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Brian Westenhaus

Brian Westenhaus

Brian is the editor of the popular energy technology site New Energy and Fuel. The site’s mission is to inform, stimulate, amuse and abuse the…

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Overcoming the Impossible: Developing Nuclear Fusion

The ITER project, an acronym for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor,  seeks to do the possible with impractical tools. There is no doubt that humanity can accomplish fusion in a quick and dirty way by making a bomb, or run reactions that don’t produce useful amounts of energy outputs, but unlike fission the ability to run a steady state reaction that produces more energy than it takes to drive the reaction eludes us.

The ITER effort is based on the tokamak, a donut looking thing that circulates fuel plasma around endlessly at temperatures and pressures that could get a net energy gain if the fuels are hot enough and at high enough pressure.  It really is the leading way to get to solar temperatures and pressures here on earth.  It is very possible – and incredibly impractical.

ITER has the money to worry away at the problem.  Very hot, light element plasmas, and incredible pressures are huge problems. Hydrogen at room temperature is a devil to contain for any length of time, warm it up to perhaps billions of degrees and pressurized to perhaps millions of atmospheres and the control problems are, shall we say, monumental.

Still, the tokamak is the strongest potential to get to hot fusion containment. To solve the control problems electronics engineer Maria Goretti Sevillano has come up with some tools in her thesis defended at the University of the Basque Country. Her thesis is entitled Tools for plasma control in Tokamak nuclear fusion reactors: Astra-Matlab integration and control in real time.  Two papers have been published about her work, one in the journal Informatica and the other in the journal Energy.

Maria Goretti Sevillano
Maria Goretti Sevillano

Sevillano has detailed how they function: “The materials used in fusion must have certain specific features, and these materials have to be turned into plasma. At the same time, the plasma has to be restricted to a limited space to enable the reaction to be generated and the energy to be used. To achieve this, magnetic confinement is applied in the case of the tokamaks.” In other words, the magnetic field creates lines that act as a wall to keep the plasma in the space where it is meant to remain. But the plasma and the device itself have several problems that have yet to be solved, and Sevillano has been working on some of them.

Sevillano explains, “To develop Tokamaks, many of the plasma’s parameters must be controlled, as well as the whole device itself; the currents that are going to be used, the voltage, the intensity, etc. Until all these things are controlled, it will not be possible to use these machines to produce marketable energy,” she points out.

In connection with this, Sevillano has embedded a code known as ASTRA into the Matlab software; ASTRA is frequently used to simulate the behavior of Tokamak reactors, and the embedding of this code into Matlab will facilitate the development of controllers suited to these devices. The control problems are of several kinds, but in this case some very specific parameters relating to the plasma have been explored in depth.

Sevillano continues, “Control of the parameters is necessary to obtain the maximum energy possible from the plasma, and the amount of this energy that can be extracted is calculated on the basis of the current: the greatest amount of current possible has to be maintained during the longest time possible. That is why these parameters have to be controlled by means of the control, in turn, of the numerous coils and voltages within the structure.”

Sevillano points out that her PhD thesis has produced only a single branch of what would be a complete tree by saying, “All I have achieved is no more than a step towards doing more things. The aim of all these tasks is to design a machine capable of generating marketable energy within the ITER project.”

Its an awe inspiring challenge with a five decade history stacked up so far and the scientists calculate they will obtain some results around the year 2050, some four more decades.

Tokamak and Problems.
Tokamak and Problems.

Fusion is a tantalizing power source and emulating the sun seems a logical and sensible path.  Fusion is possible, we use its’ natural form continuously.  Yet the primary question remains unanswered.  By what means can humanity get matter to fuse?  Then, which is the most practical?

Taxpayers in the EU, India, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and the United States must wonder how the political momentum got so far on such thin practical certainty.   French Nobel laureate in physics, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, said, “We say that we will put the sun into a box. The idea is pretty. The problem is, we don’t know how to make the box.”

The building of the tokamak has begun, with no clear idea how to control it successfully.  Whether or not Sevillano’s concepts will make a difference is a question to be answered years out.

Meanwhile the basic question about what the most practical means are to generate fusion is off limits for most of the research world.  The research system is very serious about the ITER project – the competency and credibility of the research system’s desire to get to the goal of commercial fusion is not.

By. Brian Westenhaus

Source: Fusion- Where the Possible Meets Impractical




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Leave a comment
  • anonymous on May 09 2012 said:
    Its a well known fact that the French and Germans have dumped hugh funds over a long period of time with little or no progress having been made. Other than to politically thwart other technology's such as cold fusion, which has some proven results. These country's like minded gvts refuse to admit mistakes, or a want to change direction, their citizens will have been the ones to pay for those decisions.
  • Abbas on May 09 2012 said:
    Even the South Koreans are already a long way in testing their tokamak, but it will need to be scaled up for any useful output. The control issues mentionned in the article are perfectly described: at those temperature and pressures, Hydrogen is not hydrogen no more but plasma, dubbed by some authors the fourth sate of matter.
    Enjoyable article. Theoretical physicists have done their part of the job, now it's an engineering task. Perhaps the biggest engineering challenge of all time.
  • Mark Goldes on May 09 2012 said:
    This form of fusion has no hope of contributing to our urgent energy problems or providing cost-effective power generation.

    See Cheap Green on the Aesop Institute website for some Black Swans, highly improbable innovations with huge implications.

    The best of these are far more likely to prove practical.

    Given three ticking time bombs - they may help to save hundreds of millions of lives and the nation.
  • Al on May 24 2012 said:
    ITER is intended to demonstrate 500MW of sustained power production, which should set the stage to build a full-scale commercial device as a next step.

    The pressure required is around 1 atmosphere, not millions; and the temperature is around 10 million degrees, not billions. This temperature has already been achieved on other machines.

    Fusion is the only realistic option for future large-scale energy production. There is simply nothing else to fill the gap, short of massive growth in unsafe and polluting fission.
  • SomeGuy on May 28 2012 said:
    One flaw to point out in the article:
    "...they will obtain some results around the year 2050, some four more decades."

    So yeah, ITER is due to begin operations in 2017 if I'm not mistaken. Not exactly four more decades if I'm doing the math right.

    Also "impractical" is not the term I'd use to describe this project. I think a better word would be 'imperative'. It is imperative that we make this work because no amount of biochemical fuel will meet the demands of the twelve billion human beings projected to live on this planet some day. Remember that any organic based fuel, be it oil or algae or plant matter, is stored energy from the sun. The sun uses hot fusion and all the energy we get from the previously named sources will only ever be an infinitesimal amount of what out star produces. The road to fusion energy is an expensive one, but completely and undoubtedly imperative. We need to look and think beyond the challenge and see the potential for what it really is. If we can make ITER, we have officially begun the journey to true energy independence and that of being symbiotic within our biosphere.
  • Paul on October 13 2014 said:
    "Also "impractical" is not the term I'd use to describe this project."

    It's the term I'd use. Tokamaks have basically zero chance of delivering power at a competitive price. The capital cost is simply far too high. The billions of dollars spent on this project might as well have been put into a huge pile and set on fire for all the good it will do the world.

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