Betting on a long shot


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Civilization Museum and Parliament

While it is unwise to place too much hope in unproven technologies like carbon capture and sequestration or nuclear fusion as mechanisms to address climate change, there is also a good case to be made for expanded research and development in promising areas. As such, it is more than a bit regrettable that Canada withdrew participation from the largest international fusion research effort back in 2003. It may be a long shot and it may take fifty years or more to reach the point of commercial deployment, but fusion does seem to be one possible long-term option.

In addition to providing electrical power, fusion plants could also be used to produce hydrogen for vehicles by means of electrolysis. Depending on their ultimate ability to scale production up and down, they could also be important for peak power management. Even if we accept that 50 years may be an ambitious period for fusion technology to mature, it is possible that the first commercial fusion plants could be coming online just as coal plants built today are reaching the end of their lives.

Betting on a long shot isn’t always a bad idea – especially when it is one strategy among many alternatives.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Neal September 6, 2007 at 3:58 pm

According to the Wikipedia article, the ITER is expected to cost over it’s lifetime one fifth of the cost of developing the Joint Strike Fighter.

Where the fuck are our priorities?

Anon September 6, 2007 at 4:12 pm

If you are going to mention ITER, you should also mention the planned successor: DEMO.

Whereas ITER is to learn lessons and test the fundamentals, DEMO will have all the elements of a commercial fusion plant.

One thing to note: if fusion is going to be a significant power source at some point, it will probably mean relatively few really huge power plants. That is largely because it is easier to keep a big ring of plasma super hot than it is for a small one. That also means that fusion would require a lot of long-range distribution, possibly via high voltage direct current.

Anon September 6, 2007 at 4:16 pm

Where the fuck are our priorities?

On 26 October 2001 the Pentagon announced that Lockheed-Martin had won the largest military contract ever, a possible $200 billion competition to build the Joint Strike Fighter. Air Force Secretary Jim Roche said on the basis of strengths, weaknesses and degrees of risk of the program that the Lockheed-Martin team was the winner on a “best- value” basis. He said Lockheed-Martin was a clear winner over the team led by Boeing. Total cost of the contract to enter the systems development and demonstration phase is $19 billion. Pratt and Whitney has a $4 billion contract to design and build propulsion systems for the craft. The British will contribute $2 billion to the program.

Lockheed Martin Corp. is developing the F-35 at its fighter aircraft plant in Fort Worth, where the new stealth warplane is expected to provide about 9,000 jobs over the next three to four decades. Northrop Grumman Corp. is to build the F-35’s center fuselage in California and BAE Systems the aft body in England.

The estimated cost for the plane is US$48 million to US$63 million each, depending on the variant.

Milan September 6, 2007 at 5:51 pm

The trick is not just to employ a lot of people. You need to employ a lot of people in small states with the following features:

a) being a swing state
b) having powerful representatives in Congress (appropriations committee chairs?)
c) both

. January 9, 2008 at 4:04 pm

China will give $1.4 billion to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project under way in France, ITER China Office head Luo Delong said today.

The money will make up about 10 percent of the cost of the project, which is working to develop the world’s first commercial fusion reactor by 2016. If the ITER developers can perfect fusion technology, then they will make the designs for the commercial reactor available worldwide.

Half of China’s contribution will be spent during the 10-year construction phase of the project located in Cadarache, France, Delong said.

The experimental fusion reactor is also backed by the European Union, India, Japan, Russia and the United States

. June 12, 2008 at 3:20 pm

Nature 453, 824 (12 June 2008) | doi:10.1038/453824a; Published online 11 June 2008

The price isn’t right

ITER will cost more to build than previously thought. Now is the time to be honest about how much.

“So it is not a complete surprise that a recently finished design review of ITER, a major fusion experiment to be built in Cadarache, France, is forecasting a delay of 1–3 years in its completion date and a roughly 25–30% increase in its euro dollar5-billion (US$7.8-billion) construction cost”

. June 12, 2008 at 3:21 pm

“What is worrying is that even this new price tag might not reflect the true cost of the machine. Crucially, it does not include the soaring price of commodities such as steel and copper, which are used in large quantities in the giant reactor. The ITER team claims that these costs can be excluded because individual member states will contribute finished components rather than raw materials, but this seems disingenuous. Already, the US government has doubled its estimated maximum contribution to the project, and other countries will probably have to follow suit.”

. April 22, 2009 at 2:57 pm

Fusion power on the cheap? Not so outlandish…

My feature in the Toronto Star today is about General Fusion, a Vancouver-area startup that believes it can build a prototype of a nuclear fusion reactor for $50 million within four years. While the multibillion-dollar ITER and U.S. fusion programs are using costly lasers and electromagnets to achieve “net gain” — that is, creating a fusion reaction that releases more energy than put it — the folks at General Fusion are cleverly pursuing a mechanical approach that uses concentrated sound waves to compress a deuterium-tritium plasma and trigger a fusion reaction. The key, as you’ll see, is the use of precision digital controls that simply didn’t exist back in the 1970s when the idea of magnetized target fusion was first explored.

. May 29, 2009 at 10:02 am

French Fusion Experiment Delayed Until 2025 or Beyond

“The old joke is that fusion is the power of the future and always will be. But it’s not looking so funny for ITER, an EU10 billion fusion experiment in France. According to Nature News, ITER will not conduct energy-producing experiments until at least 2025 — five years later than what had been previously agreed to. The article adds that the reactor will cost even more than the seven parties in the project first thought:’…Construction costs are likely to double from the 5-billion (US$7-billion) estimate provided by the project in 2006, as a result of rises in the price of raw materials, gaps in the original design, and an unanticipated increase in staffing to manage procurement. The cost of ITER’s operations phase, another 5 billion over 20 years, may also rise.”

. June 19, 2009 at 11:42 am

EU Fusion Experiment’s Financial Woes Get More Concrete

“An international plan to build a nuclear fusion reactor is being threatened by rising costs, delays and technical challenges. ‘Emails leaked to the BBC indicate that construction costs for the experimental fusion project called Iter have more than doubled. Some scientists also believe that the technical hurdles to fusion have become more difficult to overcome and that the development of fusion as a commercial power source is still at least 100 years away. At a meeting in Japan on Wednesday, members of the governing Iter council will review the plans and may agree to scale back the project.’ Iter will be a Tokamak device, a successor to the Joint European Torus (JET) in England. Meanwhile, an experiment in fusion by laser doesn’t seem to be running into the same high profile funding problems just yet.”

. November 12, 2009 at 6:39 pm

A novel form of fusion power
Psst, kapow!

Oct 22nd 2009
From The Economist print edition
An alternative approach to achieving nuclear fusion in the laboratory

LIKE conquistadors seeking El Dorado, physicists cannot leave the idea of fusion power alone. Some spend billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on the huge machines they believe are the best way to generate the temperatures and pressures needed to persuade atomic nuclei to merge with one another. Others still think there is something to the idea of “cold” fusion, and tinker hopefully with desktop apparatus full of electrodes made from exotic metals and electrolytes containing obscure isotopes of hydrogen.

Eric Lerner, however, believes there is a third way. His experimental device does not quite fit on a desktop (its sides are a couple of metres long) but nor does it cost billions (a few hundred thousand is closer to the mark). Nor, in truth, does it do fusion yet. But on October 20th he announced it had reached what might be seen as base camp on the climb to that goal.

Mr Lerner’s machine is called a dense plasma focus fusion device. It works by storing charge in capacitors and then discharging the accumulated electricity rapidly through electrodes bathed in a gas held at low pressure. The electrodes are arranged as a central positively charged anode surrounded by smaller negatively charged cathodes.

When the capacitors are discharged, electrons flow through the gas, knocking the electrons away from the atomic nuclei and thus transforming it into a plasma. By compressing this plasma using electromagnetic forces, Mr Lerner and his colleagues at Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, in New Jersey (the firm he started in order to pursue this research) have created a plasmoid. This is a tiny bubble of plasma that might be made so hot that it could initiate certain sorts of fusion. The nuclei in the plasmoid, so the theory goes, would be moving so fast that when they hit each other they would overcome their mutual electrostatic repulsion and merge. If, of course, they were the right type of nuclei.

. November 18, 2009 at 5:27 pm

Remaining barriers to fusion energy

Producing electricity from controlled nuclear fusion would require overcoming at least four major ob­stacles. The removal of each obstacle would need major scientific breakthroughs before any reasonable expectation might be formed of building a commercial prototype fusion reactor. It should be alarming that at best only the problems concerning the plasma control, described in point one below, might be investigated within the scope of the ITER project. Where and how the others might be dealt with is anyone’s guess.

These are the four barriers:

1. Commercial energy production requires steady state fusion conditions for a deuterium-tritium plasma on a scale comparable to that of today’s standard nuclear fission reactors with outputs of 1 GW (electric) and about 3 GW (thermal) power…

2. The material that surrounds and contains thousands of cubic meters of plasma in a full-scale fusion reactor has to satisfy two requirements. First, it has to survive an extremely high neutron flux with energies of 14 MeV, and second, it has to do this not for a few minutes but for many years…

3. The radioactive decay of even a few grams of tritium creates radiation dangerous to living organ­isms, such that those who work with it must take sophisticated protective measures…

4. Problems related to tritium supply and self-sufficient tritium breeding will be discussed in detail in Section 5.2, but first, it will be useful to describe qualitatively two problems that seem to require simultaneous miracles, if they are to be solved…

. July 28, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Funding for nuclear fusion
Expensive Iteration
A huge international fusion-reactor project faces funding difficulties

Jul 22nd 2010

VIABLE nuclear fusion has been only 30 years away since the idea was first mooted in the 1950s. Its latest three-decade incarnation is ITER, a joint effort by the European Union (EU), America, China, India, Japan, Russia and South Korea to construct a prototype reactor on a site in Cadarache, France, by 2018. If all goes to plan, in about 30 years it will be reliably producing more energy than is put in.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor became plain ITER following public anxiety about anything that has “thermonuclear” next to “experimental” in its name. ITER aims to produce energy by fusing together the nuclei of hydrogen atoms, confined in a magnetic field at high temperatures—a process akin to that which powers the sun.

For all its cosmic ambition, ITER has run into the earthiest of difficulties: spiralling costs. The project was never going to be cheap. Initial projections in 2006 put its price at €10 billion ($13 billion): €5 billion to build and another €5 billion to run and decommission the thing. Since then construction costs alone have tripled.

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