Fusion energy is a method of producing thermal or electric power by the fusion of atoms. This is done by bringing together the nuclei of lighter atoms with high-energy electrons in a plasma. The process is called nuclear fusion and produces alpha particles (helium nuclei), protons, neutrons, and gamma rays, liberate large amount of energy.
We’re living in exciting times for nuclear fusion. At least, that’s what it looks like to me. The ITER organization is under serious construction, the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator has started up, and one of the most important remaining experiments (National Ignition Facility) seems to be making good progress towards ignition.
What’s not often mentioned is how mature the technologies are for fusion energy. The three main ones are magnetic confinement, inertial confinement, and toroidal/stellarators.
Magnetic Confinement has been around since the 1950s and works by containing hot plasma inside a magnetic field, allowing it to rotate in order to allow heat transfer to an external power source. The most advanced experiment is still the Princeton Large Torus, which operated from 1975 to 1991 and achieved a peak of 3.5 x 10^8 K (compared to ITER’s goal of 102 keV).
Magnetic confinement fusion on Earth has been proven as a concept and can produce more energy than it consumes.
Inertial Confinement is newer, having been first tested in the 1960s, and works by creating an extremely high pressure on a small central region of fuel pellets using lasers, ions, or electron beams. The most advanced experiment today is the National Ignition Facility (NIF), which has recently shown rapid progress towards its goal of ignition.
Inertial confinement fusion on Earth has been proven as a concept and can produce more energy than it consumes.
Toroidal/Stellarators have been around since the 1950s, but their main usage today is for particle accelerators by smashing high speed protons into stationary targets. They also have some research being done associated with controlled nuclear fusion.
Toroidal/Stellarators on Earth have not been proven as a concept, but the research is promising and construction has begun.
Now let’s look at why I think we’re living in exciting times for fusion energy:
Researchers are finishing construction on ITER, an international tokamak nuclear fusion reactor in France. It will be the largest in the world when completed and is expected to produce 500 megawatts of power through nuclear fusion. If successful, it could be ready for commercial usage by 2050.
The W7-X is an experimental stellarator in Germany which has recently started up and achieved first plasma. It’s main goal is to prove that the concept is feasible; however, it has already produced some positive results. The project was delayed for a year due to technical issues (control systems and heating systems). At its end, W7-X should produce 10 times more energy than it consumes (up to 80 megawatts).
The National Ignition Facility is a large laser-based inertial confinement fusion reactor in Livermore, California. It uses lasers and aims to produce 500 terrawatt-seconds of power through nuclear fusion by the end of its construction. If successful, it may also be ready for commercial usage by the 2050s.
The ITER, W7-X and NIF projects are all on schedule to complete their experiments and be ready for commercial usage by the 2050s. If successful, we can expect a large increase in fusion research as well as increased funding to speed up construction of these reactors.
What do you think this means for nuclear fusion?
I think it means that working reactors will be on the market by the 2050s and utility companies will finally begin switching over to cheap power from Nuclear Fusion.
It’s a new era, folks. Exciting times ahead!