Guest essay by Eric Worrall
h/t The Register The international ITER Fusion project might be mired in cost overruns and severe delays, but competition is heating up, between China and Germany, to create a viable nuclear fusion reactor.
Back in December, WUWT reported that Germany had started testing their Stellarator Fusion Reactor with Helium Plasmas.
Since that time, China has responded with a 100 second sustained fusion burn – a feat they hope in the near future to extend to 1000 seconds (16 minutes).
A team of Chinese scientists in Hefei, capital city of east China’s Anhui Province, has made an unprecedented breakthrough on an energy generation device that will make it one step closer to transform energy into stable, sustainable and controllable resources.
The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) fusion device, nicknamed “artificial sun”, made a 102-second long pulse plasma discharge at over the central electron temperature of 50 million degrees in Hefei at the end of January, 2016. This is the longest plasma discharge time recorded in all the Tokamak fusion devices in the world.
Led by the Chinese scientists at the Institute of Plasma Physics under the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Heifei, the EAST fusion device has made it one step closer to the goal of 1000-second long pulse plasma discharge at over the central electron temperature of 100 million degrees.
Its not just China and Germany. India, which is supplying many of the components used in the ITER project, announced their own fusion project in 2015.
The US government has also shown interest in Fusion, though the current administration seems to be mainly focussed on renewables. Which is rather a shame, because nuclear fusion is one of the few fields of research where scale really matters.
The biggest problem with sustaining a nuclear fusion reaction is keeping the plasma hot. If you heat something to 100 million degrees, it really wants to transfer its heat to anything cold in its immediate vicinity. One possible solution to this heat problem is to scale existing designs up, to create a really large plasma. Simple geometry dictates that a larger plasma has a more favourable surface area to volume ratio. Since heat is created by the plasma volume, but lost through the plasma surface, improving the surface area to volume ratio helps to keep the plasma hot – maybe enough to create a viable, self sustaining fusion burn.
Since American fusion researchers don’t have access to the same level of funding as German, Chinese or UN ITER researchers, they’re focusing on innovation. Firms like Lockheed Martin are attempting to use clever engineering, to make up for the lack of scale.
The innovative approach being pursued by America may or may not yield results. Fusion is full of pioneers who believe they had almost solved the problem. Robert Bussard, one of America’s nuclear fusion pioneers, at the time of his death was attempting to raise funding for a large scale Polywell Fusion Reactor. Sadly Bussard died, before he could achieve his life’s ambition, and conduct a full scale test of his ideas.
The concern for America is, or should be, that the brute force approach, building big, will almost certainly lead to viable nuclear fusion. If the ridiculous sums of money America spends on renewables, were diverted to fusion research, America would leap ahead of the competition. Current generation reactors are tantalisingly close to success.
Germany, China and India are taking an interest in Fusion, because they know that whoever cracks the fusion problem, will own the world.
The lack of US government interest in nuclear fusion may be due to pressure from green groups. For example, Greenpeace is strongly critical of nuclear fusion research; they think the money should be spent on renewables.
Regardless of the reason, relying just on innovation, as the USA seems to be doing, in my opinion is a huge gamble. If it pays off, it will pay off big. But if the problems encountered by the innovators prove to be intractable, as they likely will, the countries which went large will win the prize. By ignoring fusion, or at least not treating it as seriously as other countries, America is at risk of losing her competitive advantage, for decades to come.