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Elusive fusion reactors to be commercialised by 2025-2030... Or so they say

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by mrk, Apr 28, 2020.

  1. Dave M

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    I'm not sure why people see Fusion as endless cheap power - it suffers the same problem as Fission stations - you need to build a hugely complex industrial facility to make use of it, the life of the station is limited and you need to pay it back. Fission is also practically endless given modern reactor design (i.e. designed to make power not bombs). Modern fission designs also don't create nearly so much waste, but still significant, of course. Fusion wins there.

    IMO though the fission/Fusion argument has been made less significant by advances in renewables. Solar especially. There is already a cheap limitless fusion power source in commercial use - the Sun.

    I think given current technology Fission or Fusion power stations should be an important part of the mix, when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine. I think there is little enthusiasm to build them though because the investment is large, takes decades to return, and there's an expectation that battery storage solutions will advance faster than anything else - making the base load requirement redundant.
     
  2. Caracus2k

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    Renewables wont cut it unless some new energy storage solution can be found that can store massive amounts of energy cheaply, safely, reliably and without a heavy reliance on quite limited and hard to extract elements.

    Intermittenecy just becomes an exponentially worse issue as a you to try to increase the percentage of power production from renewables on a grid (especially when relatively quite reliable hydro power is removed from the rest of the renewable mix).

    Too much power at some times and too little power generated at others currently requiring very expensive , near one to one, redundant power generation capability from non renewable power sources for a lot of renewable sources.

    So given that fusion power has been 10-20 years away for at least the last 60 years the only current relatively 'green/low carbon' viable option for power generation is fission whilst we wait and see whether fusion power pans out.
     
  3. FoxEye

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    AI/ machine learning/ deep learning/ cloud computing is the McGuffin that's going to solve all the world's problems, isn't it. Or so they keep saying. The people building AI and machine learning stuff, that is.

    Oooh remember blockchain? That's going to solve the world's problems as well.

    What we really really need I guess is a blockchain cloud AI that can develop a new blockchain for machine learning in the cloud ;)
     
  4. ubersonic

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    You're confusing the two nuclear technologies, fission is dangerous and so you wouldn't want it in a car even if it were easy to miniaturize, fusion on the other hand is the clean/safe type of nuclear power of sci-fi legend that we've been after for decades which would be a great alternative to fossil fuel or battery powered vehicles.
     
  5. Dave M

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    I said in my post battery tech has better chances than fusion. In fact the chance of cheap fusion is about the same as cheap fission - zero. I think you elude to lithium - that's not needed, Iron oxides are fine, you don't need to fit it in your pocket or a car even - if you need to fill a hundred acres with containers of this stuff that's fine.

    People aren't investing in fission power stations now - why? Because they think fossil fuels have such a good future? Because fusion will be so much cheaper? No, it's because renewables are cheap and the storage problem is solvable in the next 10-20 years. Which incidentally is the time to build a regular fission station. Never mind fix the problems with fusion and then build a station.
     
  6. Angilion

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    Fusion also wins on efficiency, hands down over everything unless someone finds a way of harnessing matter/anti-matter annihilation as an energy source.
    Fusion also wins on fuel requirements, since there's plenty of it everywhere. Not needing to buy your power or the fuel to make it from somewhere else is a huge benefit.
    Fusion wins on waste in more ways than volume. However you do fission, there will be some highly radioactive waste that needs cooling and temporary containment. Not so with fusion.
    Fusion wins on safety, not just over fission but over everything else. Yes, including "renewables" (which aren't renewable, just long lasting).

    For any power system, "you need to build a hugely complex industrial facility to make use of it, the life of the station is limited and you need to pay it back." Including "renewables". It's either that or a larger number of smaller industrial facilities to make use of it and an even larger and even more complicated distribution system. And the life of whatever facilities you build is limited and you need to pay it back.

    Which is uncontrollable, unreliable, inconsistent and the amount of power from it that reaches any give part of the Earth's surface varies wildly all the time. Also, it's expensive, environmentally harmful, destroys ecosystems, requires the use of limited resources and kills more people than fusion would. It's not a panacea. It's also completely impossible to base an electricity system on it without electricity storage on a scale that isn't possible, definitely won't be possible any time soon and might never be possible. It's possible that fusion will be practical on a large scale before solar is.

    I think it's an unecessary risk to bet human civilisation solely on an expectation that is based far too much on optimism for my liking. Batteries that could stabilise a "renewables" grid would either have to be an enormous size or be a vast number of smaller batteries or have an inherently dangerous energy density. The first one can be done with pumped storage hydro...if you're willing to waste ~25% of your electricity and destroy ecosystems and usually place many people at risk (all of the biggest sudden mass death power generating disastors have been hydro) and if you have somewhere that's geographically suitable. There's a huge battery in Wales - Dinorwig. One of the biggest in the world and brilliantly designed and engineered to minimise the environmental impact (they built it from a disused mine inside a mountain). It can store about 9GWh, which is a huge amount for a battery and nowhere near enough to stabilise a renewables grid.

    There's a lot of enthusiasm to build fusion power stations because they're a plug-in replacement that would solve every electricity generation problem in one go and forever. Most of the opposition comes from people who hear the "nuclear" in "nuclear fusion" and assume it's inevitable disasters and massive death, probably followed by the eventual contamination of everywhere and the world becoming a radioactive wasteland devoid of life except perhaps for cockroaches.

    Wind and solar (and maybe wave and tidal, especially in this country) would have an important part to play in the mix (they can be very quickly vary their output between zero and whatever the weather allows at that particular moment in time), but why base the system on them and only use a more reliable, more controllable, less environmentally damaging and safer system when the weather is a certain way?
     
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2020
  7. Angilion

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    Because of politics. It was, categorically and openly, a purely political decision to gain votes. The politicians making that decision knew it was a bad decision in all other ways, but they needed votes. So, for example, Germany destablised its own national grid and paid neighbouring countries to prop it up by using dirtier fuels less efficiently (and thus more wastefully and with more pollution), which of course inflated the cost of electricity in Germany. For votes.
     
  8. Caracus2k

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    you said....

    Well there's also been an expectation for a long time that fusion power would be viable relatively 'soon'. There are some fundamental and possibly unsolvable issues around energy density when it comes to any likely near future battery tech that will severely hamper the utility of renewables with battery assistance for load balancing in many scenarios.


    and as if on que you, unironically apparently, sound exactly like the fusion evangelists of the past 60 or so years!

    Sure a big advance in battery tech may arrive in your speculative timeline much like practical fusion for power generation may be resolved in a similar timeframe. But its bad planning to make policy decision based on speculative predications of what may be possible with technology in a decade or two.

    Past experience has shown such forecasting to mostly be pot luck.

    And its demonstrably false to say that say that currently, in for example a north European county, that renewables (especially with hydro removed) are a 'cheap' to provide a large amount of electricity needed, when it comes to the total cost of actually providing electricity, when and where its needed vs using alternatives.

    More extensive implementation of renewables have their place (for example supplementing a grid in a hotter area with more exposure to the sun where increased energy usage correlates a lot with the suns being out due to wide spread AC use) but the attempts to increase reliance on them in places the the UK may well come back to bite us hard.
     
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2020
  9. dowie

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    No, I’m not confusing the two. Note I said we already have fission reactors and have for some time. I don’t see it happening any time soon. Point is if you get commercial fusion reactors that in itself would be an awesome achievement - we have electric cars etc... I suspect any mini fusion reactors would be a lot further off and the main benefit from fusion reactors would be just getting very cheap electricity on the grid (eventually) - obvs there are initial infrastructure costs etc... How feasible, how desirable and how costly a mini fusion reactor is is another matter, especially when electric cars, battery technology, availability of fast charging stations etc.. is improving.
     
  10. Hagar

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    Is the title 'Elusive fusion reactors ' or is this a new fusion technology?
     
  11. Fusion

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    No-ones seriously suggesting fusion reactors for cars are they...? Just checking.
     
  12. physichull

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    Agreed. But to add to that, not only do you have to get more energy out than you put in (the Lawson criteria isn't it?), you also have to undertake all the engineering to adapt it into a conventional power plant. What I mean by that is being able to be in a position to extract the energy and thus convert it to electricity.

    And I haven't even mentioned all the material sciences challenges that ITER are facing. From some friends I have that used to work at Culham, 90% of the challenge is materials sciences. Other things I can think of is how you might keep the torus clean once you start feeding it fuel, without effecting the efficiency of the machine....how would you avoid persistent outages.

    Put simply, the challenge is enormous with a capital E. That's not to say we can't overcome it, but it will be very complex. ITER is step on from JET, but I believe DEMO is going to be tending more towards trying to answer questions about how to operate as a power plant. I may be wrong.
     
  13. Fusion

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    Yep, DEMO is the hypothesised prototype commercial reactor. You’re right about material contamination being a big issue- both in the torus/plasma and in the surrounding “blanket”. Contamination of the plasma would shut the reaction down pretty much.

    Would love to be working on some of these problems (Engineer with Physics background)!
     
  14. AndyT

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    I am somewhat dubious of the claims made in the article. The video is very good though, although at the very start he repeats a few common tropes about seawater being the fuel for fusion and that fusion is "clean". I work at ITER, so have a vague idea of the state of things...

    Fusion is not exactly fuelled by sea-water. He is referring to Deuterium-Tritium fusion reactions. It is true that deuterium can be extracted from seawater, but the other isotope of hydrogen required, tritium, is only available in trace amounts in the environment and is a fast decaying radio-isotope (half-life 12.3yrs). There is only ~3.5kg of tritium naturally available at any one time on the planet. Instead, the required tritium must be bred inside fission or fusion reactors by neutron activation of lithium.

    Fusion is also not clean. The neutrons produced in a fusion reaction activate elements in the materials of the machine to create radioactive isotopes. E.g. Cobalt-59 in stainless steel is activated to Cobalt-60 which is a gamma emitter with a half-life of around 6 years. Although we won't create High-Level Radioactive waste, we will produce vast quantities of Medium and Low-Level Waste which must be handled as radwaste and which still needs to be packaged and stored for several years.

    One problem with articles such as these is that when scientists say XXX will be possible in YYY years time, the scientists often have not given much consideration to the future engineering challenges to be faced in actually realising the theory. A big problem with fusion is the time frames people have put on what is an incredibly complex challenge. It has always raised unrealistic expectations.

    It is certainly interesting to see modern computing approaches helping, but in reality, if AI could solve it all then we have just wiped out millions of jobs across the world.... AI cannot solve all engineering design challenges. Engineering is a combination of creativity and logic. AI, I suppose, is cold, hard logic. There are thousands of engineers at ITER dedicated to design and analysis to support the science with perhaps tens of thousands of highly-specialist technicians and operators in the supply chain. AI would also not solve supply chain issues.

    The major issues related to realising fusion, at least in Tokamaks are:
    • maintaining a stable plasma - physics
    • solving novel material science and engineering challenges to ensure that the machine doesn't just disintegrate and clog itself up with dust created from particles stripped-away from plasma-facing components by the neutron flux
    • solving the very complex challenges of remotely-operated handling and maintenance operations inside the vacuum vessel, which are necessary just to keep such a machine running
    • the huge material and engineering costs
    • breeding sufficient amounts of the required tritium to feed the machine
    • treating the radwaste
    All of this is on top of the fact that a fusion reactor is a nuclear installation and must therefore be licensed by the state agency responsible for nuclear safety. This itself is a huge challenge, particularly for a novel plant like a fusion reactor. "Beginning commercialisation" in 2023 I guess means only just starting the design approval for the reactor, which will take years.

    Very few of the above challenges could be solved by AI.

    I am confident that we will see a commercial fusion reactor connected to the grid in our lifetime, but it won't be ITER and it won't even be the follow-up, DEMO.

    ITER itself will not generate any electricity, it won't even have a turbine island, it is an experimental reactor. Instead, the purpose is to generate a plasma with fusion power ten times the external heating power applied to the plasma. ITER is essentially a proving ground for the plasma physics, materials science, and engineering solutions applied to the magnetic confinement approach to fusion in a Tokamak machine. At sometime during the life of ITER the member states will begin to construct their own demonstration (DEMO) reactor designs, which will be followed up by commercial reactors.

    In any case, nobody I know at ITER would be upset if another organisation suddenly cracked fusion and got it to work. Everybody is working toward the same goal and solving the challenge can only be a good thing for humanity. Although personally, I believe it's probably better for everybody if it was cracked by an international collaboration than an investor-funded private entity...

    Elusive, not illusive.
     
    Last edited: Apr 30, 2020
  15. physichull

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    Physicist here, working for a large French company who would love to get more involved in ITER!
     
  16. Fusion

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  17. Angilion

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    How else would you power the flux convertor? :)
     
  18. Blackjack Davy

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    Fusion is not exactly safe either that results in radiation too whats going for it is there no nuclear waste to dispose of. Also its potentially limitless supply (seawater)

    Fusion reactors have always been "20 or 30 years away" for as long as I can remember, since I was a kid certainly. Nothings changed in that regard and we're still waiting.

    With Doc Brown's flying car? Sure. Any day now.
     
  19. physichull

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    I wouldn't say it was unsafe. Nuclear waste isn't unsafe, to be honest with you, we in the UK process and store loads of it each year. Lots of people will work very hard to ensure the safety of the plant and to ensure operators do not accrue any unncessary doses as a result of handling any wastes.

    For ITER, they will no doubt be looking carefully at materials choices for equipment that will minimise activation, particularly as AndyT said of steels - also, a lot of the bad stuff produced through neutron activation is through the low levels of impurities, so material specs will need to be of a higher quality. However, you can mitigate it where possible through the use of shielding or different material choices that are les susceptible to activation or yield shorter lived isotopes.

    Activation of materials would also make maintenance of the machine much more difficult as you would no doubt have to adhere to strict cooling-off times to let all the short lived stuff decay away, where possible.
     
  20. AndyT

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    Nope, sorry, see my post above.