By Mark Halper
Posting in Energy
A small New Jersey company has reported a big step toward cracking nuclear fusion, the elusive energy source that many people regard as the Holy Grail of power.
Lawrenceville Plasma Physics Inc. said it has confined a gas at 1.8 billion degrees C. Its previous highest temperature was 1.1 billion degrees C, which it hit last year and which it says had stood as a fusion industry record since 1978.
As hot as the earlier 1.1 billion degrees C might sound to you and me, it was too frigid to support LPP's "aneutronic" approach to fusion.
"The new work shatters those long-standing records, and, most importantly, achieves the temperature needed to burn aneutronic fuels," the Lawrenceville, N.J.-based startup says in a press release.
Unlike today's nuclear fission, nuclear fusion combines atoms, rather than splits them apart. Many people regard it as a potentially safe, cheap, CO2-free source of power that does not pose serious nuclear waste problems the way uranium-based fission does. It does not use uranium. Rather, it tends to deploy different forms of hydrogen, among other fuels.
The "aneutronic" form of fusion would use common hydrogen, rather than the isotopes of hydrogen on which several other fusion projects rely. ("Aneutronic" means "without neutrons" - normal hydrogen has no neutrons in its nucleus, just a proton).
If perfected, aneutronic fusion could be the ultimate of the ultimate power source, because it generates electricity directly, without using a turbine. Other forms of fusion, as well as nuclear fission, generate heat that creates steam (sometimes another gas) that drives a turbine.
But aneutronic requires severely higher temperatures than other forms of fusion, which theoretically operate at around 100 million-to-150 million degrees C. (And then there's "cold fusion" which we'll save for a rainy day; feel free to comment below).
LPP's 1.8 billion degrees in principle topples the temperature barrier. The accomplishment marks the second breakthrough of three that LPP says is necessary for it to commercialize fusion. LPP had already demonstrated that it can confine fuel long enough to burn it, at tens of nanoseconds.
Now for its third and final trick: "We are still far from having sufficient density in the tiny hot regions to get net energy, but that is our next goal," says Eric Lerner, LPP's chief scientist.
LPP director of business development Derek Shannon told SmartPlanet that once it reaches sufficient densities, it will have also achieved a net balance of energy output to commercialize a fusion device. In over half a century of research and development, the fusion industry has not yet managed to achieve an economical "gain" of energy out compared to the energy required to produce fusion-based electricity.
Shannon said that LPP could commercialize its fusion device about four years after hitting the required density. It's not clear how long that might take.
"The LPP research team is currently upgrading their fusion device to achieve the higher densities required for net energy, a goal they hope to achieve soon," the press release states.
To reach 1.8 billion degrees C, the company is using a technology known as dense plasma force (DPF), which fires lighting-like magnetized plasma balls of fuel at each other in a compressed space.
LPP is experimenting with a hydrogen isotope, called deuterium, which is one of the two isotopes that "common" (neutronic) fusion uses (the other is tritium). LPP's goal is to eventually use normal hydrogen and boron as its fuel.
Part of its vision is to install small, garage-sized 5 megawatt fusion devices to provide neighborhood power.
Other companies working on aneutronic fusion include Tri-Alpha Energy, a stealth startup in Irvine, Calif. Startup General Fusion of Burnaby, Canada, and Helion Energy of Redmond, Wash., are chasing "neutronic" fusion.
Between them and LPP, it's looking more likely than ever that fusion could hit the market within a decade or so - which is faster than the large, international government backed projects like ITER in France and the National Ignition Facility at California's Lawrence LIvermore National Laboratory will accomplish.
Images from Focus Fusion via Flickr
More nuclear gazing on SmartPlanet:
- Nuclear's back. Oh no it isn't! Oh yes it is!
- China grabbing up uranium to secure nuclear lead
- Nuclear down, CO2 up in Japan, Germany
- Asian Super Grid: How Japan’s anti-nuclear plan could go nuclear
- Fukushima’s lesson: ‘Alternative’ nuclear, not ‘no’ nuclear
- Photo captures Westinghouse’s nuclear knowledge flying around China
- Watch replay of nuclear’s future, with dash of rare earth
- Why safe nuclear will rely on rare earth minerals
- Meet the future of nuclear power: 8 guys in China
- The new face of safe nuclear
Mar 27, 2012
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This is an optimistic article. I hope it is correct, but I doubt it - Every time someone has come close to controlling fusion in theory, in practice, it just gets further away. May we all live long enough for this pipe dream to become reality.
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The question isn't if, it's when. Furthermore, why do we have to accept that the answer is later rather than sooner. The answer of course can be summed up in one example. Why doesn't the president announce to the world that we are embarking on a plan to replace oil energy with fusion energy? That announcement alone would cause the price of oil to plummet. Energy would be cheap, jobs would be plentiful, and etc. Back in the early forties, it took the United States just a scant few years to go from a good basic knowledge of atomic energy to a working bomb. Now we have a very good understanding of fusion energy. (There is a Russian-Italian project called "IGNITER" that can produce a sustained fusion reaction for 4 seconds. The problem appears to be their ability to keep it cool.) I submit that if the United States made it a national goal, such as going to the moon was, we could have a working model in ten years or less. The understanding/technology is there, the tools are there, so why arn't we leading the way? The answer is OIL keeps getting in the way. ortexgraves.com
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For a fraction of what we've spent on Hot Fusion we could already have cold fusion. Get the facts! http://youtu.be/i29oXQHh-U4
Seems like a refrain I've heard many times before - I won't hold my breath waiting for this to become practical.
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From all the articles that I had read, none of them described how they can converse hi temp plasma into electricity. Since the temp is so hot, whenever it touch the surface of metal or liquid, it would either melt or evaporation. This makes eff to be very small for practical use.
Now while I welcome this amazing breakthrough, it does not realistically help us with our planet's immediate or even medium term energy needs. Liquid Fluoride Thorium reactors are much more achievable in the short term, as they use technology already successfully trialled at Oak Ridge in the 60s, and offer all the advantages of safety and scale that fusion promises. Mind you, as the world is running out of Helium, thanks to balloons, then perhaps fusion will be useful to generate that.
...I just don't expect to see it commercially deployed in my lifetime. It has it all; it's theoretically efficient and economical, fuel is endlessly abundant, and it's beyond "green". (although I know the "greens" will find plenty wrong with it, and the economic prosperity that will inevitably follow) Fusion also opens up solutions to many of our other industrial/ecological problems. Imagine being able to molecularly transform "toxic" waste and compounds to benign, or even alternatively useful material. It's the ultimate in recycling. All of a sudden, landfills would be highly valuable as sources of raw material. Back in the late '80s/early '90s, there was a debate in Congress to either fund the International Space Station or a giant supercolider in Texas. I always felt that the supercolider would have been the better investment, because it would have contributed towards fusion research, which will benefit us far more as a society in the long run than orbiting the Earth.
For most of my 63 years, nuclear fusion has always been 10-20 years away from being practical. Maybe this time it's true? But probably it isn't.
Their small scale research may point to a future where it is more economical to produce many smaller fusion plants instead of the massive commercial electric plants built today. Think of the reduced grid infrastructure needed if power plants that required only a 3,000 square foot building 2 stories tall could power a city block or a single NYC skyscraper. Instead of building massive plants in place you could have an assembly line producing power modules that could be delivered on flatbed trucks.
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Go for it! Always wanted to see someone turn true blue ... Timeline: scientific breakeven this year (2012) Four more years to engineering prototype for licensing (2016) Manufacturers world-wide begin pumping out generators (2017) Fast enough for ya?
Because the plasmoid is far from any solid surface, surrounded by lower temperature gas, melting the surroundings is not of concern, although a commercial system will need heat removal systems (particularly for the anode, which is closest to the plasmoid). Our FoFu-1 chamber does get warm to the touch after a series of experimental shots. In a potential commercial system, energy will be extracted from the ion beam that exits the plasmoid, and from the X-rays using an "onion" type device that takes advantage of the photoelectric effect over many thousands of layers. Both these methods promise very high efficiency, while eliminating any steam turbine. The video might better explain: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVif4hUAJ8c
Workable thorium reactors haven't yet been designed and tested, and the FF generators are about 50X cheaper in any case. Tho, thad to thay, thorium's boat hath thailed, leaving it thobbing on the thea thore! Production and installation of the FF generators will get cranked up to high volume during the 2017-2020 period.
This shows good progress from us for focus fusion, but since the feasibility study is not complete I am very much in favor of a true diversity of energy projects including LFTR's. If the focus fusion feasibility study is successful, the timeframe for commercialization is
You have an excellent chance of seeing it deployed. See my post above. By 2020 the planet will be installing FF generators as fast as thousands of factories can crank them out. Renewables, btw, will be very early economic roadkill. Probably as soon as the scientific feasibility is announced, perhaps later this year, it will be evident that they are far worse than worthless.
The real debate should have been between funding the billions (at least $10B) in fossil fuel subsidies and these research projects. Or the $1B for every stealth bomber, or the $5B or more for each new aircraft carrier (and its huge fleet of support vessels etc). And don't even get me on to the cost of the various wars....
Thanks Xray. My years don't add up to 63, but I'm somewhat steeped in the history of this. My impression is that fusion has perennially been 30 years away. So I'll take the new 10-to-20 years! And I'm going to go out on a limb and say it will be closer to 10. I'm impressed that entrepreneurs have entered the business. That's not to discount what the government-backed giants like ITER and NIF are doing - I do think they'll deliver useful findings. But they have the luxury (until budget cuts) of trundling along. Startup companies do not. That's why I see the time frame now shortening. Provided the startups find adequate funding - not all will.
You're way overstating the size. Perhaps 300 sq', one story tall. 5MW per unit is expected to begin with, perhaps up to 20MW if cooling technology improves enough. The modules would fit in a shipping container. Cost about $250K FOB factory door.
Excellent point Mr. H. Idiots. Applies equally to nuclear fission as well as fusion. The thorium molten salt fission reactor that Flibe Energy is working on could come in a small form factor and help the U.S. military disconnect its bases from the grid http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/intelligent-energy/the-new-face-of-safe-nuclear/7712?tag=search-river. That's just one example. Others within the links at end of story. Or search "modular nuclear" above for more from me and my SP colleagues. Modular reactors could also be used as a heat source for industrial processes. On a slightly controversial note, for instance, they could assist in oil sands extraction. See "How nuclear will make oil greener" http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/intelligent-energy/how-nuclear-will-make-oil-greener/10879.
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"Workable thorium reactors haven't yet been designed and tested". Perhaps not, but molten salt reactors in general have. The barriers to LFTRs are mostly political. Sure, there is research and testing still required to achieve a certified design but if LFTR research received a fraction of money that wind and solar do, we could have one fairly quickly. OTOH, LPP admits they have a technical challenge with an unknown resolution date. As a former nuclear engineering student, I'm an advocate of fusion, LFTR and the LENR technologies. All three have the capability of obsolescing wind and solar as a grid power source in short order and even fossil fuels in the longer term. There is too much ignorance out there concerning the word "nuclear". Cheap nuclear power may just save us all.
Halper there have been "entrepreneurs" in the fusion power business going back 50 years. When things don't work out reporters like you start calling them "cranks". Lot's of tech millionaire money floating about better explains the increase in fusion approaches over the last five years. NIF has already had fusion yield but not the 10 to 30 times yield that can make it a candidate for commercial power. What report or insight do you have Halper that NIF won't make ten plus numbers in the near future leading directly to the full funding of LIFE which you have entirely overlooked. LIFE is power producing facility based on the NIF target and hohlraum approach, presently in design and component testing. LIFE will be a 2020's installation producing 1000 to 2000 MW.
Lerner and co. expect about 4 yrs of engineering prototyping after scientific breakthrough to produce a licensable design. At that point (~2017), the design will be made available to ALL comers for a very reasonable fee, world-wide. At that moment, the race to be first (or at least quick enough) to get access to ultra-cheap power will be on. I perdicks: by 2020, the world will be converting to FF power as fast as it can crank out the generators. To do otherwise in any particular jurisdiction will be to accept a 10X+ disadvantage in the cost of new and replacement power sourcing. That's incentive with big teeth.
Those units run about $3-$20 per Watt capacity, all in (steam turbines etc. included), AFAIK. The FF unit runs about $0.05/Watt. Which would you spend your money on, if wotsa watts was what you wanted? ;)