The Future is Fusion: Surpassing the “Break-Even” Point

JET_fusionreactorFor decades, scientists have dreamed of the day when cold fusion – and the clean, infinite energy it promises – could be made possible. And in recent years, many positive strides have been taken in that direction, to the point where scientists are now able to “break-even”. What this means is, it has become the norm for research labs to be able to produce as much energy from a cold fusion reaction as it takes in triggering that reaction in the first place.

And now, the world’s best fusion reactor – located in Oxfordshire, Engand – will become the first fusion power experiment to attempt to surpass it. This experiment, known as the Joint European Torus (JET), has held the world record for fusion reactor efficiency since 1997. If JET can reach break-even point, there’s a very good chance that the massive International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) currently being built in France will be able to finally achieve the dream of self-sustaining fusion. 


Originally built in 1983, the JET project was conceived by the European Community (precursor to the EU) as a means of making fusion power a reality. After being unveiled the following year at a former Royal Navy airfield near Culham in Oxfordshire, with Queen Elizabeth II herself in attendance, experiments began on triggering a cold fusion reaction. By 1997, 16 megawatts of fusion power were produced from an input power of 24 megawatts, for a fusion energy gain factor of around 0.7.

Since that time, no one else has come close. The National Ignition Facility – the only other “large gain” fusion experiment on the planet, located in California – recently claimed to have broken the break-even point with their  laser-powered process. However, these claims are apparently mitigated by the fact that their 500 terrawat process (that’s 500 trillion watts!) is highly inefficient when compared to what is being used in Europe.

NIF Livermore July 2008Currently, there are two competing approaches for the artificial creation of nuclear fusion. Whereas the NIF uses “inertial confinement” – which uses lasers to create enough heat and pressure to trigger nuclear fusion – the JET project uses a process known as “magnetic confinement”. This process, where deuterium and tritium fuel are fused within a doughnut-shaped device (a tokamak) and the resulting thermal and electrical energy that is released provides power.

Of the two, magnetic confinement is usually considered a better prospect for the limitless production of clean energy, and this is the process the 500-megawatt ITER fusion reactor once its up and running. And while JET itself is a fairly low-power experiment (38 megawatts), it’s still very exciting because it’s essentially a small-scale prototype of the larger ITER. For instance, JET has been upgraded in the past few years with features that are part of the ITER design.

fusion_energyThese include a wall of solid beryllium that can withstand being bombarded by ultra-high-energy neutrons and temperatures in excess of 200 million degrees. This is a key part of achieving a sustained fusion reaction, which requires that a wall is in place to bounce all the hot neutrons created by the fusion of deuterium and tritium back into the reaction, rather than letting them escape. With this new wall in place, the scientists at JET are preparing to pump up the reaction and pray that more energy is created.

Here’s hoping they are successful! As it stands, there are still many who feel that fusion is a pipe-dream, and not just because previous experiments that claimed success turned out to be hoaxes. With so much riding on humanity’s ability to find a clean, alternative energy source, the prospects of a breakthrough do seem like the stuff of dreams. I sincerely hope those dreams become a reality within my own lifetime…

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The Future of Fusion: Milestone Hit Amidst Funding Fears

fusion_reactorThe National Ignition Facility (NIF) in Livermoore, California has made quite a bit of headlines lately. But when you’re goal is to harness fusion power – a clean, unlimited and cheap source of energy – that is abound to happen. For decades, the challenge of harnessing fusion has been to create a process that produces more energy than it consumes; a goal which has remained elusive.

However, a recent breakthrough at NIF has brought us all one step closer to viability. Apparently, the breakthrough happened in late September, where the amount of energy released through the latest controlled fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel. This was the first time this had been achieved at any fusion facility anywhere in the world.

fusion_energyNIF, based at Livermore in California, uses 192 beams from the world’s most powerful laser to heat and compress a small pellet of hydrogen fuel to the point where nuclear fusion reactions take place. Viability, in this case, meant producing more energy from a fusion reaction than was consumed by the lasers themselves and any inefficiencies that cost power along the way.

As already noted, this breakthrough has been decades in the making. After nearly 50 years of experimentation and failure, the NIF announced in 2009 that its aim was to demonstrate nuclear fusion producing net energy by 30 September 2012. But unexpected technical problems ensured the deadline came and went; the fusion output was less than had originally been predicted by mathematical models.

NIF Livermore July 2008Soon after, the $3.5 billion facility shifted focus, cutting the amount of time spent on fusion versus nuclear weapons research – which was part of the lab’s original mission. However, the latest experiments showed that net energy  output is possible, which in turn will provide a welcome boost to ignition research at NIF as well as encouraging fusion research in general.

Despite this breakthrough, there are worries that the research will not be able to continue. Thanks to the government shutdown, federal funding for major research labs like the NIF is threatened. A suspension in funding can be just as harmful as it being cut off altogether, as delays at a crucial juncture can mean all progress will be lost.

NASA_coldfusionLuckily, the NIF is just one of several projects around the world aimed at harnessing fusion. They include the multi-billion-euro ITER facility, currently under construction in Cadarache, France. However, ITER will take a different approach to the laser-driven fusion, using magnetic fields to contain the hot fusion fuel – a concept known as magnetic confinement.

What’s more, NASA’s own research into cold fusion that relies on weak nuclear forces – as opposed to strong ones – is likely to continue, regardless of whether it meets the requirements for emergency exemption. And given that the prize of this research is a future where all our energy needs are provider for using a cheap, abundant, clean alternative, there is no way we’re stopping now!