fusion ventures are springing up like mushrooms, each with its own concept for what some call the Holy Grail of energy. As the most advanced design, the tokamak still looks like the safest bet, but the competition from its rivals can only spur further innovation and progress.

Some discourage investment in nuclear fusion, claiming that, given how far from being market-ready the technology is, our financial resources are better allocated to tried and tested energy options. The critics have a point: given that fusion can be carried out only on a large scale, its investment requirements are considerable.

In the 1970s, American researchers estimated that getting fusion power on the grid would demand investment of $2-3bn annually in research and development until anywhere from 1990 to 2005 (depending on the amount of effort applied). They also estimated a minimum level of investment, below which funding would never be sufficient to build a fusion power plant. Nuclear fusion research budgets have remained below that line for 30 years.

But fusion’s potential is simply too great to give up. And, in fact, the progress that has been made in recent years – despite the lack of adequate investment – belies the naysayers. Machines all over the world are reaching fusion temperatures and extending our technological capabilities. The ITER experiment, when it starts up in the early 2020s, will embody those advances, achieving the long-awaited fusion burn – and place us just one step away from the ultimate goal of getting fusion power on the grid in an affordable manner.

Without nuclear fusion, future generations’ energy options will be severely limited – creating a serious problem for developed and developing countries alike. Lev Artsimovich, the tokamak’s inventor, said that “fusion will be ready when society needs it”. One hopes that he is right. But, rather than depending on fusion researchers to defy the odds, the world should step up investment in the technology. Our future may depend on it.

Steven Cowley is CEO of the UK Atomic Energy Authority and Professor of Physics at Imperial College London

© Project Syndicate 2015

  • Donald Jasby

    Any DT-fueled controlled fusion reactor would be

    1) an installation constructed at extraordinarily high cost

    2) that uses nuclear weapons fuel (tritium) partially or entirely produced in fission reactors, ……and

    3) consumes enormous amounts of electrical energy

    4) in order to generate relativistic neutron streams that, while decelerating, produce large masses of radioactive material.

    ………….And that is what Cowley calls “Energy’s Holy Grail.”

  • protn7

    Chemonuclear Fusion is a type of low energy nuclear fusion that has
    been shown to produce energy in two experiments. Aneutronic nuclear
    fusion can provide unlimited electric power without polluting the
    environment with radioactive waste and greenhouse emissions.
    Chemonuclear processes in small dense white dwarf stars accelerate
    the rate of nuclear fusion and cause them to explode in spectacular
    supernova explosions.

    We started the Chemonuclear Fusion
    Project is to raise awareness of this new and vitally important
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    The Chemonuclear Fusion Project is soliciting
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  • Things around LENR are moving, but not in the media.
    Business is moving discretely, like Tom darden who licensed E-cat technology and fund Rossi, like AOnetwork flagging Brillouin Energy Corp to follow.
    at ICCF19 there was 10x more attendent, among them any entrepreneurs (Carl page, the big brother of Lary), engineers, and even some young physicist in “don’t tell my boss” mode.

    Airbus enter the game field, with their Chief Scientist (more precisely JF Geneste the Executive Chief Scientist of Airbus Innovation) showing public interest in LENR, to the point they support LENR-Cities in their effort to create the LENRG ecosystem in europe.

    The recent article in Aftenposten (Norway) following strange meeting organized by NTVA and TEKNA, inviting Essen, and McKubre, as the author of Elforsk LENR report, show a growing interest in Scandinavia.
    Is it because of Elforsk interest since few years and the E-cat test they funded ?
    Is it the work of Black Swan Innovation AS startup, who have a nice network there ?
    Is it Statoil who prepare an alternative plan ?
    Hard to guess.

    In US Nasa, DoD, Navy, DIA, SRI, have evaluated and some do research…
    I feel that US Gov support Brillouin via SRI/Navy, instead of E-cat/Darden who have some agreements with China (around Tianjin)…

    Japan did a clear but unreported move, by creating with great pride a joint research center with Tohoku University, MHI LENR research and Clean planet startup.

    Indian academy of science, agreed to publish in Current Science, 30 peer reviewed articles on LENR, visibly in the hope to restart the research done in BARK in the 90s, and stopped by fear of US academic opinion.

    what is the most amazing is that the subject is so heretic that there is not even one journalist to criticize the moves of Tohoku, Airbus, Elforsk.
    For me this is the perfect example of the Mutual assured Delusion model of Roland Benabou well described in “Groupthink: collective delusions in organizations and markets”…

    A blackswan is there, brighter than summer sun, and nobody in media agree to see it.


  • bachcole

    LENR or low energy nuclear reactions is the best way to support rising energy demands. Within 5 to 10 years or even less, YOU will agree with me. I guarantee it.

  • JeffC

    LENR or Low Energy Nuclear Reactions are being commercialized today. This over unity energy source has the benefits of zero pollution and absolutely no radioactive materials are used or produced in the process. The energy can be produced using cheap materials in a relatively simple apparatus. Verification of the phenomena has recently been made by the Stanford Research Institute in California as well as by a group of 6 university professors in Europe sponsored by Elforsk, a utility consortium. When deciding how to allocate resources, this field and its many advantages must be looked at. Here is one link for the interested:

  • Google *The Fusion Revolution* to find out about Low energy Nuclear Reaction (LENR), the radiation free form of nuclear fusion that is already here. Sure we could use some money for LENR research, but nowhere near the many billions needed to make laser driven hot fusion work. Lockheed Martin has a simplified hot fusion design in the works that will be much cheaper and works with microwaves. The price battle between LENR and simplified hot fusion will bring us all lower energy costs. LENR may someday even power our cars, aircraft, and ships.

  • MattMusson

    Absolutely wrong. Too much money has been wasted trying to boil the ocean.
    Even today, the great majority of $$$ are chasing the big international projects.

    If Fusion is ever going to work – it will be through the efforts of independent scientists
    who work on a shoestring budget. And, today, they are the ones pushing the boundaries
    and knocking on the door.

  • jameswmakepeace

    The tokamak technology is nonly a “front runner” in one sense… Those who make a very comfortable living from this “research” have succeeded in diverting more funds from the world’s governments than have those for any other technology. The truth is that a huge amount of money continues to be made by these people, who have powerful friends and who ruthlessly suppress news of progress in any other fusion technology approach, because they see it as a potential threat to theuir pown precious funding.
    This is a sad truth about mankind’s approach to the energy challenge … and Cowley, who has his thumb in many pies, as well as being CEO of UKAEA, is a prime example of someone with a personal axe to grind… but then he has the ear of the top people and nobody dares to check just how real the tokamak’s leadership is in the fusion energy field. In fact the tokamak technology is riven with faults and the immense ITER machine, which will be nothing more than a giant and costly experiment – not designed to supply commercial electricity at all – is unlikely to meet any of the objectives which have been set. Nor will it stick to its ever-slipping delivery shedule. Excuses contiunue to be found for rapidly escalating costs and ridiculously slow progress … but still the world keeps funding people like Mr Cowley… as he keeps promising us a bright future… tomorrow.. or perhaps much, much later than that…. if at all !

    • David

      Sadly for those of us who work in publicly funded fusion research, the reverse is true! Government imposed pay caps and budget cuts force labs like Culham to offer salaries significantly below market rate, making recruitment of high quality engineers and researchers very hard. Fortunately, there are those of us who see the value of the work and enjoy the challenge!