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Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage

Jon LeSage is a California-based journalist covering clean vehicles, alternative energy, and economic and regulatory trends shaping the automotive, transportation, and mobility sectors.

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Small Lab Makes Big Breakthrough In Nuclear Fusion Tech

Nuclear power has high hopes of coming back as a serious competitor in the utility sector through nuclear fusion, but it’s been requiring massive investments and several more years of development before it wins regulatory approval. Dense plasma focus (DPF) could open the door to fusion being adopted much faster and for being economically feasible.

Middlesex, NJ-based Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, Inc., known as LPPFusion, may soon be leading the way in transitioning over to nuclear fusion through DPF.

So far, expensive, large-scale experimental facilities utilizing ultra-high power lasers and microwave generators, particle beams, giant superconducting magnet systems and other advanced technologies, has been the norm for nuclear fusion projects. But it's quite costly and has several years built into the testing and development process. One of the largest of these fusion projects has been the giant International Torus Experimental Reactor (ITER) under construction in southern France. It now has an estimated cost of over $40 billion. 

DPF is opening the door to a streamlined, low-cost fusion future — and for gaining more support once again for nuclear as a smart power source to tap into. That comes years after the current technology, nuclear fission, lost support.

Headed by physicist Eric Lerner, who’s considered one of the leading global experts on plasma use in nuclear fusion, the LPPFusion team achieved landmark success in 2016 when its device reached an ion temperature of 2.8 billion degrees, by far the highest temperature achieved on any experiment so far. That came out to be over 200 times hotter than the center of the sun and more than 15 times the projected maximum temperature for the ITER in France.

LPPFusion has raised the bar and is coming close to creating conditions sufficient to achieve net energy generation — which levels out gross electricity generation minus the consumption of power stations' auxiliary services. So far, that’s been done on a small budget of $7 million that the lab has invested, with the support of a few dedicated collaborators. Lerner and team say they’ve raised the performance of its DPF technology, and are close to creating conditions sufficient for net energy generation — another persuasive argument in gaining support for the technology. Related: Tesla’s Million-Mile Battery Will Fuel A New Green Energy Boom

Its power generator is tapping into hydrogen-boron instead of the standard deuterium-tritium fuel. Hydrogen-boron doesn’t generate any radioactive waste, and taps into an unlimited supply of fuel. It also offers the possibility of direct conversion of fusion energy into electricity.

While nuclear power lost support after Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, nuclear fusion has been gaining support as the solution for tapping into the power.  One argument being made is that nuclear power plants operate at much higher capacity than renewable energy sources or fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. Another point made by advocates is that nuclear fusion offers a consistent, steady energy source — versus wind and solar facing intermittent weather conditions. 

Nuclear fusion has impressive advocates such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Norwegian oil and gas company Equinor. But overall, renewable energy sources including wind, hydro, and solar, is the main competitor to nuclear.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that in 2019, nuclear made up 20 percent of electricity in America; followed by renewables at 17 percent. Natural gas leads the way at 38 percent, followed by coal at 23 percent.

Construction of the power plants could be another competitive advantage of DPF over more costly fusion power generators using lasers and microwave. Its hydrogen-boron fusion power plants would offer a small unit size, low investment cost, low fuel cost, and a high level of safety. Estimates predict that the DPF technology could reduce the cost of producing electricity by 10 times or more compared to existing conventional and alternative energy technology.

DPF technology has existed in various forms since the 1960s. It’s been utilized in several university and government laboratories around the world for research in the field of plasma physics. It’s also being used as a source of X-rays and neutrons.

Advocates hope that DPF will become the bridge for nuclear fusion to reach the level of support needed to advance from government regulations and financial backers — and become the leading alternative energy power plant source.

By Jon LeSage for Oilprice.com

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