Power generated from nuclear fusion is one of those alternative energy sources that companies have been eyeing for decades. Facilities in the US, Europe, Russia, and Japan are pushing forward toward a way to harness the immense energy generated by the fusing of atoms — fusion fuel produces 10 thousand times more energy than coal burning. But there are still hurdles to overcome before we get our hands on what is considered the “holy grail” of energy sources.
The main obstacle keeping us from emission-free and nuclear waste-free fusion power is the amount of energy it takes to produce the conditions for nuclear fusion in the first place. Right now, most facilities put in as much or more energy into their nuclear fusion systems than what they get out. What you want is a surplus of energy that you can then turn into electricity. Breaking even is less than ideal.
Lockheed Martin announced on Oct. 15 that they have brought the world one step closer to nuclear fusion power. Their new approach to this age-old problem could lead to an operational reactor in just 10 years. Although Lockheed is moving forward, other laboratories across the country are not far behind.
There are multiple ways to produce nuclear reactions, but the two leading methods today are with lasers and with magnets. Laser fusion squeezes hydrogen atoms together to the point that they fuse with each other to create helium — this is the same nuclear fusion process that occurs in the center of the sun.
The other form of nuclear fusion is using hot plasmas that are contained by powerful magnetic fields. Atoms within the plasma recombine, and in the process release energy. This type of nuclear reaction is produced in large containment vessels called tokamaks.
Below are three other US facilities working on one of these two leading forms of nuclear fusion:
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
LLNL houses the world’s most powerful laser capable of generating nuclear fusion reactions.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the National Ignition Facility
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, located in Livermore, California, houses the world’s most powerful laser at the National Ignition Facility. And last year, they raised the bar for laser nuclear fusion research by being the first in the world to produce a reaction that released more energy than what the researchers initially put in.
One of LLNL’s latest achievements, announced last February, was when an LLNL team extracted 10 times more energy from their nuclear fusion reactions compared to past experiments. They published their results in the journal Nature.
To do this, they utilized a process called boot-strapping. Boot-strapping takes some of the residual particles created during fusion and deposits their energy into the overall fuel supply source instead of letting the particles escape.
“There is more work to do and physics problems that need to be addressed before we get to the end,” said lead author of the paper Omar Hurricane in a statement released by the lab. “But our team is working to address all the challenges, and that’s what a scientific team thrives on.”
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory
Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor at PPPL
Princeton Plasma Physics Lab
Last March, researchers at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, located in Middlesex County, New Jersey, ran large-scale simulations of nuclear fusion reactions at the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility. What they found after the ALCF’s supercomputer finished crunching the numbers was an encouraging insight into the process of extracting energy from fusion reactions.
One of the ways to produce nuclear fusion reactions on Earth is to create a hot plasma. The atoms within this plasma fuse together and out comes the energy from nuclear fusion. However, one of the problems with this approach is that energy is lost through turbulence within the plasma. Scientists at PPPL discovered that this loss of energy is actually less than expected.
“Understanding and possibly controlling the underlying physical process is key to achieving the efficiency needed to ensure the practicality of future fusion reactors,” said PPPL Principal research physicist William Tang in a statement issued by PPPL.
They hope their work will help with development of magnetically-confined fusion energy systems, in particular, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor tokamak under construction in France, which, once completed, will be the world’s largest tokamak system.
University of Washington
UW’s current fusion experiment
University of Washington Fusion Experiment
Earlier this month, researchers at the University of Washington announced their efforts to design a nuclear fusion reactor that is cheaper than coal. Their design is similar to Lockheed Martin’s in that it uses a hot plasma to generate the conditions for nuclear fusion reactions.
If their design was ultimately developed in to an operational reactor, they estimate that it would cost $US2.7 billion to produce 1 billion watts of power whereas it costs coal plants $US2.8 billion to produce the same amount of energy.
What makes their design so inexpensive compared to other fusion reactor designs, and competitive in cost with current energy sources, has to do with the shape of their containment vessel. Traditional tokamaks are shaped like a hollowed-out doughnut. The UW team is suggesting a hollowed-out sphere, instead, called a spheromak.
“Right now, this design has the greatest potential of producing economical fusion power of any current concept,” said UW Professor of aeronautics and astronautics, Thomas Jarboe, in a statement released by the university.
They will release the details of their design on Oct. 17 at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Fusion Energy Conference.
The Plasma Science and Fusion Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has compiled a great list of all nuclear sites in the US. Check it out for more information.
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