There is a widespread view of fusion power that it is far in the future and not practical. Neither view is true.
I have been gathering evidence of rapid progress in fusion power development. That is best summarized on my blog. I am transcribing my recent article on fusion power here.
This is not ready to publish, but I invite those interested to take it further. I have limited time for this project.
The draft begins here:
Is Compact Fusion Power Now Fewer Than 15 Years Away — I Think So
I have so far catalogued 20 currently active projects developing prototype fusion power reactors, most of them “compact fusion” designs. Sadly, two additional programs have been closed (including the pioneering Russian Kurchatov Institute superconducting tokamak, the first of its kind).
My current best guess is that the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center, under the direction of Canadian Dennis Whyte, will lead the pack to the finish line, though it’s of course early to say. While fusion power development is proceeding on a shoestring budget worldwide, the field has nonetheless become competitive. As evidence, the rate at which current fusion technologies have been increasing the duration of plasma confinement and power output currently exceeds the rate defined by Moore’s law in computer processor design (number of transistors on a CPU chip).
The MIT SPARC design, now in the planning stages, will produce net power from a reactor that is only 40 feet in diameter (including its high temperature ReBCO superconducting magnets and energy collection system). MIT has partnered with Eni Energy Corporation of Italy to develop this planned net-output reactor.
Dr Whyte states, “In the last few years there has been an increasing realization of the dramatic progress of fusion science. There is a lot of hard work ahead of us but the conditions necessary to make fusion power are in hand. We see clear opportunities on both the technical and science side to accelerate fusion’s development. There are also some invigorating changes in the support of fusion in that the private sector is starting to invest. For a long time, this work relied solely on government support.
“We call it ARC, an acronym for Affordable, Robust, and Compact. The basic idea was to ask the question: What would be the minimum-size fusion device that would produce significant amounts of net electrical power? The capacity to make the magnetic field much stronger significantly reduced the size of the device compared to what previous studies had shown. We did the engineering calculations and found a surprising result: a rather compact device can make 250 million watts of net electricity. That’s sufficient to power Cambridge! And the fuel is basically free, derived from water. I did the calculation and the yearly cost of fuel per resident of Cambridge is around 20 cents.
“I have no doubt that we can make fusion energy. The harder path in front of us is making it commercially and economically competitive. Fusion is just more complex than other energy sources. There are going to be hits and misses. It seems to me to be a ripe opportunity for a new kind of partnership between the public and private sector to move things forward…. It’s very complex but I think the technology that exists now, while it’s no guarantee of success, will let us accelerate the development cycle so that it’s much faster. I see a pathway that would make fusion energy in under 15 years.
“Fusion is the ultimate choice. The problem is it can’t take forever because, by the numbers that are coming out, we need to start deploying it in the next 20 years. That’s why I really believe it’s worth a crack to see if we can get there in 15. If we create the perfect system 50 or 100 years from now, it could be just too late. That’s the urgency of this!”
The following is my informal list of the 20 fusion power development projects currently underway, also including formally announced future project plans, two discontinued projects, and information about university plasma physics departments and affiliated plasma physics laboratories, which also conduct basic and applied fusion power research. I’m sure there are more projects at various levels out there, though the following are the ones that seem most to make the news! I started at the FusionWiki with my list, but this page has not been updated regularly, and is far from comprehensive: Alternative fusion devices | FusionWiki. Therefore, my own list (below) is the most up-to-date of any that I am aware of….
Fusion power and plasma physics initiatives that I’m aware of (2018):
1. MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center — SPARC will utilize a compact classic tokamak design, enabled by high temperature superconductors, and out front in my opinion; aided by recent partnership with Eni Energy of Italy. This will replace the now-decommissioned Alcator C-Mod reactor. The commercial venture will be carried out via a newly incorporated company, Commonwealth Fusion Systems. SPARC is characterized as a “compact, high-field, net fusion energy experiment.” SPARC will be the same size as existing mid-sized fusion devices, but with a much stronger magnetic field. Based on established physics, the device is predicted to produce 50-100 MW of fusion power, achieving fusion gain, Q, greater than 3. Such an experiment would be the first demonstration of net energy gain and would validate the promise of high-field devices built with new superconducting technology. SPARC fits into an overall strategy of speeding up fusion development by using new high-field, high-temperature superconducting (HTS) magnets. SPARC leverages decades of international experience with tokamak physics and is a logical follow-on to the series of high-field fusion experiments built and operated at MIT. The long-term goal is to introduce fusion power into the energy market in time to help combat global warming.
2. Tokamak Energy (UK) — A private venture in Oxfordshire, England, developing successive generations of spherical tokamak reactors on a shoestring budget. The company is seeking “a faster way to fusion.” The new ST40 reactor, now in development, replaces the proven ST25 reactor. The ST40 is hoped to be the first privately-funded fusion machine to achieve the temperatures required for fusion. In the first stage of ST40 testing in June 2018, the company achieved plasma temperatures of 15 million degrees Celsius (equivalent to the core of the sun). The end 2018 target is dramatically higher, set at 100 million degrees Celsius – the temperature required to force together charged deuterium and tritium particles that naturally repel each other so that they will begin the necessary fusion reaction. The ST40 will aid in investigating a new domain in tokamak operation: the combination of high magnetic field and low aspect ratio (a “squashed” shape). It will be necessary to study the behaviour of the plasma under such conditions. Tokamak Energy hopes to demonstrate that commercially-viable fusion power can be produced in compact spherical tokamaks. The company states, “Our target is to have our compact solution for fusion providing energy into the grid by 2030. To achieve this objective, we are working in stages and ensuring our technology is robust and meets clearly defined targets and criteria. This enables us to develop our tokamaks faster and helps us remain on track to meet our ultimate target.” Note that the MAST spherical tokamak is also being developed in Oxfordshire, with public funding.
3. Lockheed Martin — This company’s secretive Skunkworks Lab is reportedly developing a portable, ultra-compact fusion reactor (CFR) design. This is the smallest fusion reactor design ever proposed. However, there has been more talk than action on this project so far, and almost nothing is published, including research findings or results with prototypes. It is intended that the transportable CFR will fit on a flatbed truck, or be capable of powering a large aircraft or sea vessel. On a positive note, Lockheed Martin has just registered a patent for its distinctive design concept. The patent calls for the utilization of a new coil-based magnet technology that produces a much more effective magnetic field for plasma containment, thereby significantly increasing the reactor’s containment capacity (beta limit). The targeted completion date is 2028. Dr. Thomas McGuire, the head of the Skunk Works’ Compact Fusion Project, maintains that the CFR will approach plasma confinement in a radically different way. Instead of constraining the plasma within tubular rings, a series of superconducting coils will generate a new magnetic-field geometry in which the plasma is held within the broader confines of the entire reaction chamber. Superconducting magnets within the coils will generate a magnetic field around the outer border of the chamber. “So for us, instead of a bike tire expanding into air, we have something more like a tube that expands into an ever-stronger wall,” McGuire says. The system is therefore regulated by a self-tuning feedback mechanism, whereby the farther out the plasma goes, the stronger the magnetic field pushes back to contain it. The CFR is expected to have a beta limit ratio of one. “We should be able to go to 100% or beyond,” McGuire states.
4. TAE Technologies (formerly Tri Alpha Energy) — Paul Allen of Microsoft is an investor, along with New Enterprise Associates (NEA), Venrock, and Wellcome Trust. The company has successfully raised over $500 million and has been in operation for over 20 years. TAE is developing a (challenging) aneutronic design that, if it works, will largely remove neutron radiation and produce an electric current as the direct product of a hydrogen-boron fusion reaction. TAE states, “The proprietary beam-driven FRC approach utilizes injection of beams of high-energy hydrogen atoms to develop and sustain a predominantly large orbit particle plasma, making the system more stable, better confined and fusion more achievable. Further, this solution is compact and energy efficient, yielding a practical power plant size of 200-500 megawatts, and it is economically competitive with other power technologies (that provide) continuous baseload power generation. It is a formidable challenge, indeed: Hydrogen-boron fusion requires considerably hotter conditions than other available source elements. However, we remain undaunted because hydrogen-boron is the safest known fuel cycle.”
5. Princeton University — The National Spherical Torus Experiment Upgrade (NSTX-U) is an innovative magnetic fusion device that was constructed by the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) in collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Columbia University, and the University of Washington at Seattle. The NSTX-U reactor is also adopting high temperature superconductors and compact design. It produces a plasma that is shaped like a sphere with a hole through its center, different from the “donut” shaped plasmas of conventional tokamaks. This innovative plasma configuration may have several advantages, a major one being the ability to confine a higher plasma pressure for a given magnetic field strength. Since the amount of fusion power produced is proportional to the square of the plasma pressure, the use of spherically shaped plasmas could allow the development of smaller, more economical fusion reactors.
6. Wendelstein 7-X Stellarator (Max Planck Institute, Greifswald, Germany) — this design has some unique advantages in terms of its twisting toroidal shape being optimized for plasma confinement. Wendelstein 7-X is the world’s largest fusion device of the stellarator type. Its objective is to investigate the suitability of the stellarator configuration for a power plant. It tests an optimized magnetic field for the confinement of plasma, which is produced by a system of 50 non-planar superconducting magnet coils, which are the technical core piece of the device. It is expected that plasma equilibrium and confinement will be of a quality comparable to that of a tokamak of the same size, but that the disadvantages of a large current flowing in a tokamak plasma will be avoided. With plasma discharges to last up to 30 minutes, the Wendelstein 7-X is to demonstrate this essential stellarator property (plasma stability) via continuous operation. The main assembly of the Wendelstein 7-X was concluded in 2014, with the first plasma produced on December 10, 2015.
7. University of Washington (UW) Z-Pinch Spheromak — The University of Washington in Seattle has spun out the company CTFusion as an early commercial venture, and has maintained a longstanding collaboration with the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. The reactor concept, classed as a dynomak type of design, is of the spheromak subtype, and began as a class project initiated by Dr. Thomas Jarboe in 2012. Dr. Jarboe and doctoral student Derek Sutherland – who previously worked in reactor design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – continued to develop and refine the concept. The Z-pinch design builds on existing technology by creating a magnetic field within a closed space which contains the plasma for a sufficient period of time for a fusion reaction to occur. The Sheared Flow Stabilized Z-Pinch has a simple, linear configuration and uses sheared axial flows to prevent plasma instabilities from growing.
The concept is similar to cars in the centre lane of the highway being prevented from changing lanes by faster moving traffic on either side. The unique aspect of the Z-pinch design is that it allows the superheated plasma to react and continue burning. Uniquely, the reaction would be largely self-sustaining, by continuously heating the plasma to maintain thermonuclear conditions. The reactor then generates the majority of its own magnetic fields by driving electrical currents into the plasma itself. This reduces the amount of required materials and allows researchers to shrink the overall size of the reactor dramatically. Energy generated by the reactor would transfer heat to a coolant that will spin a turbine and generate electricity, similarly to typical power reactors. This is seen as a “much more elegant solution” because the medium in which fusion is generated is also the medium in which the current required to confine it magnetically is driven. When compared with the conventional ITER design in France, the University of Washington’s Z-Pinch Spheromak is projected to be much less expensive – roughly one-tenth the cost – while producing five times the amount of energy (that is, it is proposed to be 50 times more efficient than ITER). The UW researchers factored the cost of building a fusion reactor power plant using their design and compared that with building a coal power plant. They employed a metric called “overnight capital costs,” which includes all expenses, particularly startup infrastructure fees. A fusion power plant producing 1 gigawatt (1 billion watts) of power would cost $2.7 billion, while a coal plant of the same output would cost $2.8 billion, according to their analysis. While coal is an inexpensive carbon fuel, the fuel costs for fusion reactors are vanishingly small, far less than that of any carbon energy source.
8. General Fusion — General Fusion hopes to achieve nuclear fusion by mechanical (acoustic) compression (inertial confinement), which is way out there as an idea. The commercial-scale facility has been in development since 2002, with Jeff Bezos as a high-profile investor. It is based in Richmond, British Columbia (Canada) and has an office in Washington, DC. General Fusion’s Magnetized Target Fusion system employs a sphere filled with molten lead-lithium that is pumped to form a vortex. A pulse of magnetically-confined plasma fuel is then injected into the vortex. Around the sphere, an array of pistons drive a pressure wave into the centre of the sphere, compressing the plasma to fusion conditions. This process is then repeated, while the heat from the reaction is captured in the liquid metal and used to generate electricity via a steam turbine. A major practical advantage is that the liquid metal wall absorbs energy from the fusion reaction which can then be pumped to heat exchangers. The liquid metal also protects the solid outer wall from damage, and can be combined with liquid lithium to breed tritium within the power plant. The company argues that using practical, existing technology (steam powered pistons are used to compress the plasma to fusion conditions), rather than the complex lasers or giant magnets found in other fusion approaches, steam pistons can be practically implemented in a commercial power plant. The compression target is comprised only of magnetized plasma (fusion fuel), which does not need to be manufactured and is effectively cost free. The company has recently developed a plasma injector ten times more powerful than its predecessor (now the world’s most powerful), which has begun operation at General Fusion’s facilities in Vancouver, Canada. This new PI3 injector is expected to contribute significantly to the commercialization of the company’s technology. General Fusion’s commercialization program has moved forward rapidly, building on plasma performance milestones achieved in its smaller plasma injectors. The company has developed and tested 18 increasingly sophisticated plasma injectors over the past decade, culminating in the PI3.
9. Helion Energy is an American company in Redmond, Washington developing a magneto-inertial fusion power technology called The Fusion Engine. Helion Energy is a spin-off of Redmond company MSNW LLC that now develops space propulsion related technologies. Their approach combines the stability of magnetic containment and once-per-second heating pulsed inertial fusion. They are developing a 50 MW scale system that is “truck-sized.” Helion Energy was founded in 2013 by Dr. David Kirtley, Dr. John Slough, Chris Pihl, and Dr. George Votroubek. Investors in Helion include YCombinator, Mithril Capital Management and Capricorn Investment Group. The management team won the 2013 National Cleantech Open Energy Generation competition and awards at the 2014 ARPA-E Future Energy Startup competition and were members of the 2014 YCombinator program. The company’s Fusion Engine technology is based on the Inductive Plasmoid Accelerator (IPA) experiments performed at MSNW LLC from 2005 through 2012. This system theoretically operates at 1 Hz, injecting plasma, compressing it to fusion conditions, expanding it and directly recovering the energy to provide electricity. The IPA experiments claimed 300 km/s velocities, deuterium neutron production, and 2 keV deuterium ion temperatures. Uniquely, Helion intends to use combined helium-3/deuterium fuel. This fuel allows essentially aneutronic fusion (releasing only 5% of its energy in the form of neutrons). The helium is captured and reused, eliminating supply concerns. The IPA experiments utilized deuterium-deuterium fusion, which produces a 2.4 MeV neutron per reaction. Helion and MSNW published articles describing a deuterium-tritium implementation which is the easiest to achieve but generate 14 MeV neutrons. Benefits of this very different technology will include: (1) By combining the stability of steady magnetic fusion and the heating of pulsed inertial fusion, a commercially practical system has been realized that is smaller and lower cost than existing programs. (2) Modular, Distributed Power: A “container sized,” 50 MW module for base load power generation. (3) Self-Supplied Helium 3 Fusion: Pulsed, D-He3 fusion simplifies the engineering of a fusion power plant, lowers costs, and is even cleaner than traditional fusion. (4) Magnetic Compression — Fuel is compressed and heated purely by magnetic fields operated with modern solid state electronics. This eliminates inefficient, expensive laser, piston, or beam techniques used by other fusion approaches. (5) Direct Energy Conversion: Enabled by pulsed operation, efficient direct conversion decreases plant costs and fusion’s engineering challenges. (6) Safety: With no possibility of melt-down, or hazardous nuclear waste, fusion does not suffer the drawbacks that make fission an unattractive alternative.
10. South Korea — Has a national fusion power development policy. The Korean Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research (KSTAR) tokamak-type nuclear fusion reactor achieved a world record of 70 seconds in high-performance plasma operation in 2016.
11. China — is conducting extensive research, has a good record for maintaining high temperature plasmas. The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST Reactor) is its primary research and development site. China currently plans two further generations of reactors after EAST (see below). It would not surprise me if China were eventually to move permanently into the lead internationally, as commitment to fusion power research and development has been weaker than one might expect for such a critical technology at the national level almost everywhere. The Chinese appear confident to move forward in areas where others are hesitant or conservative.
12. LPPFusion — Lawrenceville Plasma Physics is also developing aneutronic fusion on a “shoestring” budget. LPPFusion’s official mission is “to provide environmentally safe, clean, cheap and unlimited energy for everyone through the development of Focus Fusion technology, based on the Dense Plasma Focus device and hydrogen-boron fuel.” The company’s nuclear fusion R&D project was initially funded by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and is now backed by over eighty private investors, including the Abell Foundation of Baltimore. The company is currently performing experiments with beryllium electrodes in collaboration with the University of California at San Diego Center for Energy Research, with the intention of achieving nuclear fusion via ion energy. This method (similarly to that of TAE) yields a flowing electric current and is radiation-free,
13. MAST (Mega Ampere Spherical Tokamak) upgraded 2017 – Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, Oxfordshire, England, developed in collaboration with the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. MAST is described as the UK’s fusion energy experiment. Along with NSTX-U at Princeton, MAST is one of the world’s three leading spherical tokamaks (STs). Experiments on MAST are seen as important because they test ITER physics in new regimes and they help determine the long-term potential of the ST, which may eventually be suitable as the basis for a power station. A design based on MAST may lead to a compact Component Test Facility, which would reduce risk and accelerate the development of commercial fusion power. Many experiments on MAST are carried out as collaborations with UK universities, other Euratom Associations and with non-European fusion laboratories. Several are joint experiments with other tokamaks usually under the auspices of International Tokamak Physics Activities expert groups. Over 30,000 man-made ‘stars’ have now been created by experiments inside MAST. They have provided a wealth of data, enabling many advances in key research areas including plasma instabilities and start-up methods. This is assisted by MAST’s suite of diagnostics for analyzing plasmas, which is considered to be “among the best of any tokamak now operating.” The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy is implementing a major upgrade that will give MAST expanded and unique capabilities. The features of the upgrade include: (1) An increase in the pulse length by a factor approaching ten; (2) Increased heating power; (3) Better control and pumping necessary to contain the resulting higher temperature, longer-pulse plasmas; and (4) Capability to test advanced ‘divertor’ solutions to handle high exhaust powers from the plasma. These new capabilities will allow scientists to study plasmas which approach ‘steady-state’ conditions – operating regimes that could be used for the design of future fusion machines, which must run for hours or days rather than the seconds of today’s devices.
14. The Joint European Torus (JET), first operational in 1983, and also located at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, remains the world’s largest and most powerful tokamak, and will continue to be the focal point of the European fusion research program until the very large scale ITER reactor is in place. JET is the only device currently operating that can use the deuterium-tritium fuel mix that will be required for commercial fusion power. Since it began operating in 1983, JET has made major advances in the science and engineering of fusion, increasing confidence in the suitability of the tokamak for future power production. Milestones at JET have included the world’s first controlled release of deuterium-tritium fusion power (1991) and the world record for fusion power (16 megawatts in 1997). In recent years, JET has carried out work to assist the design and construction of ITER (which is modelled on the JET design). After more than 30 years of successful operation, JET remains closely involved in testing plasma physics, systems and materials for ITER. The JET facilities are collectively used by all European fusion laboratories under the EUROfusion consortium. About 350 scientists from Europe, plus more from around the globe, participate in JET experiments each year, coordinated by a program management unit. The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy is responsible for the operation of the JET facilities, via a contract between the European Commission and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. JET is operated under a four-year €283m contract that expires in 2018. About 88% of the running costs of JET are paid for by the EU, which has caused worry about the fate of the lab after Brexit. The UK government has announced that it will continue to fund the JET nuclear-fusion experiment until at least 2020, despite the country’s intention to leave the European Union (EU) in March 2019. JET is operated by the European Consortium for the Development of Fusion Energy, which receives about half of its funding through the EU’s Euratom Horizon 2020 program. In its bid to renew the contract, the UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy stated that it will continue to pay its “fair share” of JET running costs until 2020. Industry Secretary Greg Clark commented: “JET is a prized facility at the centre of the UK’s global leadership in nuclear fusion research.”
15. ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, now being constructed at Cadarache in France, will be a scaled-up version of JET, with linear dimensions twice the size, and ten times the plasma volume. ITER is currently the world’s largest and best-funded fusion power development program. It is NOT a compact reactor design (I characterize ITER as “old tech”). The development of ITER has run years behind schedule, as it is constrained by plodding and weakly committed international bureaucracies, consisting of 35 nations, led — and sometimes unwillingly funded — by China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States. ITER proposes to develop the first fusion device to produce net energy over sustained time periods, though it is not my personal pick to be the first to achieve this milestone. A goal of first plasma has been set for December 2025, though note that ITER has a lengthy history of setting the goalposts back.
16. Japanese Large Helical Device (LHD). This is the world’s second largest stellarator, after the Wendelstein 7-X, and the world’s largest helical fusion reactor. The Large Helical Device is located in Toki, Gifu, Japan, belonging to the National Institute for Fusion Science. The LHD employs a heliotron magnetic field originally developed in Japan. Qingping He, of Stanford University, explains that a problem with tokamaks is that, due to the doughnut shape, magnetic fields are denser on the inside of the doughnut than on the outside. This can cause plasma to leak out of confinement, leading to decreased fusion performance or even damaging the reactor (as occurred with India’s SST-1 in December 2017). Known solutions prevent the tokamak from operating continuously, as they require a changing field. Therefore, the stellarator twists the doughnut along the inner axis of the doughnut. This means that some parts of the inside of the doughnut are now flipped to the outside (analogously to a Mobius strip), preventing the concentration of magnetic fields along the inside of the device. Since no changes or adjustments to the field are thus necessary, the stellarator can operator continuously. One form of the stellarator is the heliotron, which twists the confinement regions into a helix. The largest heliotron in the world is the Large Helical Device in Japan. Currently several techniques are employed. The first is neutral beam injection, by which neutral particles are beamed into the confinement chamber, colliding with the plasma. The magnetic fields in the chamber maintain the neutral particles in the plasma, where they transfer their energy to the plasma. These beams can then be injected tangentially to the flow of plasma, which also helps to increase the overall speed of the plasma. Other techniques employed include electron cyclotron resonance heating and ion cyclotron radio frequency acceleration, the latter of which bombards the plasma with radio waves to heat it. There is a plan to increase the density of the plasma by directly injecting frozen hydrogen pellets and researching possible optimizations for their injection. Supercooling of the superconductors used to create the magnetic fields will also be investigated. This strategy will increase the strength of the magnetic fields. It is hoped that the helical design will prove feasible for large scale commercial fusion reactors.
17. Japanese advanced superconducting tokamak JT-60SA. As a project conducted under the Broader Approach Agreement between Europe and Japan, the Satellite Tokamak Programme is upgrading the JT-60U tokamak in Naka, Japan to the advanced superconducting tokamak JT-60SA, re-employing the site buildings, auxiliaries, neutral beams, and some power supplies to support the exploitation of ITER and to promote research and development towards the next-stage device, DEMO (see below).
18. National Ignition Facility | Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — In the case of fusion power, “ignition” refers to the moment when the energy from a controlled fusion reaction outstrips the rate at which x-ray radiation losses and electron conduction cool the implosion: as much or more energy “out” than “in.” One of the goals of the NIF is to create a self-sustaining (inertial confinement) nuclear fusion reaction by focusing a 500 trillion watt laser on a 150 mcg deuterium-tritium capsule for 20 billionths of a second. The NIF states: “Achieving ignition would be an unprecedented, game-changing breakthrough for science and could lead to a new source of boundless clean energy for the world. The goal of current NIF experiments is to increase the density of the hot spot by a factor of three at about the same temperature as already achieved. Under those conditions, the fusion reaction rate would be sufficient to generate ignition. Current experiments routinely produce a density sufficient to “stop,” or absorb the energy from alpha particles (nuclei of helium atoms) produced by the fusion reactions in the hot spot. This process, known as alpha heating, further heats the assembled fuel and enhances the energy yield. This is a critical milestone on the road to ignition.
19. Steady State Tokamak (SST-1). The Institute for Plasma Research(IPR) of India has developed the SST-1 as its national experimental fusion reactor, describing it as having “unique capacities.” It is characterized as “one of only a handful of reactors” built with a superconducting magnetic confinement design. The SST-1 was fully commissioned in 2013 after 19 years of development. Within two years, the SST-1 produced repeatable plasma discharges up to ~ 500 ms with plasma currents greater than 75,000 A. In December 2017, the toroidal magnet system became damaged, causing a temporary closure of the facility. By this time, the reactor had conducted about 20 experiments. Repairs are currently under way, with plans to demonstrate the reactor at the 27th International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Fusion Energy Conference in Gandhinagar, Gujarat in October 2018. The SST-1 is the only Tokamak in the world to operate its toroidal magnets in a two-phase flow. This offers diversified results for fusion study. The former Director of the IPR, Prof. Dhiraj Bora, has stated that the SST-1 achievements have set India at par with China and South Korea as one of the eight (leading) participants in the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). In my view, this description is clearly an exaggeration, but it is nonetheless gratifying that India has also made a commitment to develop fusion power, and the unique design will certainly be of interest for future research.
20. MIFTI (Magneto-Inertial Fusion Technologies, Inc.) was founded in 2008 by scientists from the University of California Irvine. For over 25 years, these scientist have researched and refined a method of controlled thermonuclear fusion, based on Staged Z-Pinch. This concept has predicted a net gain of controlled thermonuclear fusion energy that can possibly solve the world’s energy problems. A by-product of this fusion reaction can also be used to generate radioisotpes that are employed in nuclear medicine procedures worldwide. MIFTI states that it is the only company in the world that has researched staged Z-pinch technology, utilizing computational modelling, computer simulations, and laboratory experiments, for over the last twenty years. Only recently have MIFTI’s scientists been able to overcome the instability problems of Z-pinch. This problem was solved, because sophisticated software was made available to the MIFTI scientists at the University of California, Irvine by the U.S. Air Force. Years of experimentation and understanding the science have led MIFTI’s scientists to conclude that the staged Z-pinch fusion approach will change the landscape of electricity production globally by providing a net energy gain from ten to fifty times the energy used to create the process. MIFTI’s technology will have positive worldwide consequences, not only for energy, but will solve the current crisis of worldwide shortages in nuclear medicine, as staged Z-pinch is very flexible and can be applied to a number of earth’s dilemmas. MIFTI’s research is currently funded through a research grant from the Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency (DOE/ARPA-E) and private investment.
Plasma Physics Programs, Research Facilities & Discontinued and Planned Fusion Power Projects
1. Many universities and institutes have plasma physics programs, including the University of Alberta, University of Saskatchewan, and University of Montreal in Canada, just for example (already mentioned: MIT, Princeton, UCLA); many more in North America and around the world. Here is a global listing of larger plasma science laboratories, which is far from exhaustive (e.g., none of the Canadian labs is listed): Plasma Labs.
2. Italy is engaged in advanced research at the Institute of Plasma Physics — Italy has long been a leader in high energy physics. The Italian Institute is really only one example of the dozens of plasma physics labs around the world.
3. UCLA — a leader in plasma science and plasma confinement. Dr Francis Chen is currently compiling a textbook on helical plasmas (personal communication). He has recently completed a book, laying out a plan for the development of practical fusion power: An Indispensable Truth: How Fusion Power Can Save the Planet (2011).
4. Z Machine, Sandia National Laboratories. Sandia is one of only three fusion research centres currently employing deuterium-tritium fuel, as tritium costs tens of thousands of dollars per gram, because it does not occur naturally. Rather, tritium is produced in nuclear reactors as a byproduct of fission reactions. As the Sandia Lab is research-focused rather than development-focused, and also because it investigates both fission and fusion, the decision to employ tritium at this site is perhaps understandable. In the presence of water, including humidity in the air, tritium can form tritiated water, which is at least ten thousand times more biologically hazardous than pure T2 gas. That is a special concern at the Z machine, which insulates electrical components in pools of oil and water. At the Lawrence Livermore NIF, tritium presents fewer hazards because it is contained within a tiny sphere during transport, and workers don’t often enter the interior of the machine. Sandia’s capsule, in contrast, is open at both ends, and the violent implosion mixes unburned tritium with vaporized metal that “sprays everywhere,” requiring the centre of the device to be completely removed and replaced after every injection. Sandia is nevertheless moving forward with tritium, in part because it generates extra neutrons that reveal what is occurring in the hottest, densest part of the short-lived plasma, where the physics is not as well understood. In three planned trials next year, the tritium containment system will be removed from around the target both to test an air-purging safety system and to get a clearer view of the neutrons.
5. Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE). The LLE is a scientific research facility employing the OMEGA laser, which is part of the University of Rochester’s south campus, located in Brighton, New York. SImilarly to Sandia, the LLE is a research rather than a development facility. The lab was established in 1970 and its operations since then have been funded jointly; mainly by the United States Department of Energy, the University of Rochester and the New York State government. The Laser Lab was commissioned to serve as a centre for investigations of high-energy physics, specifically those involving the interaction of extremely intense laser radiation with matter. Many types of scientific experiments are performed at the facility with a strong emphasis on inertial confinement, direct drive, laser-induced fusion using OMEGA, currently the world’s highest-energy ultraviolet laser. The OMEGA laser at the LLE is also one of the most powerful and highest energy lasers in any class in the world. It is a 60-beam ultraviolet frequency-tripled neodymium glass laser, which is capable of delivering 30 kilojoules at up to 60 terawatts onto a target less than 1 millimeter in diameter. Construction and commissioning of the laser were completed in 1995. OMEGA held the record for highest energy laser (per pulse) from 1999 to 2005, when the first 8 beams at the National Ignition Facility exceeded OMEGA’s output by about 30 kJ in the ultraviolet. The maximum fusion yield of OMEGA so far is about 10^14 neutrons per shot (first achieved in 1995), and it once held the record for highest neutron yield of any inertial confinement fusion device. The laboratory is unique in conducting “big science” on a university campus.
6. Costa Rica Stellarator-1 (SCR-1). The SCR-1 was recently constructed and tested the campus of the Technology Institute of Costa Rica in Cartago province. Costa Rica is now the sixth country to have developed a stellarator, along with the U.S., Japan, Spain, Australia and Germany. Testing of the stellarator represents the first discharge of high temperature plasma in Latin America.
7. H-1NF is the Australian Plasma Fusion Research Facility. The H-1 flexible Heliac is a three field-period helical axis stellarator located in the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering at Canberra, Australia. Optimization of the H-1 power supplies for low current ripple allows precise control of the ratio of secondary (helical, vertical) coil to primary (poloidal, toroidal) coil currents, resulting in a finely tunable magnetic geometry. Slight variation in the current ratio between shots (plasma discharges) in a sequence corresponds to a high resolution parameter scan through magnetic configurations (e.g., rotational transform profile; magnetic well). The programmable control system allows for repetition rates of around 30 shots per hour, limited by data acquisition time and magnet cooling time.
8. Energy/Matter Conversion Corporation, Inc. (aka EMC2) — founded in 1985 by Robert Bussard (died 2007) — developing a Polywell reactor, using inertial electrostatic confinement (positively charged particles are aimed at negatively charged particles at high speeds). Appears to be inactive currently.
9. Russia — invented the tokamak design, but is currently lagging the field. The T-15 reactor at the Kurchatov Institute, the first industrial prototype fusion reactor to use superconducting magnets, was closed in 1995 for lack of funds. Russia proposes to develop a post-ITER hybrid fission-fusion reactor to be named DEMO-FNS (for Fusion Neutron Source). A small tokamak (R=1.9 m) would generate the neutrons necessary to produce fission fuel and to transmute radioactive waste.
10. General Atomics in the US has no plans to develop a commercial fusion reactor, but it does carry out considerable plasma and magnetic confinement research, maintains the DIII-D Plasma Control System, and supplies components to many of the projects mentioned here (including ITER, KSTAR, EAST, MAST and many others). The mission of the DIII-D Control group at General Atomics is to develop the control knowledge and solutions needed to enable tokamaks to operate disruption-free with required levels of robust high performance. Development of integrated plasma control (IPC), a systematic approach to model-based design and controller verification, has enabled successful experimental application of high-reliability control algorithms requiring a minimum of machine operations time for testing and tuning. GA reports that is is active in developing and supplying the following:
GA is fabricating the Central Solenoid for the international ITER project, an unprecedented scientific partnership that aims to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion power as a clean-energy resource on a global scale.
Superconducting Coil Heat Treatment
Cryogenic Systems & Cold Testing
Tokamak Operations and Engineering
GA provides a wide array of fusion technology products from gas injection systems to diagnostics and imaging.
HIGH-POWER NEUTRAL BEAM INJECTOR SYSTEMS
GA supplies a full array of corrugated waveguides and high- and low-power microwave transmission systems and components.
HIGH POWER & HIGH VOLTAGE SYSTEMS
Low-Power Microwave Systems
Corrugated Waveguide Systems
PLASMA CONTROL SYSTEMS
GA supplies design resources, technologies, and integrated systems for control of magnetic fusion plasmas to government and private laboratories worldwide. GA has adapted and deployed its DIII-D Plasma Control System at more than a dozen toroidal magnetic confinement facilities including NSTX, Pegasus, and MST in the United States, and EAST, KSTAR, KTX, and MAST in Asia and Europe.
11. China, Europe and Japan have also proposed post-ITER projects, all of which will be named “DEMO.” DEMO is meant to be the machine that will bring fusion energy research to the threshold of a prototype fusion reactor, thus opening the way to its industrial and commercial exploitation. The term DEMO describes more a developmental phase than a single machine. For the moment, different conceptual DEMO projects are under consideration by all ITER Members (China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and, to a lesser extent, the United States). It has not yet been determined whether DEMO would be an international collaboration, similarly to ITER, or a series of national projects. China, after having explored physics and technological issues in a test reactor built in the 2020s (the China Fusion Engineering Test Reactor, CFETR), also plans to launch the construction of a DEMO reactor in the 2030s. The European Union proposes a 500 MW DEMO reactor. The Japanese have shared plans for a 1500 MW DEMO reactor. My own guess is that ITER is unlikely to serve as the foundation for future fusion reactors. Rather, the future is much more likely to see compact designs, and it’s probable that a variety of reactor models will be commercialized, as well, building on ideas that are already more advanced than anything under consideration at ITER (which is fundamentally an expansion of the 40-year-old JET design!).
12. I can’t close without mentioning the Fusion Energy Consortium, who hope to pool private funds for the incubation of fusion power development. The consortium states: By the end of this century the world will have depleted economically viable fossil fuel reserves. At the same time the worldwide demand for energy will double. Renewables such as solar, wind, geothermal, etc., are wholly inadequate to supply the world’s electrical power needs let alone the needs of the transportation and agriculture sectors. If mankind cannot develop a new source of energy of the magnitude of fossil fuels, worldwide population will drop by a factor of 10 to pre-industrial age levels. Today’s atomic fission based nuclear power is the only energy source that can meet the 22nd Century’s energy demands. However it has too many dangerous problems to be implemented on such a vast scale. The only known solution is the development and commercialization of a different type of atomic energy known as fusion energy. Although scientists have been studying fusion for over 60 years they have not been able to harness it in a controlled environment. For a variety of political and sociological reasons no country has dedicated itself to developing fusion energy for the practical purpose of generating energy. The job can best be done in the private sector. However, the risks are too high based on our current level of scientific knowledge, and the costs are prohibitive. The solution is the Fusion Energy Consortium which will organize the tremendous amount of required capital and incentivize the private sector to take on this task in an efficient and collaborative manner. The public and political leadership will become educated on the tremendous need to develop practical fusion energy. The Fusion Energy Consortium is a member sponsored U.S. IRS Title 26 501(c)(3) compliant LLC established as a foundation to stimulate the science, research, and development leading to practical controlled nuclear fusion energy.
Links to primary sources are in the original blog post: