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Alex Kimani

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Alex Kimani is a veteran finance writer, investor, engineer and researcher for Safehaven.com. 

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The Holy Grail Of Energy Is Finally Within Reach

Theoretically, two lone nuclear reactors running on small pellets could power the entire planet, safely and cleanly. That’s the promise of nuclear fusion. So, why are we still relying on fossil fuels?

For decades, scientists have viewed nuclear fusion as the Holy Grail for clean, abundant and sustainable power. Based on the same principle that powers the stars, including our own sun, a couple of nuclear reactors running on small pellets could power our planet without the risk of a catastrophic meltdown and zero greenhouse gas emissions. 

Still, we depend on fossil fuels for 80% of our energy needs

So, what’s stopping us from building these reactors everywhere?

After all, scientists have been working on nuclear fusion technology since the 1950s and have always been optimistic that the final breakthrough is not far away. Yet, milestones have fallen time and again and now the running joke is that a practical nuclear fusion power plant could still be decades away.

Well, you can blame some kinky laws of physics for this sad state of affairs.

Nuclear

Source: Pixabay

Extreme challenge

It turns out that the conditions necessary for nuclear fusion to take place present an extreme challenge for us earthlings. 

Fusion works on the basic concept of forging lighter elements into heavier ones. When two hydrogen atoms are smashed together hard enough, they fuse to form helium. The new atom is less massive than the sum of its parts, with the balance converted to energy in the E=MC2 mass-energy equivalence.

Ok, that’s a bit simplistic since hydrogen atoms do not fuse together directly but rather in a multi-step reaction. Anyway, the long and short of it is that nuclear fusion produces net energy only at extreme temperatures - in the order of hundreds of millions of degrees celsius. That’s hotter than the sun’s core and far too hot for any known material on earth to withstand. Related: There’s Tremendous Room For Growth In Offshore Oil & Gas

To get around this quagmire, scientists use powerful magnetic fields to contain the hot plasma and prevent it from coming into contact with the walls of the nuclear reactor. That uses a lot of power. 

Stars have it easy in this regard because their ludicrously powerful gravitational fields hold everything together. 

Unfortunately, every fusion experiment so far has been energy negative, taking in more energy than it generates thus making it useless as a form of electricity generation. 

Getting the initial fusion reaction is not a problem - keeping it going is, not to mention that building nuclear reactors takes some extremely sophisticated feats of engineering.

International megaproject

But now scientists are confident that they are close to building a nuclear reactor that will produce more energy than it consumes. 

The Saint-Paul-les-Durance, France-based upcoming International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is the world’s largest fusion reaction facility that aims to develop commercially viable fusion reactors.

Funded by six nations including the US, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and India, ITER plans to build the world’s largest tokamak fusion device, a donut-shaped cage that will produce 500 ME of thermal fusion energy. 

The device will cost ~$24 billion with a delivery date set at 2035. The giant machine - the biggest fusion machine ever built -  will weigh in at an impressive 23,000 tonnes and will be housed in a building 60 meters high.

Fusion

Source: ITER.org

So, what’s different this time around?

Scientists have successfully developed a new superconducting material - essentially a steel tape coated with yttrium-barium-copper oxide, or YBCO, which allows them to build smaller and more powerful magnets. This lowers the energy required to get the fusion reaction off the ground.

According to Fusion for Energy - the EU’s joint undertaking for ITER - 18 niobium-tin superconducting magnets aka toroidal field coils will be used to contain the 150 million degrees celsius plasma. The powerful magnets will generate a powerful magnetic field equal to11.8 tesla, or a million times stronger than the earth's magnetic field. Europe will manufacture 10 of the toroidal field coils with Japan manufacturing nine. Related: The World’s Biggest Oil Company Is Not Worth $2 Trillion

However, it will be another decade before a full-scale demonstration power plant will be built using lessons learned from ITER. The industrial fusion power plants will thereafter be connected to the grid.

ITER, however, is not the only fusion energy player on the scene. Commonwealth Fusion Systems is collaborating with MIT to build its fusion reactor. The team has planned a fusion experiment they have dubbed called Sparc which is about 1/65th the volume of ITER. The experimental reactor will generate about 100MW of heat energy in pulses of about 10 seconds - bursts big enough to power a small city. The team anticipates that the output will be more than twice the power used to heat the plasma thus overcoming the biggest technical hurdle in the field: positive net energy from fusion.

The other good news: the Sparc team has set an ambitious target to have the reactor running in just 15 years.

By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Dave Sherburne on October 21 2019 said:
    When??? 100 years from now. Quit the bs. I mean you have to build it which takes many years. Build the infrastructure ,hook it up to the power grid. Maybe not a 100 years but I bet it will take 50 years.
  • Mike Conley on October 22 2019 said:
    The challenge is to build it with a material that can withstand a 14 MeV flux of neutrons. That's a LOT of energy from the neutrons coming out of the plasma from every angle.
  • Tuwase Griner on October 22 2019 said:
    I agree with Dave Sherburne, nuclear fusion news articles and most other futurist articles are mainly scientific research propaganda, designed to attract, maintain or renew interest of prospective investors. Because without interest, I can imagine that it is difficult to raise the capital to fund projects that are capital intense. It is bullshit, and an insult on high intelligence, I have not done the research, but using the information provided by Alex Kimani, the author of this article. If I had been born around the time research on fusion energy began (on or around 1950), then I would be 69 years old by now, I imagine an enthusiastic child reading an (it is just around the corner) article similar to this one, year after year - For 69 years. Idiotic.
  • Nilbert Pumpups on October 22 2019 said:
    50 years is not long to wait for nearly unlimited free energy. No more digging for oil like cavemen
  • Rusty Shackelford on October 22 2019 said:
    If the fusion process is a Deuterium-Tritium fusion reaction, the process can be described as the following:

    •H-1/2+H-1/3=>He-4+1energetic neutron(14.7Mev)

    We have ample amounts of Hydrogen stored on the planet in the form of H2O, however we have a dwindling supply of helium. If the process managed to capture enough energy to sustain fusion and result in a net gain of energy, would the by-product of the reaction be Helium? Because humanity could really use a manufacturing process that resulted in Helium. Even if it took massive amounts of energy to synthesize Helium using this method, the industries that currently rely on Helium would greatly appreciate being able to power their operations, and be able to sell the leftover Helium at a sky-high profit to offset the cost of building the reactor in the first place. Please point out anything wrong about this analysis or anything that I may have missed.
  • Mitchell Brand on October 23 2019 said:
    Yes, Rusty, helium is the waste product when fusing titanium and deuterium.
  • John Di Laccii on October 25 2019 said:
    Sounds great, that will remove fossil fuels and eventually remove all trerorist sponsors from the game, including Saudis. They were useful in fight against private ownership enemies , i.e. SSSR, but now, can be ditched as another enemy of Western values. With this free world will get energy independence, and dark regimes can be discarded into oblivion. Finaly. But with renewables, it might hapoen alredy in a few years.
  • Robert Godes on October 25 2019 said:
    Hot Fusion? really?. Brillouin Energy has 4 Controlled Electron Capture Reactors (CECR) currently functioning in there lab in Berkeley California. They achieved this having raised just over $17.5MM as of October 2019. Note: They were incorporated in January 2009. Parts are interchangeable between reactors. They had one catalyst rod that put out more than twice as much heat as the electrical energy put into the catalyst rod but it was able to do this in multiple reactors and several hundred times. This analysis was performed using something called System Identification. System Identification was developed by Google and discussed in nature Perspective article “Revisiting the cold case of cold fusion”. Published in March 2019.
    Brillouin Energy has 50+ accredited investors and several brought people with PhDs in a variety of disciplines to perform due diligence. Those who invested brought PhDs working in industry. In contrast, dozens of potential investors bringing PhDs from universities never invested. Why is that? It is not a ‘conspiracy’. That would imply a collaboration, I doubt any of the professors knew each other. However ‘institutional investors’ and many others rely on people they deem to be ‘the smartest’ to advise them. Without fail, those investors bring professors. One particular investment group already in hot fusion claimed a lack of ability to do due diligence on our technology. The investors bring PhDs from industry prove that it is not a lack of ability, so much as a lack of experience.

    Institutions have invested hundreds of millions in hot fusion in the last few years. Unfortunately for them, they jumped out of an airplane wearing a backpack handed to them by one of the smartest people who did not recognize the difference between a backpack and a parachute.

    Brillouin Energy actually had a PhD physicist who currently works at one of those hot fusion companies come and visit us. They stated that they wanted to come and work for us because we are in a great position. We looked at them quizzically. They said ‘we put in an enormous amount of energy and we can't figure out exactly where it all went. People are quibbling over exactly how much energy you are producing’. The physicist also stated how amazed they were at how skilled the founder of their company was at raising money for basic research. When we told them we doubted the founder was telling them that they were raising money for basic research, they looked at us and said ‘well, but that's what we're doing’. Backpack indeed.

    For Brillouin Energy technology to work, energy must be put into the system to cause the electron capture event that results in an ultra cold neutron. Lets round that to -0.8MeV to create the neutron. This is why the neutron is so low energy on formation. When a Proton tunnels in to that location because there is no longer a positive charge to keep it out, they bind and release 2.2MeV. D+n yields 6.2MeV forming a triton(T). T+n decays to 4He+beta+ ?e + a net of 20.6MeV. The manufacturing engineering Brillouin Energy is raising money for, is to increase the ratio of neutrons produced / Q-pulse(tm) issued. They are also working to have all the catalyst rods produce the same results with the same pulse profile. This will increase the COP / unit length of active area. In addition, it will also allow one Q-pulse(tm) generator drive multiple catalyst rods. This then multiplies the COP by the number of rods any single Q-pulse(tm) generator can drive. Want to reduce the rate of energy production, just don't pulse it as often. T1/2 of H4 is 0.03s so with in 1 second of the last pulse issued there is no more reaction heat being generated. If you pulse it to fast the catalyst melts and everything stops.

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