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Breakthrough on Nuclear Fusion

By James Burgess | Thu, 13 February 2014 22:22 | 2

Scientists made a major breakthrough in the quest for the ultimate energy source: fusion. Reports from the National Ignition Facility (NIF) indicate that scientists generated more power out than was put in, a long sought after goal for the development of fusion. The NIF uses giant lasers to shoot a fuel pellet made up of hydrogen. Unlike conventional nuclear power that uses energy from splitting atoms, fusion energy forces atoms to fuse together, with energy as a byproduct.

Fusion energy has been seen as the Holy Grail for energy. It theoretically could provide the world with endless amounts of clean baseload energy. The fuel source – hydrogen isotopes – would be limitless and available to all countries. It would not have the long-lived radioactive byproducts that nuclear fission experiences. And there is a negligible chance of a meltdown issue, as there isn’t a runaway chain reaction like with fission.

Related Article: Harvard Research Team has Breakthrough on Battery Storage

But fusion is really difficult to do. Located within the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL), the NIF has been working on fusion for years, but progress has been frustratingly slow. The problem has been that when shooting the 2 millimeter-wide fuel pellet, it wouldn’t crush symmetrically. This limited how much energy the scientists could realistically achieve. In 2012 Congress narrowed the NIF’s mission, a rebuke for failing to achieve its much-hyped goals of reaching “ignition,” the point at which the fusion reaction becomes self-sustaining.

The latest progress at the NIF is significant, but the point at which fusion can become a realistic power source remains decades away. Fusion scientists and engineers are confident they can build a practical power plant sometime in the future, but the economics are highly uncertain. One of the main obstacles to future progress will be budget constraints, although after years of suffering budget cuts, Congress increased the fusion 2014 budget by $100 million.

By James Burgess of Oilprice.com

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  • Clark Rhoaded on March 13 2014 said:
    I have been following fusion energy for the last 50 years and feel that the money would have been much better spent developing Thorium reactors.

    Because of President Jimmie Carters refusal to develop a plan to deal with nuclear waste we now have a real and dangerous problem that need to be dealt with now before we have a large and protracted accident.

    The spent fuel rods in the cooling baths now exceed 4 x the designed density and are a prime soft target for terrorist or unforeseen seismic event. They must be moved and damn the immediate expense. If the water level in thees pools ever falls, the resulting radioactive fire would be the largest and most destructive event in the history of this country.

    The advantage of a liquid fueled thorium reactor is that the radioactive wast are continuously filtered and separated out from the working reactor fluid and the remaining wast are much less in volume and long term radioactivity, compared to uranium fueled reactors. The liquid fueled reactor can easily be made so that it cannot go critical which is absolute necessary for public acceptance.

    The money that is being spent on fusion should be directed to more technological feasible nuclear goals.
  • Ike Kiefer on February 17 2014 said:
    A viable primary energy contender must be competitive across all the metrics of energy density, power density environmental footprint, and Energy Return on Investment (EROI = the energy efficiency of energy production). EROI is the metric most pertinent to this article, which essentially claims that an EROI of greater than 1:1 has just been achieved by fusion in the laboratory. However, a much higher EROI is needed to maintain modern civilization's high energy-intensity quality of life. In fact, 6:1 appears to be the minimum threshold from studies of economic recessions and energy supply shocks. An even higher EROI is required to be competitive with current energy alternatives, e.g., coal and natural gas electricity ~30:1; nuclear electricity ~75:1; hydroelectricity >100:1. Break-even is a long way from the threshold utility of 6:1 let alone economic viability, and is why the estimate above continues to be that fusion power is still decades away. I personally suspect we will be 3-d printing at the atomic scale in the near future and will be able to create on demand custom isotopes for novel fission fuel cycles or some variant of LENR power before we perfect classic fusion.

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