/ Any scientists in the room....Fusion- worth a 13Bn experiment?

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The Lemming - on 07 Aug 2013
Being a bit behind the curve, this is the first time I've heard of the 13Bn experiment to build a fusion reactor to see if we can emulate the sun's power and commercially produce energy.

Knowing even less than nothing, is this the way forward and how safe or dangerous is this technology?

Father Noel Furlong on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:

Yes, yes and yes again. Limitless power with no radioactive waste from nothing more than water.
jonny taylor on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:
It's what will revolutionise power generation in 10 years time. Which is exactly what they said 10 years ago. And 20 years ago. And 30 years ago.
mgco3 - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:

This is the goose that lays the golden egg for power companies. Cheap to produce power (whilst maintaining ever increasing prices to consumers and therefore profits) will have energy company executives in perpetual orgasm..

It will make Bill Gates look like a Big Issue seller in comparison to the men at the top of the big Power Companies..
Moritz L - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to mgco3:
It's not as cheap as it may sound.
PopShot on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming: While I'm not a scientist I think the technology holds amazing potential for humankind so yes it is definitely well worth it.
Pursued by a bear - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming: Yes.

Investments in alternative routes involving lasers will be worth it too.

T.
Simon Caldwell - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:

Someone is likely to make money out of it, therefore it should be opposed at every opportunity.
jonny taylor on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to Pursued by a bear:
> Investments in alternative routes involving lasers will be worth it too.

Afraid I've got some bad news for you on that one - the US congress doesn't agree...

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/energy/2013/07/130726-fusion-national-ignition-facility-budg...
Pursued by a bear - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to jonny taylor: Well, it's not the first time that they and I have had different views...

T.
jonny taylor on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to Pursued by a bear:
Fair point. Unfortunately they're the ones with the money, unless you've got a spare $60m to chuck into the pot.
Coel Hellier - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:

> ... is this the way forward and how safe or dangerous is this technology?

Yes, it's the way forward, *if* it can be made to work. There are only two technologies that can actually replace fossil-fuel burning, these are nuclear fission (which is dangerous and produces lots of radioactive waste) and nuclear fusion (which is not dangerous, and produces vastly less waste).

Given that fossil fuels both cause climate change and are limited, and given the problems with current nuclear fission, and given the fact that no renewables are scaleable to actually deal with the problem, yes it is worth pursuing nuclear fusion.
The Lemming - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to jonny taylor:

From my crash course 101 in Fission, it would seem that this project hinges around Russian technology for a big magnetic doughnut.

Go Bears!
woolsack - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming: It's a drop in the ocean compared to the billions literally wasted on propping up the banking industry recently
IainRUK - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming: Basically science pays... investment in science results in spin offs.. science funding and GDP correlate strongly.. regardless of the actual project..
andic - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:

Have you been to this site?:http://www.ccfe.ac.uk/JET.aspx
worth a look

It is certainly worth looking at and as Iain points out the engineering developments on the journey to building even the pilot plant will be worth while.

New alloys for example :-)
pyro2312 - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming: It will work, it's more a question of how long it will take to make it commercially viable. In terms of safety, there's virtually no health risk from radiation and there's no risk of a runaway reaction causing a reactor meltdown as there is in fission reactors.
Lesdavmor - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to jonny taylor: Actually even earlier than that, it was held as a breaking technology in the late 1960's
The Lemming - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to pyro2312:
> In terms of safety, there's virtually no health risk from radiation and there's no risk of a runaway reaction causing a reactor meltdown as there is in fission reactors.

Surely there have to be risks?

But what are they?

Jim Fraser - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:

My principal concern about spending on Fusion is that it might be too little and too late.

When we were perfecting the Hydrogen bomb and building Nuclear Fission power stations, we should have kept going and put a lot more effort into this. Yes, it might have been a bit early as far as control technology was concerned but perhaps one would have driven the other.

Another thing we haven't put enough effort into is Fission reactor types other than the Uranium cycle. It is perfectly possible that other forms of decay will produce effective results without excessive waste and other risks. We don't know because we haven't tried. We haven't tried because the early reactors were about bombs and not keeping the lights on.

I take no pleasure in the idea of more fission reactors but there may be no choice if people don't learn to put the light off (or turn the a/c down).
ads.ukclimbing.com
pyro2312 - on 07 Aug 2013
John1923 - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:

Yes it is a good plan.

MischaHY - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:

The current issue with fusion in my understanding is making it actually work in a way that benefits us. Personally I'd like for the 13bn to be invested in solar technology so that we could make full use of the best fusion reactor we have access to i.e. the sun. That, and hydro-electric powerstations could easily be manipulated to provide all the power we need (that is, until we get space based solar power sorted).

Alternatively, we could just have anti-matter reactors in every house. Wouldn't that be fun? :')
PopShot on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to Jim Fraser:
> (In reply to The Lemming)
>
> My principal concern about spending on Fusion is that it might be too little and too late.
>
> When we were perfecting the Hydrogen bomb and building Nuclear Fission power stations, we should have kept going and put a lot more effort into this. Yes, it might have been a bit early as far as control technology was concerned but perhaps one would have driven the other.
>
> Another thing we haven't put enough effort into is Fission reactor types other than the Uranium cycle. It is perfectly possible that other forms of decay will produce effective results without excessive waste and other risks. We don't know because we haven't tried. We haven't tried because the early reactors were about bombs and not keeping the lights on.
>
> I take no pleasure in the idea of more fission reactors but there may be no choice if people don't learn to put the light off (or turn the a/c down).



I watched a documentary on You Tube about this crazy guy who is obsessively campaigning for something called "Thorium Salt" reactors in the US. It didn't seem a very good solution to me, or a step forward. I like the sound of fusion technology though.
lynx3555 - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming: They should be spending a lot more than this....the effort to build a nuclear bomb was far greater than this token gesture....Fusion would make a massive benefit to the planet.
Enty - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:

Talking money. It's 2bn more then the uk gives in foreign aid per annum divided up between 10 of the worlds richest countries. No brainer.

E
Simon4 - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to Jim Fraser:
> ....We haven't tried because the early reactors were about bombs and not keeping the lights on.

I have heard it claimed (and other, more knowledgeable people than me may confirm or deny this), that the original civil nuclear reactors were :

1) not really built with decommissioning in mind, particularly but not exclusively with regard to low/intermediate level nuclear waste
2) essentially scaled up submarine reactors, rather than built for the specific purpose of civil, land-based power

So even the fission based reactors could have had a much better outcome in terms of life-cycle than they in fact have had.

It would be nice to think that fusion might work, and there is certainly a lot of elbow behind this project, but its track-record is of promising a lot and delivering very little.
Simon4 - on 07 Aug 2013
In reply to Jim Fraser:

> I take no pleasure in the idea of more fission reactors but there may be no choice if people don't learn to put the light off (or turn the a/c down).

Or even if they do. I recall passing a nuclear power station on the East coast,close to the border, and being told that it and one other produced half of Scotlands' electricity. Solar panels, windmills, etc really are just hobbyist tokenistic electricity generation. Or possibly hobby-horse.

Trevers - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Simon4:

The problem is 13bn isn't enough investment
Trevers - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Simon4:
> (In reply to Jim Fraser)
> [...]
>
> I have heard it claimed (and other, more knowledgeable people than me may confirm or deny this), that the original civil nuclear reactors were :
>
> 1) not really built with decommissioning in mind, particularly but not exclusively with regard to low/intermediate level nuclear waste
> 2) essentially scaled up submarine reactors, rather than built for the specific purpose of civil, land-based power

They weren't really built with much in mind to be honest
jayme - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Simon4:
> (In reply to Jim Fraser)
> [...]
>
> I have heard it claimed (and other, more knowledgeable people than me may confirm or deny this), that the original civil nuclear reactors were :
>
> 1) not really built with decommissioning in mind, particularly but not exclusively with regard to low/intermediate level nuclear waste
> 2) essentially scaled up submarine reactors, rather than built for the specific purpose of civil, land-based power
>
> So even the fission based reactors could have had a much better outcome in terms of life-cycle than they in fact have had.
>
The original civil nuclear reactor (Calder Hall) was a scaled up version of the reactors used to make plutonium for the bomb. All this countries reactors from then until Sizewell B was built were improvements on this design.
All new reactors that will be built are similar to a submarine reactor in that they are PWRs (Pressurised Water Reactors)

When the first reactors were built they were owned by the government (CEGB) so decommissioning was not really investigated fully. it was more a race to build as quick as possible.
kevin stephens - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:
great in theory. Technology a little daunting - just need to build a wall (real and/or magnetic) with temperature 10 x that of centre of sun on one side and absolute zero on the other side - and find a way to transfer energy across it to generate electricity. There would be some radioactive waste as the irradiated bits of wall would need to be replaced regularly
johnj on 08 Aug 2013 - 86.112.78.158 whois?
In reply to The Lemming:

My mate told me they had fusion reactors running in the late 60's but as soon as it could be seen to be reliably load tested, the big oil men came in and shut it down before too many folk found out about it. Probably shipped it out to warehouse 13, or maybe some D.U.M.B near Dulce or Denver, or maybe they moved it to area 51 and shipped it out by heavy lift to far side of the moon to fry big mac for the Klingons.
MischaHY - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Simon4:
> (In reply to Jim Fraser)
>
> [...]
>
> Or even if they do. I recall passing a nuclear power station on the East coast,close to the border, and being told that it and one other produced half of Scotlands' electricity. Solar panels, windmills, etc really are just hobbyist tokenistic electricity generation. Or possibly hobby-horse.

Currently true, granted. The two produce 1200MW and 800MW respectively. However, the Scottish parliament have voted entirely against a new nuclear strategy, and Scotland has actually beaten its green energy targets in recent years. In 2011 they were generating 35% of their power by green methods, and are aiming to have that figure at 50% by 2015. To give a perspective on how realistic this is, they are currently exploiting an estimated 2.8GW of green energy, from a total of 62GW. The potential is there, the technology is there.

As for solar panels etc in England being 'hobbyist' -
In their current level and applications (In the UK as a whole), perhaps. Provide funding and incentives to get thermal solar panels on as many private residences as possible, and make it a legal requirement for public/government buildings and businesses above a certain income, and suddenly it becomes much more viable.

Just a few thoughts to ponder...
wintertree - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:

Here are my views.

1) There is no doubt in my mind that nuclear fusion is *the* power source of the future. It is fundamentally clean and safe, and to all intents and purposes, limitless. It really can't explode, melt down, blow up etc. Any kind of reactor design is likely to be able to suffer non-nuclear industrial accidents, but people die in boiler explosions and falling off wind turbines - all power generation carries risk.

2) The project you are refering to, ITER, is, in my opinion, not going to be the first fusion reactor to succeed. ITER is "Tokomak" fusion. This - if/when it leads onto the DEMO power generating reactor in 40 years, will not be small, cheap, affordable etc. It will maintain the status quo of gigabuck power plants with high running costs generating centrally controlled and distributed electricity.

2a) ITER is basically sucking up all the state funding for Fusion in almost all the world. I think that this concentration of funding into one design has happened to soon. I think the Canadian and Iranian governments are funding other types of research.

2b) The end game for fusion is the "Aneutronic" fusion of Hydrogen and Boron-11. This can produce direct high voltage electricity without steam turbines. It will simply not be possible in ITER.

3) The other main reactor discussed on this thread is NIF, or laser fusion. The US Congress are correct to call it a day on this. In terms of power generation I see it as a monumentally dumb idea. I basically see it as a weapons lab re-spinning their work to keep them all in jobs now that the cold war is over.

4) "Hotter than the sun". This is a disingenuous marketing tactic to make it sound well difficult. Another, equivalent statement is "ions with 3 times the energy generated by the electron gun in an old-fashioned CRT television". The high temperature part is a sympton of ITER being the wrong design.

5) Several rich people, "black science" compaines and military groups are funding alternative fusion reactors that will be smaller than ITER, significantly cheaper (both in total and per unit of energy generate) in both capital- and running-cost, and will be more suited to a more localised generation system. Lockhead Martin claim theirs will make 100MW and go on the back of a lorry.

5a) Many scientists in the ITER fusion program will claim these other types will never work as a power station due to technical problems. This is despite ITER and its precursors having swallowed over $30B (inflation adjusted to 2010) and thus far failing to demonstrate that they will work as a power plant, and indeed they do not plan to do this for over 20 years with the DEMO plant.

5b) A degree of faith is required in the other projects, because being backed by militaries, private companies or VCs, they do not publish all their data. Some scientist see this as meaning they have nothing. It does not, it simply means they exist outside the ivory tower of pork-funded, job secure mainline fusion research. There is more than one development model

5c) Here are some of the alternatives
US Navy - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polywell - if this works it's my favourite and could see fusion powered boats, aircrafts, road trains and space craft, and would genuinely change the world.

General Fusion - http://www.generalfusion.com - private investors. This design apes a thermonuclear weapon's fission trigger in compressing a fusion core, similar to laser fusion. Unlike laser fusion it uses molten lead and steam pistons to hit gas via molten lead instead of 192 incredibly expensive lasers hitting precision manufactured pellets.

Lockhead Martin - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_beta_fusion_reactor - One of the worlds biggest defence firms. Neither myself or the fusion people I've spoken to can really figure out the design (it sounds like a polywell but is the wrong shape.) This one had been a "black" project, the guy gives a single talk at Google and then it goes "black" again. I think that was part of a rising effort in the USA to get a Senate Hearing to look at if the fact all state money goes to ITER is a great big mistake and should be reversed.

Field Reversed Configuration - http://depts.washington.edu/rppl/programs/frc_intro.html - there's not much public info on this, but a company called "Tri-Alpha" has significant VC funding for it.

6) If one of these succeeds before ITER has it's first fusion event, there are going to be some akward questions asked about what to do with the site in France. Occasionally gigabuck science projects get cancelled part way through construction http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superconducting_Super_Collider


7) Despite my feeling that we give to much money to just one project - ITER - it has a $13B budget over the next 10 years - of which the UK is but a tiny part. In the UK we are taking over $1.5B *per year* from energy consumers via inflated bills and passing it onto people subsidy farming via windmills. Once decentralised fusion generation is running there will be no reason not to pull down all our windmills and recycle their rare earth materials and their steel. Heaven only knows what we do with the waste cement.

It is complete madness to poor all the resources into renewable that we do now (including deforesting vast swathes of the USA to run half of the Drax coal plant). whilst giving a tiny proportion of those resources to the fusion program. You have to ask what the future looks like, and use your funding to get there. We are not.
mal_meech on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming: Tokamak technology is one thing, but the concept has been around for decades and is only feasible on a large industrial scale.

Skunk works development is the one you have to watch, capable of being utilised at mobile sizes (back of a truck)
http://www.dvice.com/2013-2-22/lockheeds-skunk-works-promises-fusion-power-four-years
mal_meech on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to wintertree: I'm sure I saw a lab video from skunk works with more details around the time of the google X talks, but it seems to have disappeared (if it ever existed...) Perhaps it has gone back to black.
wintertree - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to mal_meech:

> (In reply to wintertree) I'm sure I saw a lab video from skunk works with more details around the time of the google X talks, but it seems to have disappeared (if it ever existed...) Perhaps it has gone back to black.

Time will tell. At least for these guys time=4 years, not the 40 years of the Tokomak program.
alanw - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to wintertree: Some fascinating stuff on fusion but in terms of general energy policy I'm not sure I agree with your point about renewables. Timing is uncertain but I'd say that fusion is at the very least a decade away but, for large-scale deployment, given it has never yet produced net power, 20 or 30 years is probably more realistic and still optimistic.

We need to decarbonise now and ploughing all our money into uncertain technologies rather than wind, solar, biomass, etc which, while not perfect, are producing low carbon electricity now would seem foolish to me.

I'm afraid I am very sceptical of anyone who promotes a single solution, whatever it may be. We've had a hundred years to develop our fossil fuel energy system and shifting away from that will be an enormous challenge. Solutions will come on multiple fronts in incremental steps. As much will depend on how we use energy as it will from how we produce it.

I agree that we're probably putting too much in the ITER basket but I also think we have to keep pushing hard on the technologies we have that are actually working now while still funding more speculative research which, as others have pointed out, can produce results on unexpected fronts.
wintertree - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to alanw:

I never said we should stop funding renewables, but that it is madness to fund them so much whilst barely funding fusion research.

I don't think fusion will - eventually - be "a single solution" - there will be reactors of different types, scales, methods and fuel sources. In the future things really are better, and really do consolidate on one "winner". There was a time when some houses had electric lighting and some had gas lighting after all. I haven't seen a gas light (outside of camping) in my life.

We could spend our entire GDP for however many years it would take to decarbonise the UK. When that is finished our efforts would be wiped out in 90 days by the growth in China, and they are not going to decarbonise in the next 15 years.

Energy reduction could be part of the solution - and renewables could - but with all the will in the world, they do not form the solution for providing anything like current western lifestyles for the whole world. Can you imagine 60 times as many wind turbines across the UK? It's not a future to aim for. (Note *total energy* not just *electricity* which is the context renewables are always set against, but to decarbonise everything else has to go as well.)

If we want to decarbonise now the only realistic prospect is to built a lot of fission reactors, preferably Thorium cycle, and using designs geared around safety and economy, not production of weapons grade material. India, China and US VCs (including Bill Gates) are developing such systems. Germany turned their back on a world leading pilot plant 20 years ago. But then when it comes to insane energy policy they are leading the world.
Jimbo W on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:

Can I ask anyone in the know three questions.
1) If this became a systemic energy solution across the world, and replaced fossil fuels in power generation, what are the estimates of the volume of water required on a year to year basis to produce the deuterium and in what form is the deuterium? How long is this deuterium predicted to last if this were a global energy source replacing fossil fuels?

2) What are the sources for the tritium and to what extent are they sustainable and at the estimated global usage if fusion were to replace all fossil fuels?

3) Are there any environmental effects to our atmosphere of the "He" produced?
davidbeynon - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:

13 billion isn't that much. There was a post I saw on another forum, which was discussing the ruinous cost of particle accelerators which I will shamelessly reproduce:

"I work in the oil industry and the annual annual project capital expenditure globally is now over 1 Trillion dollars (google it). Typically, in any given year, there are 5-15 > $20bn projects underway. I am involved in two currently in this range one in construction, one in late design. A $20bn project in the oil and gas world lets call it mature applied physics is unremarkable at any given moment now."

It's a gamble. We know that fusion works, but we don't know if we can make it reliable or cheap. If it pays off it would be cheap at 50bn, if it doesn't then too bad.
alanw - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to wintertree: Fair enough on most of those points. I'm still unsure about Thorium. Certainly much to commend it but still very uncertain, particularly in terms of cost. Experts in the industry I trust again say it's a long way off and I'm always minded of the old claims for fission being 'too cheap to meter'.

I think wind will have a role to play along side nuclear and other renewables and 60 times more turbines could work if they're offshore and we get the cost down. Personally, I think CCS is vital technology that would allow us to continue to use much of the infrastructure we have in place at much lower levels of carbon emissions.

The point about China is undoubtedly true but energy generation is a global business. We have our system to deal with and they have theirs. The situation is very different there - we can't blame them for playing catch-up with us in the west - but they are pushing heavily on renewables and looking to at least reduce their relative emissions. It ceratinly doesn't let us off the hook and there is a great deal of joint work and knowledge transfer going on between the UK and China.
Catriona on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Jimbo W:

Not really my area, but there's a paper here which you might find interesting:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0920379610005119
Richard J - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Jimbo W:

> Can I ask anyone in the know three questions.
> 1) If this became a systemic energy solution across the world, and replaced fossil fuels in power generation, what are the estimates of the volume of water required on a year to year basis to produce the deuterium and in what form is the deuterium? How long is this deuterium predicted to last if this were a global energy source replacing fossil fuels?

The source of deuterium is water, of which there is quite a lot. About 0.01% of the hydrogen in water is deuterium, and it's relatively easily separated. So not a problem.

> 2) What are the sources for the tritium and to what extent are they sustainable and at the estimated global usage if fusion were to replace all fossil fuels?

Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen which doesn't occur naturally because its half-life is quite short. It has to be made by irradiating lithium with neutrons. Lithium is a fairly abundant metal. The idea of ITER is that it breeds its own tritium by using the neutrons from the fusion reaction to irradiate a lithium blanket around the reactor.

> 3) Are there any environmental effects to our atmosphere of the "He" produced?

No. If you release a helium balloon into the atmosphere the gas is light enough to leak away from our atmosphere into space. Unfortunately, as it's a very useful gas that we're running a bit short of.

There will be environmental effects from fusion if we do get it to work for power because the neutrons it produces will make some of the materials it comes in contact with radioactive.
Richard J - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to wintertree:
I think the important point about ITER is that it isn't really a science project any more, it's an engineering project. JET showed that the tokomak principle works, the problems now are really about the materials science needed to get components that can stand the neutron exposure and the engineering of the lithium breeding blanket. I don't think 14 billion sounds expensive at all for a complex engineering system, given that a single large commercial airliner costs 1/3 billion and a single semiconductor fab plant will cost several billion.

I agree other forms of fusion should be explored too but there are some hard physical constraints pointing you towards ITER like designs. Fusion reactions involving anything other than hydrogen isotopes need more energy to get going because the Coulomb barrier is higher, and since the D-T reaction produces much more energy per fusion than D-D, say, it's much easier to get energy payback with it. The cost, of course, is the need to generate the tritium. I don't understand, for example, why people think the Chase design from Lockheed can be delivered so much quicker than ITER. They may have a more compact design for confining the plasma, but it's still a D-T reactor so they have to get the tritium from somewhere. Currently you get tritium from fission reactors, which doesn't seem a great step forward.
andic - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Jim Fraser:

off the top of my head...

Thorium is a likely fuel, a lot of work going on outside europe and the anglosphere, there was a conference in China last year. The byproducts are apparently less hazardous (shorter half life less hazardous decay type etc). Guess where there is thought to be rather a lot of thorium? Greek and Cypriot territorial waters.

one more thing before i pop out for bacofoil...
The thing is fusion has a much steeper approach to the minima in binding energy where iron sits than fission, and hence is inherently more efficient
tripehound - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:
Current thinking is it will be 50 to 60 yrs before it becomes commercially viable. However huge power production with no CO2 as a by product its the only long term solution to Global Warming.
Richard J - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to wintertree:

> I never said we should stop funding renewables, but that it is madness to fund them so much whilst barely funding fusion research.

I think what's not widely appreciated enough is how little money anyone has been spending on energy research of any kind since the 1980's. This is partly due to the rundown of fission energy research pretty much everywhere, meaning that the reactor designs we're currently not building very fast are essentially small upgrades of 1970's designs. Electricity privatisation and deregulation has led to a massive decrease in applied energy R&D. The money spent on renewables isn't money spent on research, it's money spent deploying current technology.
wintertree - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Jimbo W:

> 3) Are there any environmental effects to our atmosphere of the "He" produced?

No. This is actually a bonus. I believe all our Helium is fractionated off from natural gas as part of the mining and refinement process.

When the natural gas runs out, there is no more Helium. That is catastrophically bad for a wide range of industries including microchip manufacture, medical imaging, Big Science, advanced spaceflight etc. Some areas are reducing dependance on Helium, but for others there is no obvious alternative.

I did some estimates a few years back, and the gist of it was that if global energy production was all D-T fusion based, the total Helium production would roughly match demand from the USA alone. So that tells us that 1) It's not a particularly significant release of He, which is anyway apparently harmless, and 2) it would - if captured - provide enough to run critical uses of He in a post petrochemical world. No more party balloons though.

Jimbo W on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Richard J:

Cheers.

Reading that it strikes me that the Lithium will be the main issue given that the cost of Lithium is already very high given demand for e.g. battery technology, and lack of readily available sources and cost of extraction.
davidbeynon - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Jimbo W:

Lithium is as common as dirt though. All light elements tend to be. It's only expensive because it takes a lot of energy to refine.
wintertree - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Richard J:

> I don't understand, for example, why people think the Chase design from Lockheed can be delivered so much quicker than ITER.

As I understand it, it's all about scaling.

ITER is to big. Energy (and neutron) production scales as volume (R^3) and the surface area through which it is extracted, and which has to survive the neutrons scales as area (R^2) so as you get bigger, the challenges on the surface area of the reactor scale linearly with size. So for something as big as ITER you have massive materials science problems at the reactor wall.

ITER is to big because size is the only current way to control instability at the edge of the plasma - where it meets the reactor wall. Edge-effect instabilities (ELMs) sap and drain energy from the plasma core, and it's only at massive ITER scales that these become relatively small enough compared to energy production in the core that it all balances out.

Lockheed Martin's design claims to have an inherently stable plasma with reduced field gradients which would eliminate the edge instabilities. This allows you to have a larger number of smaller reactors, which decreases the power density impinging on the reactor walls by about a factor of 12x. Very roughly speaking that means the materials sciences problems for this design are 12x simpler. I imagine - but do not know - that similar scaling will apply to the complexity of implementing the tritium breeding blanket. It's also not beyond imagination (actually almost a certainty) that the skunkworks have access to some hi-teceh materials that the ITER consortium do not.

The Coulomb barrier cost is not high - about 50KeV for D-T off the top of my head. The electrons in an old CRT TV are being accelerated to 15KeV. Particle accelerators go to billions of times more energy. The problem with Tokomaks is that they achieve this paltry level of energy by heating a plasma thermally, and only a few % of the ions in a super-hot plasma have this level of energy at any one time, and most of these will collide at glancing angles and not fuse. You have to contain the other 97% that are not fusion viable but are constantly developing ELMs and loosing energy.

That's why I like the Polywell - it does away with the thermalised plasma. Perhaps all hope is not lost for Tokomaks though - one day computers will be powerful enough to fully model ELMs, and control system will be fast enough to bleed some energy out before they fire and to prevent catastrophic energy loss. Then Tokomaks could shrink down to the size of the LM design - but is stability better achieved through active control or passive design?
davidbeynon - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to wintertree:

Big is beautiful when it comes to these things. The scaling laws you mention favour large reactors as a way to minimise thermal losses at the plasma boundary. This allows you to cut down on the amount of heating you have to do and may ultimately allow ignition criteria to be reached.

wintertree - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Richard J:
> (In reply to wintertree)
>
> [...]
>
> I think what's not widely appreciated enough is how little money anyone has been spending on energy research of any kind since the 1980's. This is partly due to the rundown of fission energy research pretty much everywhere, meaning that the reactor designs we're currently not building very fast are essentially small upgrades of 1970's designs. Electricity privatisation and deregulation has led to a massive decrease in applied energy R&D. The money spent on renewables isn't money spent on research, it's money spent deploying current technology.

That is an excellent point.
Richard J - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to wintertree:
> (In reply to Richard J)

>
> The Coulomb barrier cost is not high - about 50KeV for D-T off the top of my head. The electrons in an old CRT TV are being accelerated to 15KeV. Particle accelerators go to billions of times more energy. The problem with Tokomaks is that they achieve this paltry level of energy by heating a plasma thermally, and only a few % of the ions in a super-hot plasma have this level of energy at any one time, and most of these will collide at glancing angles and not fuse. You have to contain the other 97% that are not fusion viable but are constantly developing ELMs and loosing energy.

The point about Coulomb barriers is that in the rate equations the energy appears in an exponential, so relatively small multiples have big effects on rates. It is indeed easy enough to use an accelerator to get fusion to happen (I used to do experiments using the D-T reaction myself, in a 1950's vintage Van der Graaf accelerator) the problem is doing them at a scale to generate useful power.

wintertree - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to davidbeynon:
> (In reply to wintertree)
>
> Big is beautiful when it comes to these things. The scaling laws you mention favour large reactors as a way to minimise thermal losses at the plasma boundary. This allows you to cut down on the amount of heating you have to do and may ultimately allow ignition criteria to be reached.

Indeed. But Big is problematic in terms of energy extraction at the wall, and in the way megaproject cost tends to scale worse than volume.

If ITER truly mimicked the sun, plasma density would gradually fall off towards the boundary and these problems would all go way. This is one of the reasons I favour some of the underdogs, they use fundamentally different plasma confinement that concentrates either plasma volume or ion energy (in non thermaslised plasma systems) in the middle. As a fringe benefit the vacuum vessel becomes a much simpler shape without an excluded volume in the middle.
wintertree - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Richard J:
> (In reply to wintertree)

> The point about Coulomb barriers is that in the rate equations the energy appears in an exponential, so relatively small multiples have big effects on rates. It is indeed easy enough to use an accelerator to get fusion to happen (I used to do experiments using the D-T reaction myself, in a 1950's vintage Van der Graaf accelerator) the problem is doing them at a scale to generate useful power.

Some people get all the fun experiments!

Robert Bussard claimed the scaling laws for the Polywell (which I view as a sort of spherical-accelerator driven fusion machine) work. The problems appear to be engineering problems primarily in controlling the edge-effect losses, in their case loosing ions to the grids needed to generate the outer potential for the spherical accelerator. They would seem to be making good progress, but now they're back under US Navy funding there would seem to be a complete embargo on publications or presentations.

They encouraging point to me is that they reckon they can beat the edge effect losses in this design with a 100MW, 2M diameter system. They're interesting numbers because Tri-Alpha and General Fusion and Lockheed Martin all make similar claims, all with radically different reactor designs. Certainly in terms of materials science, sane capital costs, engineering complexity etc it would be a much nicer regime to work in.
davidbeynon - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to wintertree:

I always had a soft spot for spheromaks myself. Partly because we used to have one at UMIST. It was more exciting than most of the plasma physics experiments as it had been known to send shrapnel through the walls when one of its vacuum pumps disintegrated...

I'm not advocating spheromaks for power generation mind, but they are good for basic plasma physics research. When the boring mass produced mechanical bits aren't trying to kill everyone '-)
Turdus torquatus on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to davidbeynon:
> (In reply to Jimbo W)
>
> Lithium is as common as dirt though. All light elements tend to be. It's only expensive because it takes a lot of energy to refine.

The paper which Catriona linked to says:

The possible use of lithium-ion batteries on a large scale, particularly in the automobile industry, could, however, use up all the known terrestrial reserves and resources of lithium in the next few decades.

Is that alarmist rubbish?
ads.ukclimbing.com
Jimbo W on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Turdus torquatus:

That was what I had read too.
ByEek - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Turdus torquatus:

> The possible use of lithium-ion batteries on a large scale, particularly in the automobile industry, could, however, use up all the known terrestrial reserves and resources of lithium in the next few decades.
>
> Is that alarmist rubbish?

Yes and no. It is a fact that there is a finite supply of lithium on the planet. However, as it becomes rarer, it will become more expensive to produce. This will encourage new technologies are sought and also the extracting of harder to get deposits becomes viable as well as increased recycling etc.
davidbeynon - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Turdus torquatus:

Pretty much. It's not a massively abundant element, but this is a big planet.

Known reserves aren't that massive because until fairly recently nobody really had much use for large amounts of the stuff so nobody has been looking for it particularly hard.

mkean - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:
13Bn is as several people have pointed out peanuts for a big project. Now if you wanted to get worried about something have a look at the surprisingly large number of "hobbyists" who have built their own...

http://hackaday.com/?s=fusion+reactor
http://www.fusor.net/


wintertree - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Turdus torquatus:
> (In reply to davidbeynon)
> [...]
>
> The paper which Catriona linked to says:
>
> The possible use of lithium-ion batteries on a large scale, particularly in the automobile industry, could, however, use up all the known terrestrial reserves and resources of lithium in the next few decades.
>
> Is that alarmist rubbish?

I estimate that global energy consumption, if entirely switched to D-T fusion with the tritium bred from Lithium, would consume very approximately 20,000 metric tones of Lithium a year. That would deplete proven reserves in about 500 years. It's a rate 100,000 times lower than global oil consumption.

I was surprised that this wasn't a bigger number and that exhaustion is so soon. Perhaps I made a mistake in the numbers. On the other hand, there are unproven resources, resources in space, and other fusion fuel cycles that should become more possible in the future. For example Helium-3 could probably be pulled off the moon in realistic quantities in 250 years as an alternative to lithium.

Jimbo W on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to wintertree:

Does that take into account the switch away from fossil fuel engines to electric and the increased battery use?
wintertree - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Jimbo W:
> (In reply to wintertree)
>
> Does that take into account the switch away from fossil fuel engines to electric and the increased battery use?

Yes, that is assuming that all the energy consumed by the whole planet for all purposes (excluding that directly in the food and drink we consume) comes from D-T fusion reactions - engines, central heating, power plants, heavy industry etc.

I doubt it's that simple however - if a magic, much cheaper source of energy sprang into existence we would find many new uses for it and the world would change beyond our ability to make even vaguely tangible predictions.
Simon4 - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming: An interesting, and seemingly informed discussion. A very significant problem seems to be the time-scale of any solution compared to the time-scale of energy supply becoming inadequate. It is re-assuring to see that some of the knee-jerk negativity shown to things like fracking or any other technological development is losing much of its respectability, largely due to the obvious ignorance and agenda-riddled arguments of those pushing it.

Of course even if energy supply problems can be largely solved, if we continue to allow the catastrophic out-of-control population increases, many other limiting factors will cause system-failure if energy-supply does not provoke the failure of social structures. This problem is particularly acute in Britain, where we do not have the jobs, houses or infrastructure for our current population, let alone the rate of increase that we are cursed with, but it also applies in many other places, notably the turbulent middl-Eastern countries that have been the scene of so much recent turmoil. Populations there have typically doubled in the time that their old dictatorial governments were in power, there is no reason to believe that any new governments that might emerge from the chaos will be better equipped to handle these demographic challenges, particularly as most of them will be struggling for legitimacy and their very survival.

Not that there is any prospect that population growth will be in any way limited, indeed politicians (all of them) seem wedded to the habit of bribing parents with ever more goodies taken from their hapless fellow citizens in favour of "hard working families". Yet whatever privileges are given for breeding, the appetite for benefits for parents is a hunger that grows by what it feeds on - the more they are given, the more they want and the more entitled they feel.

So even if the energy supply problem can be solved, effectively and in time, over-population will not be, indeed the removal of the energy constraint will provide the excuse to put off doing anything sensible about population.
ali_mac - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:
a couple of years back my professional institution had a visit to the reactor in Oxford which I attended.
I witnessed the gubbings and internals of the plasma reactor and was struck in awe by the size of the installation and dynamics of the science. I can't for a moment start repeating what I was told on the basis I failed to understand to a level whereby I could relay or repeat the knoweldge.

What I do understand is that this process works from three different fuel types are derived from water. The reactor does run at huge tempurature which could, if the plasma stream could be harnessed to run under it's own momentum, produce inexaustable energy (electric, via steam turbine!).

The scientist showing me round explained that there was no neuclear waste or lateint neuclear waste even to the containment vessel/reactor. The plasma stream is 'sparked up' my harnessing 1% of the national grid's power taken on to two fly wheels as stored energy (2No. 16 tonne, dia. approx 12m) then zapped to accelerate by a dirty great micro wave. The plasm stream is harnessed (magnetic field) to run for about 6 seconds before it may stray on to the vessel wall whereby it would melt any known material!

Others on this thread, more learned than myself, have alluded to all this knowledge of my own. I did leave the facility utterly amazed and swimming in confusion with facts I failed to digest.

What I do understand is that this facility in Oxfordshire (name?) takes 6m in funding annually, chipped in from most of the developed world, though noteable not the oil producing Arab states (no supprise) which in the grand scheme of things, is 'chicken feed'.

The French facility being built is the next stage and scale of advancement to the technology and science. I can only crossed my fingers that they come up trumps.

The Oxfordshire unit has been running successfully from the mid ninties but has not as yet given back so much as one volt (amp?) of current to the national grid. It is future energy which demands immediate funding for the science is known, understood but presently can't self initiate for reasons that go beyond me.

Therein lies my hope. Utterly amazing science. Even the remote control maintainence robots have sensitivity of touch! Brainy people.

Apparently the only time they have failed to run an experiement is when the National Grid refused them to draw off. Which was when the England football team went 1 -0 down inside of 50 seconds of the kick off against a bunch of part time andorran painters, plumbers and butchers. The national collective sigh, as we rush for the kettle switch or fridge door, nearly metled the grid! - No change there either.

Phil79 - on 08 Aug 2013
In reply to Simon4:
>
>
> Not that there is any prospect that population growth will be in any way limited,

Of course population growth will be limited - world population growth rates have been falling since the 1960s, even if the actual population is still climbing.
John1923 - on 11 Aug 2013
In reply to The Lemming:

As a planet we spend $19 bn a year on chewing gum, so I think that we have a spare 13 bn kicking around for a fusion experiment.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gum_industry

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