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Fusion Power Race Heats Up

Fusion Reactor

"Right now, this design has the greatest potential of producing economical fusion power of any current concept," says Thomas Jarboe. (Credit: University of Washington)

Fusion energy almost sounds too good to be true—zero greenhouse gas emissions, no long-lived radioactive waste, a nearly unlimited fuel supply.

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to adopting fusion energy is that the economics haven’t penciled out. Fusion power designs aren’t cheap enough to outperform systems that use fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas.

University of Washington engineers hope to change that. They have designed a concept for a fusion reactor that, when scaled up to the size of a large electrical power plant, would rival costs for a new coal-fired plant with similar electrical output.

Related: Is France’s Love Affair with Nuclear Over?

The team published its reactor design and cost-analysis findings last spring and will present results this week at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Fusion Energy Conference in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“Right now, this design has the greatest potential of producing economical fusion power of any current concept,” says Thomas Jarboe, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and an adjunct professor in physics.

How it works

The reactor, called the dynomak, started as a class project taught by Jarboe two years ago. After the class ended, Jarboe and doctoral student Derek Sutherland—who previously worked on a reactor design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—continued to develop and refine the concept.

The design builds on existing technology and creates a magnetic field within a closed space to hold plasma in place long enough for fusion to occur, allowing the hot plasma to react and burn.

The reactor itself would be largely self-sustaining, meaning it would continuously heat the plasma to maintain thermonuclear conditions. Heat generated from the reactor would heat up a coolant that is used to spin a turbine and generate electricity, similar to how a typical power reactor works.

“This is a much more elegant solution because the medium in which you generate fusion is the medium in which you’re also driving all the current required to confine it,” Sutherland says.

There are several ways to create a magnetic field, which is crucial to keeping a fusion reactor going. The new design is known as a spheromak, meaning it generates the majority of magnetic fields by driving electrical currents into the plasma itself. This reduces the amount of required materials and actually allows researchers to shrink the overall size of the reactor.

Other designs, such as the experimental fusion reactor project that’s currently being built in France—called Iter—have to be much larger than the dynomak because they rely on superconducting coils that circle around the outside of the device to provide a similar magnetic field.

When compared with the fusion reactor concept in France, the dynomak is much less expensive—roughly one-tenth the cost of Iter—while producing five times the amount of energy.

Compared to coal

Jarboe and colleagues factored the cost of building a fusion reactor power plant using their design and compared that with building a coal power plant. They used a metric called “overnight capital costs,” which includes all costs, particularly start-up infrastructure fees.

A fusion power plant producing 1 gigawatt (1 billion watts) of power would cost $2.7 billion, while a coal plant of the same output would cost $2.8 billion, according to their analysis.

Related: How Fusion Energy Could One Day Disrupt Energy Markets

“If we do invest in this type of fusion, we could be rewarded because the commercial reactor unit already looks economical,” Sutherland says. “It’s very exciting.”

Right now, the concept is about one-tenth the size and power output of a final product, which is still years away. The researchers have successfully tested the prototype’s ability to sustain a plasma efficiently, and as they further develop and expand the size of the device they can ramp up to higher-temperature plasma and get significant fusion power output.

The team has filed patents on the reactor concept and plans to continue developing and scaling up its prototypes.

The US Department of Energy funded the work.

By Michelle Ma-Washington

(Source: http://www.futurity.org/ )

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  • James Makepeace on October 21 2014 said:
    This article is rubbish, obviously written by someone with an interest in promoting one un-tried technology for fusion. The hard reality is that nobody has yet mastered controlled fusion with credible energy gain and most organisation that are trying fall into the trap of over-promoting their projects with hollow promises and puffed-up estimates of future achievement.
    A lot of money is being made by self-interested scientists and technologists from these various schemes and, naturally, they all jostle to promote themselves and rubbish any challenger for funding and support. Many lies and half-truths are told in the course of this pointless competitive process.
    Two potential technologies dominate in fusion research... magnetic confinement (the so-called TOKAMAK), exemplified by the immense (and immensely costly) ITER experiment now building in Cadarache, France and the Inertial Confinement process, using powerful lasers to achieve the necessary temperatures for extremely brief periods of time.
    The magnetic approach has consumed vast funding and has become the cash cow for a large number of senior scientists and executives, none of whom are capable of achieving the aim... but all of whom desperately wish to continue with their lucrative salaries. It is widely acknowledged to be a disaster of incompetent management and is run to satisfy the political requirements of the many countries involved rather than to achieve the aim.
    The laser method is led by the National Ignition Facility in USA, which comes under the Department of Energy and is dominated by the Washington warriors who's prime activity is the development, refinement and assurance of nuclear weapons (the NIF Laser system is dual purpose and serves their needs).
    Despite amazing advances in laser fusion the project has been starved of funds and key people have left to seek other avenues. The European equivalent project has suffered a similar fate, as cynical Brussels bureaucrats and MEP's see no short term personal advantage in backing fusion energy research, which will take longer than their term of office to deliver what is required.
    In summary, the human race is making a total mess of fusion energy research, concentrating on self-interest over real progress and wasting priceless years and billions of dollars ... effectively "fiddling while Rome burns".
    In terms of the desperate quest for clean, safe, reliable major energy sources for the long term, our leaders are letting us down totally in achieving an aim which, if greed and incompetence were removed from the equation, could probably be achieved in time to make a real difference to our lives and our future on this fragile earth.
  • zipsprite on October 20 2014 said:
    Funny that they can already tell how much it would cost to built the thing but they don't even know if it will work. The article makes it sound like it is already a proven concept. It ain't.

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