Fusion has an amazing future as a source of energy. Which is to say, in space craft beyond the orbit of Jupiter, sometime in the next two centuries. Here on Earth? Not so much. At least, that’s my opinion.
Nuclear electrical generation has 2.5 paths. The first is nuclear fission, the part that is the major electrical generation source that provides about 10% of the electricity in the world today. The 0.5 is radioisotope thermoelectric generator, where a tiny chunk of decaying radioactive material is used with a thermocouple to provide electricity to space probes. If you read or saw The Martian, that’s what he dug out of the pit and put in his jury-rigged long-distance Mars buggy.
And then there’s fusion. Where fission splits atoms, fusion merges them. Instead of radioactive fuel, there’s a lot of radioactive emissions from the merging of things like hydrogen-3, deuterium, and tritium that irradiates the containment structures. Lower radioactive waste that doesn’t last as long, but still radioactive waste for those who think that’s a concern.
Compared to CO2e emissions causing global warming, I don’t consider a few thousand tons of radioactive waste to be significant. Among other things, I spent enough time with epidemiologists building the world’s most sophisticated communicable disease and pandemic management solution that I ended up with a much better appreciation of the statistics of radiation and health. It’s not a big concern compared to coal or global warming.
But fusion generation of electricity, as opposed to big honking nuclear weapons using fusion, is a perpetual source of interest. When Lewis Strauss, then chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, talked about nuclear being “too cheap to meter” in 1954, he was talking about fusion, not fission. Like everyone since the mid-1950s, he assumed that fusion would be generating power in 20 years.
And so here we are, 67 years later. How is fusion doing?
Let’s start with the only credible fusion project on the planet, the ITER Tokamak project. It’s been around for decades. It planted its roots in 1985 with Gorbachev and Reagan. 35 countries are involved. Oddly, ITER isn’t an acronym, it’s Latin for “The Way,” a typically optimistic and indeed somewhat arrogant assumption about its place in the universe.
It’s supposed to light up around 2040. That’s so far away I hadn’t bothered to think much about it, as we have to decarbonize well over 50% of our economy long before that. As a result, I had a lazy read on it. I had assumed, as most press and indeed pretty much everyone involved with it asserted, that it would be generating more energy than it consumed, when it finally lit up.
It’s pretty easy to get that assumption when all of their press material and statements stay that they’ll put in 50 MW of heat and get out 500 MW of heat, or 10x the power. They’ve been saying that for at least 30 years, after all. I assumed that they would have excess energy, and could bolt a steam generator onto the very expensive tech and produce electricity if they wanted to. I didn’t assume that the million components and hundreds of kilometers of wrapped, very expensive, exotic material wires in the electromagnets would be remotely economical, but I did assume that they were going to have excess energy.
And they’ve managed to make plasma, if not run a fusion reaction.
However, something crossed my desk today that made me sit up and challenge my assumptions. There’s an obsessive guy named Steven B. Krivit who seems to spend most of his time looking at various alternative nuclear generation technologies, including debunking cold fusion. His piece from November 3rd, 2021 asserted that he’d identified in 2017 that ITER wouldn’t be generating more energy than was put in, and that ITER finally admitted it to a press outlet.
Really? This project that will end up costing somewhere between $18 and $45 billion isn’t intended to generate extra energy? That seemed unlikely.
So I poked around. Krivit’s numbers didn’t add up for me as he uses material from fusion projects, which are all power in MW at various stages of the process, and not energy in net MWh. But other parts of his story were clearer, and other participants in ITER were clearer still. I found a page from the JT-60SA project. It’s a project devoted to “the early realization of fusion energy by addressing key physics issues for ITER and DEMO.” It’s an ITER sub-project. And it agrees with Krivit, but in the right units.
What it amounts to is that ITER will require about 200 MW of energy input in total running as it creates 500 MW of heat. But the exergy of heat means that if it were tapped, it would only return about 200 MW of electricity. So it might be a perpetual motion machine, but one that wouldn’t do anything more than keep its lights running as long as you fed it tritium, about $140 million worth of the stuff a year.
And it gets worse. ITER is planning at the end of this process to maintain this for less than 3000 seconds at a time. That’s 50 minutes. This is at the end of the process. As they build up to less than an hour, mostly they’ll be working on fusion that lasts five minutes, several times a day. It’s a very expensive physics experiment that will not produce climate-friendly energy. It’s going to teach us a bunch, which I completely respect, but it’s not going to help us deal with climate change.
I expected more from ITER. Not much more. I mean, it is a million-component fission reactor expected to light up in 2040 and not generate any electricity at that point. But I had assumed based on all the press that it would generate more electricity than it used to operate if you bolted a boiler and some turbines to it, even if it were grossly expensive. Apparently not. Just grossly expensive, no net new electricity.
As a side note, Krivit asserts that a former ITER spokesman admitted this to Le Canard Enchainé, a French newspaper. Having become, briefly, conversational in French, something seemed off to me. Why would a paper be called The Chained Duck? It turns out that it’s in a tradition of semi-serious, semi-satirical journalistic outlets that both get good juicy quotes, leaks, and gossip from governmental insiders, but also acted as the Onion of the day, just with actual real news mixed in with the satire. Still going, it seems. The combination appears to mean that the former ITER representative did say what he said, that Krivit was right, but he said it to an outlet that only occasionally gets taken seriously, and it wasn’t taken up by any media that were serious most of the time.
However, ITER is not the only fusion reactor in the game. There are startups! And we all know startups make no promises that they can’t keep and are excellent at disclosure.
Like Helion. They have a photo-shopped peanut asserting it’s a 6th prototype with regenerative power creation that’s never achieved fusion that is backed by Peter Thiel! It just received $500 million more of VC funding, with an option to get up to $2.2 billion if they hit their targets!
I’m not sure if I could have made up a paragraph less likely to make me think that there was some there there.
The website is likely intentionally lacking in anything approaching detail. It’s low-information and VC friendly, which in the energy space is Thiel’s jam. He’s the guy who, despite being partnered with Elon Musk, has never realized that electrical generation was already being disrupted by wind and solar. His acolytes in startups disrupting energy crashed and burned, because he and they never bothered to do the hard work of understanding how electricity actually works at grid scale. At least Musk was solid on solar, although he got the wrong end of it and hasn’t quite figured that out yet.
While Helion has achieved 100 million degrees Celsius, it’s with a high-energy laser pulse — not new ideas, in fact 1950s ideas, just easier now — and they are incredibly coy about duration. The assumption to be taken is that it lasts for a picosecond at a time. They talk about their prototype having worked for months, but that means it’s maintaining a vacuum and occasionally creating plasma, a precursor to fueled fusion. Many years and tens of millions of dollars in, they are promising the moon, and soon. And to be clear, they are well behind on their initial schedule.
Unlike ITER, at least they are proposing fuels — Helium-3 and deuterium — which aren’t absurdly difficult and expensive to get. But still, Helium-3 isn’t terribly common. Lots of lunar mining proposals related to it. So they are going to manufacture helium-3 apparently.
And they promise to create electricity directly. It’s not heat-generating steam or powering thermocouples.
“The FRC plasmas in our device are high-beta and, due to their internal electrical current, produce their own magnetic field, which push on the magnetic field from the coils around the machine. The FRCs collide in the fusion chamber and are compressed by magnets around the machine. That compression causes the plasma to become denser and hotter, initiating fusion reactions that cause the plasma to expand, resulting in a change in the plasma’s magnetic flux. This change in magnetic flux interacts with the magnets around the machine, increasing their magnetic flux, initiating a flow of newly generated electricity through the coils. This process is explained by Faraday’s Law of Induction.”
Sure. They create intense magnetic fields and then create plasmas which generate their own magnetic field, and the combination generates electricity. I will be fascinated to read third-party assessments of their results.
There were no published results that I was able to find. No third party assessments that I was able to find. Undoubtedly their NDA and legal documents are things of beauty. Nothing except their assertion that they had found a way to create electricity incredibly cheaply, something that fusion researchers have been claiming for 67 years. They are asserting that their end price of electricity will be $0.01 cents per kWh. Unlikely.
I’m disappointed about ITER. I think Helion is likely to be a less well known and publicized Theranos, without in any way asserting that the principals are Elizabeth Holmes as much as just optimistic about timelines by decades, and far too enamored of their own, pulsing technology.
And fusion generating electricity appears to be as far away as ever.
Featured image courtesy Oak Ridge National Laboratory