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Exploring the future of nuclear fusion

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Canto: So, with Christmas cookery and indulgence behind us, it’s time to focus on another topic we know little about, nuclear fusion – or I should say human-engineered nuclear fusion. Ignition has recently been achieved for the first time, so where do we go from here?

Jacinta: Well I listened to Dr Becky the astrophysicist on this and other topics, and she puts the ignition thing into perspective. So it occurred back on December 5 at the National Ignition Facility in California. As Dr Becky explains it, it involves ‘taking 4 atoms of hydrogen and forcing them together to make helium’, which is slightly lighter than the four hydrogens, and this mass difference can, and in this case has, produced energy according to special relativity. Of course fusion occurs in stars (not just involving hydrogen into helium) and it can potentially produce huge volumes of clean energy. But there’s a big but, and that’s about the high temperatures and densities needed for ignition. Those conditions are needed to overcome the forces that keep atoms apart. 

Canto: Yes they used high-powered lasers, which together focus on heavy hydrogen isotopes – deuterium and tritium – to produce helium. And this has been achieved before a number of times, but ignition specifically occurs when the energy output is greater than the input, potentially creating a self-sustaining cycle of fusion reactions. And the difficulties in getting to that output – that is, in creating the most effective input – have been astronomical, apparently. They’ve involved configuring the set of nearly 200 lasers in the right way, using ultra-complex computational analysis, recently guided by machine learning. And this has finally led to the recent breakthrough, in which an energy input of 2.05 megajoules produced an output of 3.15 megajoules…

Jacinta: 1.1 megajoules means ignition, though it’s nothing earth-shattering energy-wise. It’s apparently equivalent to about 0.3 kilowatt-hours (kWh) – enough energy for about two hours of TV watching according to Dr Becky. And also this was about the energy delivered to the particles to create the reaction, it didn’t include the amount of energy required to power the lasers themselves – approximately 300 megajoules. So, good proof-of-concept stuff, but scaling up will be a long and winding road, wethinks. 

Canto: Another favourite broadcaster of ours, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, also covers this story, and provides much the same figures (400 megajoules for the lasers). She also points out that, though it’s a breakthrough, it’s hardly surprising given how close experimenters have been getting to ignition in recent attempts. And she is probably even more emphatic about the long road ahead – we need to ramp up the output more than a hundred-fold to achieve anything like nuclear fusion energy at economically viable levels. 

Jacinta: I’m interested in the further detail Dr Hossenfelder supplies. For example the NIF lasers were fired at a tiny golden cylinder of isotopes. There must be a good reason for the use of gold here. She also describes the isotopes as ‘a tiny coated pellet’. What’s the coating and why? She further explains ‘the lasers heat the pellet until it becomes a plasma, which in turn produces x-rays that attempt to escape in all directions’. This method of arriving at fusion is called ‘inertial confinement’. Another competing method is magnetic confinement, which uses tokamaks and stellarators. A tokamak – the word comes from a Russian acronym meaning ‘toroidal chamber with magnetic coils’ – uses magnetism to confine plasma in a torus – a doughnut shape. A stellarator…

Canto: Here’s the difference apparently:

In the tokamak, the rotational transform of a helical magnetic field is formed by a toroidal field generated by external coils together with a poloidal field generated by the plasma current. In the stellarator, the twisting field is produced entirely by external non-axisymmetric coils. 

Jacinta: Ah, right, we’ll get back to that shortly. The Joint European Torus (JET) holds the record for toroidal systems at 0.7, which presumably means they’re a little over two thirds of the way to ignition. 

Canto: A poloidal field (such as the geomagnetic field at the Earth’s surface) is a magnetic field with radial and tangential components. Radial fields are generated from a central point and weaken as they move outward.

Jacinta: PBS also reports this, citing precisely 192 lasers, and a 1mm pellet of deuterium and tritium fuel inside a gold cannister:

When the lasers hit the canister, they produce X-rays that heat and compress the fuel pellet to about 20 times the density of lead and to more than 5 million degrees Fahrenheit (3 million Celsius) – about 100 times hotter than the surface of the Sun. If you can maintain these conditions for a long enough time, the fuel will fuse and release energy.

Canto:  So the question is, does nuclear fusion have a realistic future as a fuel?

Jacinta: Well, did the internet have a realistic future 50 years ago? We’ve had a breakthrough recently, and the only way is up. 

Canto: Yeah the future looks interesting after I’m dead. Still, it’s worth following the progress. Back in February The Guardian reported that JET had smashed its own world record, producing ’59 megajoules of energy over five seconds (11 megawatts of power)’. Whatever that means, it wasn’t ignition – it might’ve been the .7 you mentioned earlier. Creating a mini-star for five seconds was what one experimenter called it, which I think was in some ways better than the current effort, in that it created more energy in absolutes terms, but less energy than the input. 

Jacinta: Perhaps, but what they call ‘gain’ is an important measure. This recent experiment created a gain of about 1.5 – remember just over 3 megajoules of energy was put out from just over 2 megajoules of input. It’s a start but a much bigger gain is required, and the cost and efficiency of the lasers – or alternative technologies – needs to be much reduced. 

Canto: Apparently deuterium and tritium are both needed for effective fusion, but tritium is quite rare, unlike deuterium, which abounds in ocean waters. Tritium is also a byproduct of the fusion process, so the hope is that it can be harvested along the way. 

Jacinta: Of course the costs are enormous, but the benefits could easily outweigh them – if only we could come together, like bonobos, and combine our wits and resources. Here’s an interesting quote from the International Atomic Energy Agency:

In theory, with just a few grams of these reactants [deuterium and tritium], it is possible to produce a terajoule of energy, which is approximately the energy one person in a developed country needs over sixty years.

Canto: Really? Who will be that lucky person? But you’re right – collaboration on a grand scale is what this kind of project requires, and that requires a thoroughly human bonoboism married to a fully bonoboesque humanism….

References

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/what-a-breakthrough-in-nuclear-fusion-technology-means-for-the-future-of-clean-energy

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/dec/13/carbon-free-energy-fusion-reaction-scientists

https://www.iaea.org/bulletin/what-is-fusion-and-why-is-it-so-difficult-to-achieve

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-60312633

Written by stewart henderson

December 29, 2022 at 6:26 pm

more on nuclear fusion: towards ignition!

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I recently wrote about and tried to get a handle on the nuclear fusion facility, ITER, being built in southern France, but I barely mentioned the importance of magnets, and I didn’t mention another essential feature or factor in nuclear fusion – called ignition. That’s because I’m still a learner after all these years. But some news broke recently regarding a completely different experimental fusion facility in the USA, which uses lasers rather than magnets to control and focus the energy, which, as previously described, needs to be – a lot.

The National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California is designed, it seems, to try and achieve exactly that – ignition. The term is kind of self-explanatory, as when you ignite something you get a burst of energy, seemingly more than you put into the igniting, like when you strike a match. But ignition in nuclear fusion is a really difficult thing to achieve, which is presumably why they had to build a whole national facility around it. They’ve been trying to achieve it for decades.

I did write that to achieve fusion – ignition? –  required temps of around 150,000,000 celsius, and obviously to sustain such temperatures requires a fair amount of energy, ten times that at the sun’s centre. Did I get that figure wrong? Pressure comes into it too (there’s a direct proportionality between temperature and pressure at any given volume).

I’ve found a great video explainer of the ignition breakthrough, presented by Anton Petrov, and a recent New Scientist podcast (no 81) also discusses it. So basically the possibilities of nuclear fusion as an energy technology have been on the cards since the development of the H-bomb in the late forties and early fifties. The energy required to set off an H-bomb, and for subsequent neutron bomb technology, was derived from nuclear fission. So that’s a lot of energy to make more energy. Since then, the aim, the holy grail, has been to find a way to create ignition, an energy output that is greater than, and preferably much greater than, the energy input. This is, of course,, essential for real-use thermonuclear energy. A number of technologies for creating thermonuclear fusion have proved successful, except insofar as the input-output ratio is concerned. Out of all these experiments chasing this elusive ignition, two models seemed most promising. Firstly, the toroidal fusion reactor (eg ITER), which is a magnetic confinement reactor, in which super-heated plasma is spun very quickly around a magnetically confined chamber, to create higher-than-the-centre-of-the-sun energy/temperatures. A number of these reactors, or tokamaks, have been built around the world and have successfully created fusion, but not ignition.

The second model is very different. It’s called inertial confinement fusion, and  it uses tiny hydrogen pellets. The idea came from observation of the H-bomb: a small enough hydrogen pellet would require a minimum energy of 1.6 megajoules (million joules) of energy to initiate an explosion – essentially, an ignition. This energy could be provided by lasers. Now this process is complicated – it’s not  simply a matter of fusioning hydrogen into helium because, as described in my previous post about ITER, there are isotopes involved. These isotopes (deuterium and tritium) are used to overcome the electrostatic repulsion which would normally occur when using proteum, the common form of hydrogen. This repulsive force between protons is known as the Coulomb force. The attractive force between protons and neutrons, called the nuclear force, acts against the electrostatic repulsion force, and this helps in overcoming the Coulomb barrier, and facilitating a fusion energy greater than that inside our sun, where plasma particles may not fuse at all over long periods. We’re basically looking at creating a more efficient kind of fusion, which requires the kinds of temperatures and pressures found inside much larger stars than our sun.

The key to the elusive status or point known as ignition is a concept called the Lawson criterion. Wikipedia describes it thus:

The Lawson criterion ….compares the rate of energy being generated by fusion reactions within the fusion fuel to the rate of energy losses to the environment. When the rate of production is higher than the rate of loss, and enough of that energy is captured by the system, the system is said to be ignited.

We haven’t achieved ignition yet, but it seems another baby step has been taken. One of the researchers at the NIF has described it as a ‘Wright brothers moment’, which has led to a bit of head-scratching. Basically, what was achieved at the NIF was a ‘momentary’ ignition – very momentary, and still only releasing some 70% to 80% of the energy input. Yet this was the most significant achievement in 60 years of work – a proof of concept achievement, which is built on previous experiments yielding increasing levels of energy. The process involved almost 200 super-amplified lasers confining and directing energy at a tiny hydrogen pellet for a period of 3 nanoseconds. That’s 3 billionths of a second. This required excruciating accuracy, coordination and timing, with everything – the lasers, the amplifiers, the pellet, the hohlraum chamber (holding the pellet) and so forth, being executed precisely. The precision level has improved markedly in recent times, leading to this breakthrough moment (after all, the ‘Wright brothers moment’ wasn’t exactly the first commercial passenger flight). The 1.3 megajoules released in this most recent ignition experiment was some 25 times what the facility could muster only three years ago. So there doesn’t seem far to go.

And yet. The energy input required is enormous. The lasers would need to fire more or less constantly – machine-gun-like – to produce the output required for human use (the current record of 1.3 megajoules has been described as ‘just enough to boil a kettle’. So we’re talking orders of magnitude, not just for the laser energy but for the hydrogen pellets, which need to be produced en masse at a teeny fraction of current costs. And so on.

This not to minimise the achievement. The publicity already being generated augurs well for the future of a technology that has for so long failed to live up to expectations. Those at ITER and other labs around the world will receive a great fillip from this, not to mention some small mountains of cash. Looking forward to it.

References

movements in nuclear fusion: ITER

Major Breakthrough in Nuclear Fusion After Decades of Research (Anton Petrov video)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawson_criterion

https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly9mZWVkcy5idXp6c3Byb3V0LmNvbS84MTQwMzUucnNz/episode/QnV6enNwcm91dC05MDU0NjU3?hl=en-AU&ved=2ahUKEwiasaDm3NryAhUGeH0KHVAaDZMQjrkEegQIBRAI&ep=6

Episode #841

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 31, 2021 at 5:19 pm