Carbon-free fusion power shows new viability but has a long way to go

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A pair of recent experiments is feeding hopes that nuclear fusion-generated energy could become a dominant and dependable source of clean power over the next decade, at a time when countries are moving swiftly to cut down on fossil fuel emissions.

Fusion, the process of combining atoms to produce energy, is one of a number of methods researchers are exploring to generate power reliably without adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Similar to its brother fission, the atom-splitting process used in operating nuclear plants around the country, fusion manipulates elements that are abundant on Earth, and supporters say it could provide virtually unlimited power supply if developing technologies are proven effective.

As things stand, that is a big if, according to experts.

Scientists overseeing fusion startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Massachusetts Institute of Technology-designed SPARC project earlier this month used its large high-temperature superconducting electromagnet, which is designed to suspend extremely hot fusion-generated particles, to create a 20-tesla magnetic field. The magnet's field was the largest of its kind ever to be created, according to the project.

Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research and E. A. Griswold professor of geophysics, said after the test that she is "genuinely optimistic" the project will be able to produce net positive energy based on the demonstration.

“Fusion in a lot of ways is the ultimate clean energy source,” Zuber said. “The amount of power that is available is really game-changing.”

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Across the country at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, scientists recently tested a laser at the lab's National Ignition Facility, generating a record of more than 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for a fraction of a second.

Although the focus of that project is the ignition of nuclear weapons rather than electricity generation, the development adds to a body of research supporters are building to argue fusion has promise, but experts are slow to declare nascent fusion technologies a certain fixture of the future grid.

The news of SPARC's demonstration in particular is "a step in the right direction," but a number of questions about fusion remains unanswered, said Adam Stein, a senior nuclear analyst for the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank.

"It's like saying, I have developed a rocket engine that is capable of getting us to orbit. But there are a lot of steps between making that rocket engine that's capable of getting us to orbit and actually getting to work," Stein said. "You need to build the rest of the rocket and you need to train the team and you need to get licensed and all kinds of other things."

Among the unanswered questions is whether developers can prove the technology can be profitable and produce energy at the scale needed to supply a functional power plant.

"The problem with fusion is it has to happen to very high temperatures and very high pressures, and while some companies have successfully done fusion processes, right now, they take more energy to put into the fusion reactor to make that happen than you get back out in heat," Stein said, hearkening back to Zuber's emphasis on net positive generation. "So it costs you to run a fusion reactor instead of you being able to make free energy and sell it."

The timelines that developers have offered contribute further to caution about fusion, indicating why there remains a lack of public investment in fusion technologies, Stein said.

A document from a recent meeting of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimated that the design and testing of a number of existing fusion projects will continue through the decade, with the first reactors expected to be put on the grid at some point during the 2030s. Meanwhile, the NRC's deadline for licensing actual fusion demonstrations is 2027.

"If the regulator doesn't expect to license even a demonstration by 2027, then that signals why Congress hasn't seen it as a priority to put in the reconciliation bill," Stein said.

Fusion-generated power's clean characteristics make it inherently more palatable to those managing the levers than carbon-based sources. Replacing fossil fuels with carbon-free power sources of energy is perhaps the preeminent priority of the Biden administration and congressional Democrats, and there is a consensus that meeting the administration's energy and climate decarbonization deadlines will require the deployment of a host of renewable and other carbon-free energy technologies working in concert.

Renewable sources such as wind and solar won't alone be able to support the national grid, as MIT's Zuber acknowledged in a video pitching fusion as a reliable source of dispatchable electricity, or electricity that can be scaled up and down based on demand to supplement renewables.

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David Hart, a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and professor of public policy at George Mason University, concurred with Zuber's assessment, saying, "The main thing is you've got to have is some kind of dispatchable power, whether it's storage, whether it's, you know, natural gas with carbon capture, or whether it's nuclear."

"That's the hole that we'd have to fill out without emissions," Hart said, but he qualified that it's still unclear whether fusion will be up to the task.

"The inventors are always going to be, you know, super enthusiastic about their widget, and they should be," he said. "You want them to be working all night trying to make it work, but that doesn't mean every single one of them is going to succeed. Take them with a grain of salt."

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Tags: News, Energy, Electricity, energy policy, Technology, Nuclear Power

Original Author: Jeremy Beaman

Original Location: Carbon-free fusion power shows new viability but has a long way to go

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