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Power Science Technology

If Fusion Is the Answer, We Need To Do It Quickly 305

Posted by Soulskill
from the taming-a-small-star dept.
Lasrick writes: Yale's Jason Parisi makes a compelling case for fusion power, and explains why fusion is cleaner, safer, and doesn't provide opportunities for nuclear smuggling and proliferation. The only downside will be the transition period, when there are both fission and fusion plants available and the small amount of "booster" elements (tritium and deuterium) found in fusion power could provide would-be proliferators what they need to boost the yield of fission bombs: "The period during which both fission and fusion plants coexist could be dangerous, however. Just a few grams of deuterium and tritium are needed to increase the yield of a fission bomb, in a process known as 'boosting.'" Details about current research into fusion power and an exploration of relative costs make fusion power seem like the answer to a civilization trying to get away from fossil fuels.
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If Fusion Is the Answer, We Need To Do It Quickly

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  • by sphealey (2855) on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @06:04PM (#47707771)

    Did I miss the part where the human race had a miraculous breakthrough in fusion technology? Even setting aside the expected issues with neutron radiation (sorry, no Mr. Fusion Home Energy Kit) there isn't any fusion technology today that is even close to breakeven on an experimental basis. As for commercial operations...

  • Re:Ready in 30 years (Score:4, Interesting)

    by roc97007 (608802) on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @06:32PM (#47707951) Journal

    We all hope not. And past performance is not an indication of future results. (Which is a good thing, in this case.) But the past several decades have pretty much beaten all the enthusiasm out of many of us.

    Practical fusion would be a complete game changer in many different areas. Cheap enough, it would not only pretty much kill the oil industry, but may even make the "green" energy industry redundant. (Solar, wind, tides, geothermal.) Dirt cheap electricity, commonly available, would make electric vehicles a lot more interesting. Cheap centralized power would probably reverse the current tendency to diversify power and make upgrading our aging electric power infrastructure a priority. And so forth. Fusion is a very disruptive technology.

    Maybe that's the real reason we don't have it yet.

  • Re: Fusion Confusion (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gewalker (57809) <Gary DOT Walker AT AstraDigital DOT com> on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @07:27PM (#47708351)

    Well, since the whole purpose of fusion reactors is to make commercially useful power, it is pretty clear that we do not have a working fusion reactor by any reasonable definition.

    Despite having spent billions (22 Billion USD on hot fusion research by US alone) on the problem so far, with billions yet to come, we do not have working fusion reactors. Even ITER will just be a prototype with no power generation at all. Cost to develop commercially, unknown but bound to be a lot of money.

    The US alone has also spent around 15 Billion developing Fast Breeder reactors, and has little to show for it. Other countries have similar experience.

    Estimated cost to develop commercial LFTR reactors seems to be in the range 3 - 20 Billion USD. A commercial LFTR prototype seems to be likely 1 billion USD by most observers.

    And you still have to build the reactors -- that won't be cheap either. Every known possible solution to replacing our energy infrastructure has a large economic cost, and significant to large environmental cost as well. Kind of the way large-scale engineering works.

    Yet the cost of doing nothing will be larger yet, at least eventually. Peak fossil fuel is coming sooner or later, even if you master shale and methane hydrates with high recovery rates and limited environmental impact. There are a lot of third-world people in this world that would gladly join the first-world lifestyle which puts a severe constraint on expanding fossil fuels usage to match the growth in demand.

    Personally, the combination of LFTR and renewable sources seems most likely to me to be commercially successful by 2050. Why, because the needed development seem to be within or nearly withing the capabilities of current engineering in both cases. Engineers are very happy to deliver good enough when the perfect seems unattainable.

  • Re:Ready in 30 years (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @07:38PM (#47708419)

    I work in fusion, so I assure you that I and most of those I work with actually *agree* with this article to one extent or another. Optimistically let's look at the following: ITER is built and achieves breakeven (but no power tapping), then DEMO is built and demonstrates power to grid. You're still talking 20 billion dollars for a Fusion plant that (if built using Tokamak tech) will be fragile and prone to failure (disruptions, ELMs, and other physics issures). No company in their right mind will pay this sort of money for something that fission can do much cheaper and more reliably. IMHO fusion is the answer of the future, but will require technologies that do not yet exist (extreme radiation resistant materials, better superconductors, and so on). What the article points out is that current fusion research has the problem of being a physics solution looking for an engineering solution, where it should have been an engineering solution (i.e. aneutronic fusion) looking for a physics solution. The article, while harsh, is unfortunately very valid.

  • by rogoshen1 (2922505) on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @08:09PM (#47708595)

    That's the kind of thinking that led navies across the world to build dreadnaughts. which could be sunk by a couple of airplanes dropping torpedoes.
    Fusion in it's current configuration, and our current state of knowledge, sure it's a joke.

    But, going with the airplane example; you're looking at the Wright Brother's first plane, and saying "nope, will never be useful, look at it, it can only fly 3 feet off the ground for a couple hundred yards". Solar panels 30-40 years ago were laughable as well mind you.

    Knowledge has a way of building on itself in an exponential fashion. Once the first working (energy positive) reactor is built, you can bet it will be only a matter of months before that design gets improved upon by a thousand different scientists.

    But yes, short-sighted people like yourself are what drive the issues in the US. If it doesn't go from drawing board to mature product instantaneously it's clearly a waste of time, effort, and money.

  • Re:Ready in 30 years (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Rei (128717) on Tuesday August 19, 2014 @08:14PM (#47708629) Homepage

    You're arguing against Tokamak fusion. But what about, say, HiPER? Looks to me to be a much more comercializeable approach, yet it's still "mainstream" fusion, just a slight variant on inertial confinement ala NIF to make it much smaller / cheaper / easier to have a high repeat rate (smaller compression pulse + heating pulse rather than a NIF-style super-massive compression pulse). The only really unstudied physics aspect is how the heating pulse will interact with the highly compressed matter; NIF and pals have pretty much worked out the details of how laser compression works out. Beyond this, pretty much everything else is just engineering challenges for commercialization, such as high repeat rate lasers, high-rate hohlraum injection and targeting, etc.

    I've often thought (different topic) about how one can get half or more of fusion's advantages via fission if you change the game around a bit. Fusion is promoted on being passively safe (it's very hard to keep the reaction *going*, it really wants to stop at all times), it leads to abundant fuel supplies, and there's little radioactive waste (no long-term waste). But what about subcritical fission reactors? Aka, a natural uranium or thorium fuel target being bombarded with a spallation neutron source. Without the spallation neutrons, there's just not enough neutrons for the reaction, so the second the beam gets shut off, the reactor shuts down, regardless of what else is going on. It'd be a fast reactor, aka a breeder, aka, your available fuel supplies increase by orders of magnitude. And your long-term waste would be much, much less in a well-designed reactor. Spallation neutron sources have long been proposed as a way to eliminate long-lived nuclear waste by transmuting it into shorter-lived elements.

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