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nuclear fusion developments 2 – replicating the stars

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ITER, in southern France, while under construction

Returning to nuclear fusion, I’m focussing here on the recent Royal Institute lecture mentioned in my previous fusion post (all links below). Dr Melanie Windridge starts off with the well-known point that we’re currently failing to reach projected targets for the reduction of global warming, with current national pledges taking us to 2.4 degrees C by century’s end (the target, remember, is/was 1.5°C), with energy demand rising, and energy security issues due to political instability, among other problems.

Windridge’s pitch is that, yes, we must keep on with all the possible green solutions, but fusion is the transformational solution the world needs. It potentially produces no CO2, an abundant supply of fuel, in a safe, controlled process with no long-term radioactive waste. It would also potentially produce firm, non-intermittent, base-load power – less redundancy in the grid (I probably need to do a whole post on this) – which would be more economical in the long term. Also, decarbonisation is about much more than electricity, which apparently is only about 20% of the electricity market. The other 80% is much harder to decarbonise. Windridge lists some of them – industrial heat, aviation and shipping fuels, and desalination – which I hope to explore further in another post. There’s also the opportunity, if we could develop an effective fusion energy system, with limitless clean energy, of undoing the damage already done. Current projections show that there will still be fossil fuel-based energy in the mix in 2050. This is a challenge for those interested in pursuing the fusion solution. ‘Fusion can address the fossil fuel gap’, one of Windridge’s graphs suggests. The aim, it seems to me, is that fusion will be ‘ready’ by mid-century, at which time it will be transformative or, as Windridge says ‘we need a solution with immense potential’. But prediction is tricky, especially about the future, and as a sixty-something optimist, I can only hope that I can live and be compos mentis enough to witness this transformation.

Frankly, it’s amazing that we can be considering this type of energy, a result of relatively recent understanding of our universe. As Windridge points out, the only other form of energy that is more energy-dense is matter-anti-matter annihilation (from the first few seconds after the ‘Big Bang’) – I can well imagine future researchers and engineers trying to create a Big Bang under controlled conditions in some hyper-complex cybernetic laboratory. I wouldn’t be surprised if an SF author has already written a story…

High energy density is doubtless the holy grail of future energy technology. Windridge gives a nice historical account of this – something that Gaia Vince’s Transcendence has helped me to focus on. The industrial revolution, which began in Britain, moved us from animal energy in joules per gramme to chemical energy in kilojoules (one thousand joules per gramme). This gave Britain a fantastic edge over the rest of the world, and was the vital element in creating the British Empire. Nuclear energy, which takes us to gigajoules (billions of joules) per gramme, and which, thankfully, is being pursued internationally, and hopefully collaboratively, is a breakthrough, if it works out, comparable to the invention of fire. One kg of fusion fuel can provide as much energy as 10 million kg of coal, so it would make sense to  concentrate much of our collective ingenuity on this zero-carbon form of fuel.

There are different pathways. Aneutronic fusion, as the name suggests, doesn’t rely so much on neutron energy, with its associated ionising radiation. Alpha particles or protons carry the energy. An Australian company, HB11 Energy, is using lasers to drive a low-temperature proton-boron fusion system, which is showing some promise, and deuterium-helium-3 is another combination, but currently deuterium and tritium is the easiest reaction to obtain results from. Now, considering the power of the sun, which is so energetic that, according to BBC Science Focus, ‘the Earth would become uninhabitable if its average distance from the Sun was reduced by as little as 1.5 million km – which is only about four times the Moon’s distance from Earth’, it should be pretty clear that recreating that kind of energy here on Earth’s surface is fraught with problems. The fusion ‘triple product’ for producing this energy is apparently heat, density and time. So to achieve the product in a ‘short’ time, for example, we need to tighten the other parameters – more heat and density. Safely producing temperatures much higher than those in the sun for any extended period would presumably be quite a feat of engineering. The different designs and approaches currently include tokamaks, stellarators, inertial confinement (using lasers) and magneto-inertial fusion. The inertial confinement laser model focuses lasers on a small fuel pellet, causing it to implode and produce ‘fusion conditions’.

It’s all about producing plasma of course – the so-called fourth and most energetic state of matter. Electrically-charged particles which make up over 99% of the visible universe. These charged particles spin around magnetic field lines, so allowing us to use magnetic systems to control the material. We’ve used plasma in neon lights for over a century, and its production was first demonstrated by Humphrey Davy in the early 1900s – something to explore…. Plasma is also a feature of lightning, a ‘bolt’ of which can strip electrons from the immediately surrounding air. This means that air is ionised and can be manipulated magnetically. Tokamaks and other magnetic devices operate on this principle.

Inertial confinement uses shock waves or lasers to ‘squeeze’ energy out of a pellet of fusion fuel. The point at which such energy is produced is called ignition. Think of a bicycle tyre heating up as you pump it up to a higher pressure, until the tyre explodes – sort of.

So – and I’m heavily relying on the Windridge public lecture here – fusion research really began in the fifties, generally in universities and public labs. This early work has culminated in  two major public projects, ITER (the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), with its ultra-massive tokamak located in the south of France, and NIF, the National Ignition Facility, located in California. which made headlines last December for ‘the first instance of scientific breakeven controlled fusion’. This involved bombardment of a pellet ‘smaller than a peppercorn’ to produce a non-negligable energy output for a very brief period.

All of this has been at great public expense (why weren’t we told?), so in more recent times, private investment is moving things along. The last couple of years has seen quite a bit of progress, in both public and private facilities. For example, JET, in Oxfordshire, produced 59 megajoules (59,000,000 joules) of fusion energy, sustained for 5 seconds, a world record and a proof of concept for more sustainable energy production. And at NIF last year they produced ‘ignition’, the whole point of the facility, producing more fusion energy than the laser energy used to drive the process, a proof of concept for controlled fusion. And even more recently, China set a new record at their EAST tokamak (don’t you just love these territorial names), attaining steady-state ‘high performance’ plasma for about 6.5 minutes (I don’t know what high performance plasma is, but I can perhaps guess). And there is a lot of work going on in the private space too (I’ll be looking at Sabine Hossenfelder’s appraisal of the field in a future post, all in the name of education), with a really notable increase in private investment and start-ups – about half of the world’s private fusion companies today are less than 5 years old. Some $5 billion has been invested, from energy companies like Shell and Chevron, but also a variety of other organisations familiar to capitalists like me.

Why is this happening? Clearly we have a greater consensus about global warming than existed a decade ago. Also the science of fusion has reached a stage where rich people and organisations are sensing the opportunity to make even more money. Windridge also talks about ‘enabling technologies’, recent engineering and technological developments such as high-temperature superconductors, diode pumps for lasers, and various AI breakthroughs and improvements. Mastering and streamlining these developments will ultimately reduce costs, as well as expanding the range of the possible. National governments are developing regulatory frameworks and ‘fusion strategies’ – the latest coming from Japan – often involving public-private partnerships, such as the UK’s Fusion Industry Programme. The UK has also created a facility called STEP – the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production – run by the Atomic Energy Authority, which is described by Windridge as the world’s first pilot nuclear energy plant.

So in the next post on this topic I’ll be trying to get my head around the developments mentioned above, FWIW. And it is definitely worth something. If we can get it all right.


Gaia Vince, Transcendence, 2019






Written by stewart henderson

June 30, 2023 at 12:51 pm

nuclear fusion developments 1

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This post is also published on my Solutions OK blog.

As a person much addicted to reading, I’ve been impressed by a writer who’s been eloquently cataloguing global problems and solutions in the Anthropocene. Gaia Vince (I presume her parents were Lovelock fans)  has written 3 books, Adventures in the Anthropocene, Transcendence and Nomad century, the first two of which I now possess, the first of which I’ve read, the second of which I’m well into, and the third of which I intend to buy. So, time to return to my own self-education notes on solutions…

Vince appears to be my opposite – adventurous, extrovert, successful, in demand, and doubtless eloquent in person as well as in print. Bitch! Sorry, lost it there for a mo. The heroes and heroines of her first book, the product of travels though Asia, South America, Africa and the WEIRD world, and the solutions they’ve created and pursued, will, I think, provide me with pabulum for many blog pieces as I sit, impoverished (but not by global standards), uneducated (in a formal sense) and unlamented in rented digs in attractive and out-of- the-way, Adelaide, Australia, once touted as the ‘Athens of the South’ (at least by Adelaideans).

What I’ve found in my research on solutions – and Vince’s explorations have generally borne this out – is that solutions to global or local problems have created more problems which have led to more solutions in a perhaps virtuous circle that’s a testament to human ingenuity. And the fact that we’re now 8 billion, with a rising population but a gradually slowing rate of rising (in spite of Elon Musk), shows that we’re successful and trying to deal with our success…

So what are our Anthropocene problems? Global warming, of course. Destruction of other-species habitats on land and sea. Damming of rivers – advantaging some groups and even nations over others. Rapid industrial change (I’ve worked – mostly briefly! – in a half-dozen factories, all of which no longer exist). Population growth – in the 20th century from less than 2 billion to over 6 billion, and over 8 billion by May 2023. Toxic waste, plastic, throwaway societies, social media addiction and polarisation, the ever-looming threat of nuclear warfare… and that’s enough for now.

But on a more personal level, there’s the problem of how to navigate the WEIRD world, a world that bases itself on individualism, that’s to say individual freedom, when you don’t believe in free will (or rather, when you’re certain that free will is bullshit). And yet… a lot of smart, productive people don’t believe in free will (Sam Harris, Robert Sapolsky, Sabine Hossenfelder), and it doesn’t seem to affect their activities and explorations one bit –  and to be honest it doesn’t affect my work, such as it is, either, though it does provide me with a handy excuse for my failings. My introversion has been ingrained from earliest childhood (see the Dunedin study on personality types and their stability throughout life), my lack of academic success has been largely due to my toxic family background, bullying at school, and lack of mentoring during the crucial learning period (from 5 to 65?), and my lifelong poverty (within the context of a highly affluent society) is not entirely due to laziness, but more to do with extreme anti-authoritarianism (hatred of ‘working for the man’) and a host of other issues for which I blame my parents, my social milieu, my genes and many other determining factors which I’m determined not to think about right now.

Anyway, with no free will we humans have managed transformational things vis-à-vis the biosphere, and there will be more to come. In her epilogue to Adventures in the Anthropocene, Vince hazards some predictions, using the narrative of someone looking back on the century from the year 2100, and considering the book is already about ten years old, I might use the next few posts to look at how they’re faring.

So – nuclear fusion. Here’s Vince’s take:

In 2050, the first full-scale nuclear fusion power plant opened in Germany (after successful experiments at ITER, in France, in the 2030s), and by 2065 there were thirty around the world, supplying one-third of global electricity. Now, fusion provides more than half  of the world’s power, with solar making up around 40% and hydro, wind and waste (biomass) making up the rest.

So I’m starting with a very recent video by the brilliant Matt Ferrell, as a refresher for myself. Nuclear fusion, the source of the sun and stars’ energy, involves two small atoms colliding to form a larger atom (e.g. hydrogen forming helium), with some mass being converted to energy in the process. And I mean a really large amount of energy. To quote Ferrell:

Once the fusion reaction is established in a reactor like a tokamak, a fuel is required to sustain it. There’s a few different fuels that are options: deuterium, tritium or helium-3. The first two are heavy isotopes of hydrogen… most fusion research is eyeing deuterium plus tritium because of the larger potential energy output.

The power released from fusion is much greater, potentially, than that derived from fission. And deuterium plus tritium produces neutrons, which creates a process called neutron activation, which induces relatively short-lived but problematic radioactivity. And there are a host of other challenges, but it’s clear that incremental progress is happening. People may have heard of JET (the Joint European Torus) and the unfinished ITER (the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), and of recent promising developments – for example, this:

A breakthrough in December 2022 resulted in an NIF [Nuclear Ignition Facility] experiment demonstrating the fundamental scientific basis for inertial confinement fusion energy for the first time. The experiment created fusion ignition when using 192 laser beams to deliver more than 2 MJ of ultraviolet energy to a deuterium-tritium fuel pellet.

Ferrell visited the Culham Science Centre, near Oxford in the UK, where he was shown through the RACE (Remote Applications in Challenging Environments) facility, a perfect acronym for the time. They’ve created a system there called MASCOT, which appears to be a cyborg sort of thing, but mostly mechanical – with a human operator. The aim is to incrementally develop complete automation for maintenance and upgrading of these highly sensitive and potentially dangerous components. Since everything is still at the experimental stage, with a lot of chopping and changing, flexible human minds are still required. Full automation is clearly the goal, once a reactor is up and running, which is still far from the case. Currently, it requires about a thousand hours of training to work with the machinery and the haptics in this pre-full automation stage, bearing in mind that the types of robotic and cable systems are still being worked out. Radiation tolerance is an important factor in terms of future developments. Culham uses a ‘life-size’ replica of a tokamak for training purposes.

RACE, as the acronym suggests, is not just a facility for nuclear research but for dealing with hazardous environments and materials in general. Moving on from JET, Ferrell visited the new MAST-U (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak – Upgraded!). As Ferrell points out, the long lag time between promise and results in nuclear fusion has often been the butt of jokes, but this ignores many big recent developments, described well by Dr Melanie Windridge in a Royal Institute lecture, of which more later.

In the video we see a real tokamak from the sixties, probably the first ever, sitting on a table, to indicate the progress made. MAST-U’s major focus at present is plasma exhaust and its management, essential for commercial fusion power. Its new plasma exhaust system is called Super-X, a load-reducing divertor technology vis-a-vis power and heat, so increasing component lifespans. One of the scientists described the divertor as like the handle in a hot cup of coffee:

So our plasma is the coffee that we want to drink. It’s what we want, right? We want this coffee as hot as possible, but we won’t be able to handle it with our hands, we need a handle, and the diverter has the same function, it tries to separate this hot, energetic plasma from the surface of the device. So we divert the plasma into a different region, a component specifically designed to accommodate this large excess energy.

The divertor is the key factor in the upgrade and is drawing worldwide attention, as it has supposedly improved plasma heat diversion by a factor of ten, as I understand it. And MAST-U’s spherical design is potentially more efficient and cheaper than anything that has gone before. All a step or two towards more viable power plants. And, returning to JET, you can see in the video how massive the system is compared to the table-top version of the sixties. JET came into being in the 80s, and has had to deal with and adapt to many new developments, such as the H-mode or high-confinement mode, a new way of confining and stabilising plasma at higher temperatures, which has gradually become standard, requiring engineering solutions to the torus design. It’s expected that AI will play an increasing role in new incremental modifications. Simulations to test modifications can be done much more quickly, in quicker iterations, via these advances. AI, computer modelling and advances in materials science and superconductors are all quickening the process. JET will be decommissioned in about 12 months, but much is expected to be gleaned from this too, as they look at how neutrons have affected material components.

Another issue for the future is tritium, supplies of which are currently insufficient for commercial fusion production. According to ITER, current supply is estimated at 20 kilos, but tritium can be produced, or ‘bred’ within the tokamak through the interaction of escaping neutrons with lithium. Creating a successful tritium breeding system is essential due to the lack of external sources.

So that’s enough for now, I’ve gone on too long. To be continued.


Gaia Vince, Adventures in the Anthropocene, 2014.




Written by stewart henderson

June 18, 2023 at 11:27 pm

movements in nuclear fusion: ITER

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the world’s biggest clean energy project? ITER in southern France

Geographical, the magazine of the UK’s Royal Geographical Society, had an article in its April 2021 edition entitled ‘Caging a Star’, all about the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project in Provence, France. Thermonuclear fusion has of course been talked up as an ultimate solution to our energy needs for decades, to the extent that it’s become something of a joke, but in the meantime, practical movements are underway. In fact, they’ve been under way for a long time. An international contract was signed in 1986 to implement research on fusion, though it took another twenty years to agree on the site for ITER. The project now involves 35 countries – largely WEIRD ones (Western Educated Industrial Rich Democracies), producing 85% of global GDP. It’s a long-term project, certainly, but it’s being taken seriously, and construction is happening, big-time.

With the IPCC having recently come out with its 2021 report, nations are looking to their targets and feeling concerned – some more than others (wake up Australia). Boštjan Videmšek, the author of the Geographical article, assesses the current situation in stark terms:

70% of all CO2 emissions pumped into the atmosphere are created through energy consumption; 80% of all the energy we consume is derived from fossil fuels. The EU has formally pledged to start producing half of its electric energy from renewable resources by 2030. By 2050, the bloc’s members are planning to hoist themselves into a fully carbon-neutral society. But, given current trends, this seems like wishful thinking. Renewable energy resources simply won’t be enough for the task.

The ITER project came out of the closet, so to speak, in late July 2020, when the heart of the project, the tokamak, began to be assembled onsite – though construction of various elements of the program have been going on for years. A tokamak is a toroidal or doughnut-shaped chamber, controlled by huge, powerful magnets, in which hydrogen plasma is manipulated to produce energy according to Einstein’s mass-energy equation. We all know, I hope, that fusion is constantly happening in the sun, and in all suns throughout the universe, and that its energy is essential to our existence, but ITER’s scientists are hoping to improve on the sun’s processes. Hydrogen collisions inside the sun don’t always result in fusion – the fusion process is quite slow. Recognising this, researchers looked to isotopes of hydrogen to speed up the process. Hydrogen’s most common form, consisting simply of a proton and an electron, is called protium. However, there are two other isotopes, deuterium and tritium, containing an additional one and two neutrons respectively. The best form of fusion reaction for producing energy is DT fusion, using deuterium and tritium. This produces more energy, at a lower temperature. The problem is with the tritium, a highly radioactive and unstable isotope, which is both rare and expensive, at about US$30,000 per gram. The rarity, though, is related to low demand, and there is potential for ITER to produce its own supply of the isotope.

Of course, none of this is expected to be ready in the near future. ITER is essentially a proof-of-concept project for future power plants, and is expected to spend a decade in testing, finalising in around 2035. Those future power plants are already ready and waiting, at least in terms of design. The key to achieving fusion is a sufficiently high temperature (150,000,000 degrees celsius!) and high particle density, for an optimum fusion rate. Containment of the volatile plasma will also, of course, be an issue. ITER’s experiments will also be about capturing and utilising the energy produced. As Videmšek describes it:

The idea is that heat will build up along the sides of the tokamak, where it will be captured by the cooling water circling the reactor. As in a normal power station, the heat will be used to produce steam and – by way of turbines and alternators – electricity. The water will eventually be released with the help of vast cooling towers. These have already been put in place…

The science itself, as researchers told Videmšek, is straightforward enough, but the infrastructure, the international nature of the project, the politics and the funding can all provide obstacles. The siting in Provence has helped, as France has successfully embraced nuclear fission technology for decades, and the project is a boon for the Provençal economy. And of course there’s the global warming issue. The IPCC has just released its 6th Assessment Report and, among other findings, has confirmed what we here in Australia have experienced regarding extreme weather events:

Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5).

The report argues that, ‘unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades’, this scenario of extreme weather events will continue into the foreseeable future. These deep reductions, it seems, are a matter of political will, not to mention recognition of the crisis, which is clearly not universal. The way that many nations, including some of the most powerful and impactful on climate, have dealt with the clear and present threat of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, doesn’t provide much cause for optimism. If the ITER project, mostly funded by EU nations, goes off without a hitch over the next few decades, it may just put another nail in the coffin of our self-destructive exploitation of fossil fuels. Better late than never I suppose…


Boštjan Videmšek, ‘Caging a star’, in Geographical, April 2021



Written by stewart henderson

August 15, 2021 at 7:19 pm