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 Energy: Cold Fusion for US and China

NASA_coldfusionThe science behind cold fusion has been a source of constant controversy for decades. Not only has this pursuit turned up its share of phony claims, the fact that it also promises to yield clean, abundant energy on the cheap has led to no shortage of romantic endorsements and vocal detractors. But if it could be made to work, there is no doubt that our energy problems would be solved, and in a way that is not harmful to our environment.

Last February, NASA made waves by announcing that they were working towards cold fusion through low-energy nuclear reaction (LENR) technology. Then in September, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California announced a major milestone when they managed to produce a controlled reaction that provided more energy that was required to start it.

e-cat1But all of that seemed to pale in comparison to the announcement by Andrea Rossi’s that he managed to create a fusion power plant that was reportedly capable of generated a single megawatt of power. Known as the E-Cat 1MW Plant (short for Energy-Catalyser), Rossi announced its creation back in November, and indicated that he and his company were taking pre-orders and that they would start deliveries by 2014.

Today, the big news is that a large US investment company has acquired the rights to the cold fusion LENR technology. That investment company is Cherokee Investment Partners, and they appear to be interested in deploying the cold fusion tech commercially in both China and the US to meet both countries existing and projected energy needs.

fusion_energyRelying on the same process as other LENR technology, the E-Cat generates cold fusion by taking nickel and hydrogen and fusing them into copper – a process that has 10,000 times the energy density of gasoline, and 1,000 times the power density. Rossi says he’s found a special catalyst that makes the process work, but many scientists remain unconvinced.

Regardless of whether or it not it can deliver, it now seems that Rossi’s previously allusions to an American partner are true after all. Much like everything surrounding Rossi, he chose to be nebulous about the identity of the company that was supporting him. However, with this latest deal, Cherokee and its CEO Thomas Darden, a man who has a history of investing in clean energy, is a believer in the design.

e-cat3In addition to preparing the patents through a Limited Liability Company – known as Industrial Heat – there are also reports that Darden recently visited China to showcase the E-Cat to Chinese officials and businesspeople. China is reportedly looking at using the E-Cat to significantly reduce its carbon footprint and meet its the energy needs of its growing cities in a way that won’t generate more air pollution.

Needless to say, this deal has bolstered Rossi’s and the E-Cat’s credibility, but the technology remains unproven. Rossi says that he has a team of international scientists that are planning to do another round of tests on the E-Cat which are slated to end in March, with a peer-reviewed report to follow sometime after that. Fingers crossed, those rounds of test will provide conclusive proof.

Then, we can all get to work dreaming about a bright, clean future, and the thousands of applications such plants will have!