Nuclear Fusion — Coming Soon To An Electrical Grid Near You?

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There are two kinds of nuclear power — fission and fusion. Fission is the one we are most familiar with. It involves splitting atoms — isotopes of uranium being the most common — in a process that releases large amounts of heat. That heat is then used to turn water into steam which is then used to drive fairly conventional turbines to generate electricity.

CFS tokamak concept
The Commonwealth Fusion Systems tokamak. Credit: CFS

Fusion is the obverse of fission. Instead of splitting atoms, it forces them together under under extreme heat and pressure. In theory, the result is more heat than is needed to keep the process going and that excess heat can be used to turn water into steam which is then used to drive fairly conventional turbines to generate electricity.

Lots of people think humanity will find a way to “science our way out” of the global heating conundrum, even though lots of other people have been busy trashing science and scientists lately, calling them charlatans, liars, and worse so often that the word science has become an epithet. “You geedunkin foofraw. You’re nothing but a low down scientist looking to steal money from hard working taxpayers to line your own pockets!” is how conservative media usually puts it.

Despite the slur on science propounded by the bloviating jacknapes surrounding the current alleged leader of the free world, a group of those self same scientists — escapees from the insane asylum on the banks of the Charles River known to the world by the code name Massachusetts Institute of Technology — say they have studied all the available literature on fusion energy and have found a way to create a fusion reactor that is compact and more or less affordable. That is, it will cost less than a fleet of aircraft carriers. Their work has been published recently in the Journal of Plasma Physics.

They have formed a company called Commonwealth Fusion Systems to build the first fusion reactor based on their new research. It will be called SPARC (who says scientists have no sense of humor?) and the company claims it will be completed and providing electricity to the grid by the end of this decade.

The thing about fusion is, the process doesn’t work until isotopes of hydrogen are heated to hundreds of millions of degrees, according to The Guardian. As you can imagine, something that hot can’t be contained in a normal vessel made of stainless steel, concrete, or even kryptonite. In fact, the only way to contain it is inside a tokamak, a device with an ultra-powerful magnetic field. That’s the part that has stymied nuclear physicists until now. The people at SPARC claim to have invented new magnet technology that will allow them to build a compact tokamak that is relatively affordable.

We are all familiar with fusion reactors, as it turns out. That bright light in the sky that we call the sun is in fact a really big fusion reactor. It has been doing its thing for billions of years and hopefully will continue to do so for a while longer, assuming humans don’t find a way to destroy it the way they have destroyed almost everything here on Earth. Fusion power is it, the Holy Grail, the sine qua non of energy. In theory, it is capable of producing emissions- free electricity forever, at least to the limited extent homo sapiens can understand that term.

Bob Mumgaard, CEO of “These are concrete public predictions that when we build SPARC, the machine will produce net energy and even high gain fusion from the plasma. That is a necessary condition to build a fusion power plant for which the world has been waiting decades. The combination of established plasma physics, new innovative magnets, and reduced scale opens new possibilities for commercial fusion energy in time to make a difference for climate change. This is a major milestone for the company and for the global clean tech effort as we work to get commercial fusion energy on the grid as fast as possible.”

The company says, “CFS and MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center are also now constructing the advanced magnets that will allow CFS to build significantly smaller and lower cost fusion power plants. This collaboration is on track to demonstrate a successful 20 Tesla, large-bore magnet in 2021. This magnet test, the first of its kind in the world, opens a widely identified transformational opportunity for commercial fusion energy. These magnets will then be used in SPARC, which is on track to begin construction in 2021 and demonstrate net energy gain from fusion for the first time in history by 2025. SPARC will pave the way for the first commercially viable fusion power plant called ARC.”

At a time when wind and solar power are growing by leaps and bounds, why do we need fusion power? According to Bob Mumgaard, the goal is not to use fusion to replace solar and wind, but to supplement them. “There are things that will be hard to do with only renewables, industrial scale things, like powering large cities or manufacturing,” he tells The Guardian. “This is where fusion can come in.”

Martin Greenwald, one of the senior scientists on the SPARC project, adds that a key motivation for the ambitious timeline is meeting energy requirements in a warming world. “Fusion seems like one of the possible solutions to get ourselves out of our impending climate disaster. What we’ve really done is combine an existing science with new material to open up vast new possibilities,” he says.

Of particular note is that the climate plan put forth by incoming president Joe Biden includes investments in advanced nuclear technology. Commonwealth Fusion Systems has attracted investment from a diverse group of backers, including the Breakthrough Energy Ventures, founded by Bill Gates, and Equinor, Norway’state owned energy company. In a statement to the press reported by Recharge News, it says, “Equinor is a broad energy company and we will continue to invest in promising and potentially game changing zero carbon energy technologies. We are investing in fusion and CFS because we believe in the technology and the company.”

Will fusion power save us from ourselves? Maybe. It seems far fetched but than again so did airplanes, the microwave oven, and cell phones at one time. According to legend, on New Year’s Eve, 1899, the head of the US Patent Office said to a colleague, “Everything that can be invented has now been invented.” Perhaps we would be wise to keep an open mind on this fusion energy stuff.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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