Alan Boyle review nuclear fusion and considers whether nuclear fusion energy funding should be cut

Alan Boyle at MSNBC looks at the budgetary realities have raised new questions about just how much of a future fusion power has.

Nextbigfuture position on nuclear fusion.
* mastering commercial nuclear fusion is worthwhile and worthy of private and public investment.
* ITER (large tokomaks) project is costing the most money for fusion and even if successful would take until about 2060 to make a commercial reactor (per their own project plan) and would not be cheaper than current nuclear fission reactor technology.
* ITER is the least worthy of funding but I would replace it with support for deep burn fission research and development if a faster and safer energy technology development program were to be selected
* the national ignition facility is funded for the purpose of replacing the nuclear bomb testing program to enable better nuclear stockpile management
* Several of the nuclear fusion research projects (Tri-alpha energy, Lawrenceville plasma physics, General Fusion [Canada]) are privately funded.

* The US government should be looking at fixing bigger government funding waste. Military budgets should be cut by about $400 billion per year. This can be done without sacrificing US global geopolitical interests. It would mean having consistent and well thought out global policies and goals. Much of the costs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been funded through regular appropriations bills, but through emergency supplemental appropriations bills. As such, most of these expenses were not included in the budget deficit calculation prior to FY2010. The US will not fight a conventional war with China. Every other nation has less than $100 billion in defense spending. A USA with stronger economy in 2030 with lower deficits and ideally with nuclear fusion technology and deep burn nuclear fission reactors would be a stronger country.

* US government spending can also see big savings by making medical care more efficient with aggressive funding for access and provision of preventative care. There should also be a DARPA of medicine for finding real cures. Disease management that costs $100,000 per year per person are no good. You need to get to cures that are cheap like vaccines and immune system boosting and other approaches

* Developing deep burn fission and viable nuclear fusion energy that is lower cost energy and factory mass producing small modular reactors would provide economic benefit to the USA.

Nextbigfuture on the technical aspects of nuclear fusion
* Nuclear fusion will enable vastly superior space propulsion for better ground launch and movement in space up to about 20% or so of the speed of light
* There are nuclear fusion reactors that will achieve far lower cost for clear energy
* earlier and less commercial versions of nuclear fusion can still close the nuclear fission fuel cycle by generating the neutrons to turn uranium 238 into plutonium 239. Plutonium can be used as fuel in fission reactors
* Deep burn nuclear fission reactors (like Terrestrial energy’s integral molten salt reactor) should be able to completely use all of the uranium and plutonium in fission and thus reduce waste [unburned fuel] by 50 to 100 times, lower the cost of energy by three times. The deep burn reactors have lower technological development risks than the nuclear fusion reactors

Highlights from the MSNBC article

A campaign to get to the long-sought break-even point in a fusion reactor fell short last year at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility. Now it looks as if NIF will be turning its focus more toward nuclear weapons applications.

Meanwhile, the U.S. contribution to the international $13 billion ITER fusion research project is coming under increased congressional scrutiny. There’s a chance that federal funding will be held up just as the decade-long effort is due to hit its stride.

Nextbigfuture’s summary of nuclear fusion projects was linked by the MSNBC article

Commercialization Date targets

General Fusion 2020 (targeting 4 cents per kwh)

Helion Energy 2022 (about 5 cents per kwh and able to burn nuclear fission waste)

Lockheed Compact Fusion 2023

Tri-Alpha Energy (previously talked about 2015-2020, but now likely 2020-2025)

Lawrenceville Plasma Physics – 4 years commercial after net energy gain proved. Say two years to prove net energy gain. Then 2019-2021 for a commercial reactor (2021 if we allow for 2 years of slippage). Could lower energy costs by ten times.

EMC2 Fusion (Little information for the last few years. US Navy is funding the work at a few million dollars per year). An MSNBC report from 2011, the WB-8 experiment was about 60 percent complete. The WB8 should be able to generate 1,000 times more nuclear activity than WB-7, with about eight times more magnetic field.

As of August 15, 2012, the Navy had agreed to fund EMC2 with an additional $5.3 million over 2 years to work on the problem of pumping electrons into the whiffleball. They plan to integrate a pulsed power supply to support the electron guns (100+A, 10kV). WB-8 has been operating at 0.8 Tesla. The review of the work produced the recommendations to continue and expand the effort, stating: “The experimental results to date were consistent with the underlying theoretical framework of the Polywell fusion concept and, in the opinion of the committee, merited continuation and expansion.

Muon Fusion – Research in Japan and at Star Scientific in Australia

There will be more than one economic and technological winner. Once we figure nuclear fusion there will be multiple nuclear fusion reactors. It will be like engines – steam engines, gasoline engines, diesel engines, jet engines. There will be multiple makers of multiple types of nuclear fusion reactors. There will be many applications energy production, space propulsion, space launch, transmutation, weapons and more. We will be achieving greater capabilities with magnets (100+ tesla superconducting magnets), lasers (high repetition and high power), and materials. We will also have more knowledge of the physics. What had been a long hard slog will become easy and there will be a lot more money for research around a massive industry.

The cleaner burning aspect of most nuclear fusion approaches versus nuclear fission is not that interesting to me. It is good but nuclear fission waste cycle could be completely closed with deep burn nuclear fission reactors that use all of the uranium and plutonium. In China it is straight up engineering questions. So a transition to moderately deeper burn pebble bed from 2020-2035 (starts 2015 but not a major part until 2020) and then a shift to breeders 2030-2050+.

What matters are developments which could radically alter the economy of the world and the future of humanity. The leading smaller nuclear fusion projects hold out the potential of radically lowering the cost of energy and increasing the amount of energy. Nuclear fusion can enable an expansion of the energy used by civilization by over a billion times from 20 Terawatts to 20 Zettawatts. Nuclear fusion also enables space propulsion at significant fractions of the speed of light (1 to 20% of lightspeed.) Earth to orbit launch with nuclear fusion spaceplanes or reusable rockets and trivial access to anywhere in the solar system.

Alan Boyle at MSNBC also pointed out the University of Missouri researchers have managed to create rings of plasma that can hold their shape without the use of outside electromagnetic fields—possibly paving the way for a new age of practical fusion power and leading to the creation of new energy storage devices. The researchers created plasma rings about 15 centimeters in diameter that flew through the air across distances up to 60 centimeters. The rings lasted just 10 milliseconds, but reached temperatures greater than the sun’s fiery surface at around 6600 to 7700 degrees K (6327 to 7427 degrees C). Plasma physicists suspect that magnetic fields are still involved—but that the plasma rings create their own.

Such basic physics research could also lead to better energy storage for both civilian and military applications. Curry’s lab plans to examine the possibility of a “plasma capacitor” that stores tens of joules of energy per cubic centimeter, as opposed to traditional capacitors that hold less than one joule per cubic centimeter.

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