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Michael McDonald

Michael McDonald

Michael is an assistant professor of finance and a frequent consultant to companies regarding capital structure decisions and investments. He holds a PhD in finance…

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Germany Hails Landmark Achievement In Fusion Energy

The Wendelstein 7-X won’t be winning any awards for catchy name of the year, but the massive new German prototype fusion reactor does represent one of the biggest advances in fusion power in decades. The device also exemplifies what might be the start of a nascent trend; European leadership in energy research and experimentation.

Related: The Biggest Natural Gas Discovery Of 2016 Just Got Bigger

The Wendelstein 7-X is the world’s largest stellarator, a massively complex fusion reactor that was inaugurated by Angela Merkel in a recent ceremony. The reactor is a testing prototype at this stage rather than a commercial energy generation source, but it marks the first time an alternative to traditional fusion power approaches has been tried. The current state of the art in fusion power is a device called a Tokamak. Tokamaks are easier to build than stellarators, but despite decades of support for projects like ITER that rely on that design, no economical fusion reactor has been built yet. The Wendelstein 7-X offers an alternative.

In testing of Tokamak designs so far, no one has yet been able to get a fusion reactor that produces more power than it consumes. It’s unclear thus far if the Wendelstein 7-X will change this, but it might. The problem in fusion power is keeping the reactor matter contained long enough to make significant energy generation a realistic possibility. The Wendelstein 7-X showed promising ability to do just that in very early stage testing. That testing will continue for the next few years up until the German engineering team starts using deuterium to demonstrate the potential for scalable power production. Related: Historic OPEC-Russia Agreement Will Have Minimal Impact

Yet for all of the justified excitement over the world’s largest stellarator, there are also serious challenges. First, building a commercial-sized stellarator would be an engineering and project management challenge virtually unparalleled in human history. The project would cost tens of billions and take years to achieve seriously testing the commitment of Germany and any other backing nations at a time when political realities shift almost constantly. Building any fusion reactor is very difficult as ITER shows, but a scaled up stellarator would be even more difficult because of its complex design and myriad component parts.

Beyond its economic implications though, the Wendelstein 7-X might also be another sign of the evolving nature of technology research around the world. The United States has been the leader in research and technology for much of the last century with most major commercial breakthroughs happening in the U.S. from about the time of the mass-produced automobile and lightbulb onwards.

Advancing new research and technology requires a commitment to innovation and a national willingness to take risks though. For more than 100 years that view certainly was exemplified by the U.S., while Europe largely ceded its role in the advancement of mankind due in part to two world wars and the threat of Russian dominance hanging over half the continent for half a century. Related: How Far Will The U.S. Go If Turkey Invades Syria?

With the Cold War now over, and Europe trying to move towards a more cohesive and stable political union that would integrate the continent, it is possible that Europe as a whole may be starting to bring big ideas that could lead to big innovations to the forefront again. The Wendelstein 7-X is one example of this. ITER, though admittedly multinational in backing, is a second primarily European big idea.

Another example of this type of risky thought leadership is France’s recent foray into building solar powered roads. Not all of these ideas will work of course, and many will likely be costly failures. But it only takes one or two big ideas working out to change the future of mankind and set the stage for future economic revolutions that could be worth trillions.

By Michael McDonald of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Jim Decker on February 19 2016 said:
    Spending money is not an achievement. I thought Lockheed Martin was actually achieving things. What is the status of that?
  • Maury Markowitz on February 19 2016 said:
    "The Wendelstein 7-X won’t be winning any awards for catchy name"

    Or anything else either. This has been hailed as big news, but the entire story is they built a bigger version of an old design and it got better results by the amount it got bigger. There is absolutely nothing interesting about this design and it certainly isn't a practical device or even a step on the road to one.

    Jim: Having talked to a number of people involved in similar projects, the wide consensus is that it's complete BS. They haven't actually built anything working other than fancy YouTube videos with actors. The basic concept was *very* well explored in the 80s and 90s, and the physics is basically "it won't work".

    The design, shown in a few slides, is a dual-ended mirror configuration version of this:

  • Arthur Robey on February 19 2016 said:
    Rossi's cold fusion device has satisfied his customer and an order has been placed.

    The criteria was 1MW continously for 1 year. It was shut down after 350 days of opparation.

    This is not even an also-ran, but I wish them luck.


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