US Fusion Reactor Plan

A while back I mentioned the SPARC fusion reactor, a relatively new design. What about more traditional approaches to fusion? Here’s a good article about the state of funding for these in the US:

• Adrian Cho, U.S. physicists rally around ambitious plan to build fusion power plant, Science, 8 December 2020.

Here’s the start:

U.S. fusion scientists, notorious for squabbling over which projects to fund with their field’s limited budget, have coalesced around an audacious goal. A 10-year plan presented last week to the federal Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee is the first since the community tried to formulate such a road map in 2014 and failed spectacularly. It calls for the Department of Energy (DOE), the main sponsor of U.S. fusion research, to prepare to build a prototype power plant in the 2040s that would produce carbon-free electricity by harnessing the nuclear process that powers the Sun.

The plan formalizes a goal set out 2 years ago by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and embraced in a March report from a 15-month-long fusion community planning process. It also represents a subtle but crucial shift from the basic research that officials in DOE’s Office of Science have favored. “The community urgently wants to move forward with fusion on a time scale that can impact climate change,” says Troy Carter, a fusion physicist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who chaired the planning committee. “We have to get started.”

Impact climate change… with a prototype in the 2040s? Don’t hurry yourselves too much, folks! But you might want to read this:

• Coral Davenport, Major climate report describes a strong risk of crisis as early as 2040, New York Times, 2018 October 7.

INCHEON, South Korea — A landmark report from the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change paints a far more dire picture of the immediate consequences of climate change than previously thought and says that avoiding the damage requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has “no documented historic precedent.”

The report, issued on Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists convened by the United Nations to guide world leaders, describes a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040—a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population.

Thanks to Keith Harbaugh for pointing out the article in Science.

9 Responses to US Fusion Reactor Plan

  1. Raphael says:

    When looking at the vaccine development one wonders if not also this endeavor could be sped up by a rate factor of 10 (warpspeed) if once it’s importance would be widely acknowledged?

    • rovingbroker says:

      Like many overnight successes, mRNA vaccines have been in development for decades.

      “mRNA Vaccines Are New, But Not Unknown

      “There are currently no licensed mRNA vaccines in the United States. However, researchers have been studying them for decades.

      Early stage clinical trials using mRNA vaccines have been carried out for influenza, Zika, rabies, and cytomegalovirus (CMV). Challenges encountered in these early trials included the instability of free RNA in the body, unintended inflammatory outcomes, and modest immune responses. Recent technological advancements in RNA biology and chemistry, as well as delivery systems, have mitigated these challenges and improved their stability, safety, and effectiveness.

      Beyond vaccines, numerous preclinical and clinical studies have used mRNA to encode cancer antigens to stimulate immune responses targeted at clearing or reducing malignant tumors.”

      https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/hcp/mrna-vaccine-basics.html

      And like vaccines, nuclear power is highly regulated.

  2. rovingbroker says:

    Bill Gates’ Nuclear Startup Unveils Mini-Reactor Design Including Molten Salt Energy Storage
    [ … ]
    “Edwin Lyman, the director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggested on Twitter that the nuclear designs used by TerraPower and GE Hitachi had fallen short of a major innovation. “Oh brother. The last thing the world needs is a fleet of sodium-cooled fast reactors,” he wrote.

    Still, climate scientists view nuclear energy as a crucial source of zero-carbon energy if the world stands a chance at limiting global temperature increases to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Nearly all mainstream projections of the world’s path to keeping the temperature increase below those levels feature nuclear energy in a prominent role, including those by the United Nations and the International Energy Agency (IEA).”

    https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottcarpenter/2020/08/31/bill-gates-nuclear-firm-says-new-reactor-can-backstop-grid-with-molten-salt-storage/?sh=3494ca15e65c

    Much more at the link.

  3. Keith Harbaugh says:

    Some information on the various committees influencing funding for fusion research may be useful.
    Some info is at:
    https://www.ans.org/news/article-2453/powering-the-future-fusion-advisory-committee-sets-priorities/
    My personal view: It is a tragedy and an abomination that fusion research has not been given a higher priority, to include giving such all the funds they can productively spend, on this potential way to prevent the looming global warming catastrophe.

  4. Giampiero Campa says:

    This is a privately funded company that uses a slightly different approach. They seem to be on track to attain energy gain within the next 5 years and build a commercially scalable reactor within this decade: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TAE_Technologies

  5. Keith Harbaugh says:

    Here’s an 2020-01-28 article discussing five different projects trying to use different approaches to fusion power generation:
    https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/nuclear/5-big-ideas-for-making-fusion-power-a-reality

    “some of these groups are predicting significant fusion milestones within the next five years,
    including reaching the breakeven point at which the energy produced surpasses the energy used to spark the reaction.
    That’s shockingly soon, considering that the mainstream projects pursuing the conventional tokamak and laser-based approaches have been laboring for decades and spent billions of dollars without achieving breakeven.”

  6. Keith Harbaugh says:

    Predicting how plasmas will behave is both difficult and significant.
    One new approach is to use machine learning:
    “New machine learning theory that can be applied to fusion energy raises questions about the very nature of science”
    https://www.pppl.gov/news/2021/02/new-machine-learning-theory-can-be-applied-fusion-energy-raises-questions-about-very

  7. Keith Harbaugh says:

    “Road map to U.S. fusion power plant comes into clearer focus—sort of”
    By Adrian Cho Feb. 19, 2021
    https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2021/02/road-map-us-fusion-power-plant-comes-clearer-focus-sort

    From the article:

    Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, notes the report also points to numerous key technologies that are in a low state of technical readiness and questions whether they can be developed in time.
    “Reading between the lines, I didn’t feel that it gives you a lot of confidence that these time tables are realistic,” Lyman say[s].

    The schedule suggested by the 91-page report, released on 17 February, does not reflect a bottom-up assessment of how long it would take to complete the R&D for a particular design.
    Rather, it presents a top-down evaluation of when fusion power needs to be feasible if utilities want to include it as they shift toward carbon-free energy sources by 2050.
    “The timeline really was determined from input from utilities,” says Brian Wirth, a nuclear engineer at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and one of the report’s 12 authors.
    Madia predicts that if fusion hasn’t shown itself feasible by 2035, it is “going to miss the train” and be left out of the future carbon-free energy mix.

    Supporters of the proposal say …
    because of recent advances in magnets made out of high-temperature superconductors, 3D printing, and computer modeling,
    the plant could be much smaller and less expensive than ITER …
    The pilot plant wouldn’t be overwhelmingly powerful. The new report envisions it producing a mere 50 megawatts of electrical power, a few percent of what a large gas-powered plant can generate.

    Before any pilot plant can be built, several large technological challenges must be overcome, the report says. For example, if the plant works like ITER and fuses deuterium and tritium (there are a few other possibilities), then researchers must also develop a way to breed more tritium in a purpose-built “blanket” of material surrounding the reactor. Otherwise the plant could quickly consume the world’s entire supply of tritium, which comes only from certain nuclear reactors. If the blanket contains lithium, the neutrons will split some of those nuclei to form more tritium. But tritium is a highly regulated radioactive substance that’s difficult to handle, and Lyman questions whether such a closed system can be developed by 2035.

    The debate over the timeline reflects tensions over the advent of new private fusion companies, which would presumably partner with DOE to develop the ideas they already have. Some startups have attracted the interest of high-tech billionaires. For example, Bill Gates is backing Commonwealth Fusion Systems, whose ideas focus on using magnet coils made of high-temperature superconductors, and Jeff Bezos is backing General Fusion, which uses mechanical pumps to squeeze and heat a plasma. Such private investment is a key reason Madia says he’s bullish on the pilot plant. “When guys like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos get involved, they do interesting stuff,” he says.

    But fusion startups are promising more than they can deliver, Lyman argues. …

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