Energy analysts tend to agree that nuclear fusion will have to replace fission at power plants to bring back more support for nuclear as a clean energy source. The challenge here will be speeding up the development process and cutting down the huge costs for bringing fusion online as climate change mandates approach. A NASA research project may offer a pathway to making nuclear fusion commercial.
The space agency has been releasing results from testing "lattice confinement," which could transform production scale and bring costs way down for much-anticipated nuclear fusion energy. It may be able to remove, or at least reduce, a key barrier that has kept fusion years away from being deployed.
NASA's lattice confinement method allows fusion-level kinetic energy to come together at room temperatures. Conditions sufficient for fusion are created within the metal lattice that’s held at ambient temperature. The metal lattice is loaded with deuterium fuel, and through the new lattice confinement method, it creates an energetic environment inside the lattice where atoms can gain equivalent fusion-level kinetic energies.
One of the clear differences with magnetic fusion reaction — which is the main methodology gaining support in the fusion community — is that it’s dramatically more dense, which is how the reaction is triggered. A metal such as erbium can be loaded with deuterium atoms, packing the fuel a billion times denser than magnetic confinement (tokamak) fusion reactors. The new method ‘heats’ or accelerates deuterons sufficiently that when colliding with a neighboring deuteron, it causes D-D (deuterium-deuterium) fusion reactions.
Lattice confinement fusion was reported earlier this year by a team of scientists based at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
Most of the intensive nuclear r&d projects, such as the world's largest ITER tokamak project in France, are based on using a magnetic fusion reaction. This method creates extraordinary heat used to combat atoms’ natural reaction forces and keep them confined in a plasma together.
The plasma won’t even be ready in France until 2025, but another project underway in the UK could support ITER tokamak and speed up the process. The UK project was put on hold 23 years ago, but is getting ready to start up again in 2021. The ITER project is still under construction in the South of France. It’s a collaboration between 35 nations, decades in the making, claiming that they will achieve first plasma by 2025, and commercial nuclear fusion could follow right behind.
The race is on to be the first technology to clear safety standards and bring long-awaited nuclear fusion plants online — offering countries clean energy from a safe, efficient source.
It has advantages over renewable energy, led by wind and solar, offering utilities consistent, steady clean power that can overcome the impact of intermittent weather conditions affecting renewables. The smoke-intensive brush fires taking place in the western US recently showed the vulnerability of solar that needs clear, sunny skies to maximize energy generation.
One of the competitors is dense plasma focus (DPF), which is being developed by LPPFusion, the working name of Middlesex, NJ-based Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, Inc. It could be a direct competitor with NASA's lattice confinement method, and also promises a much faster and economically feasible strategy for taking fusion to the commercial level.
ITER and other reactor projects have been utilizing large-scale experimental facilities than DPF would need. That would take away costly systems such as ultra-high power lasers and microwave generators, particle beams, giant superconducting magnet systems, and other advanced technologies. Going this route also means that the testing phase will last several years longer than the new innovative technologies may provide.
The cost has been quite high for fusion development. France’s ITER so far has had an estimated cost of over $40 billion.
NASA's interest in nuclear fusion has to do with its future strategy of traveling to Mars and other planets through its commercial partner alliances. Nuclear power could be the energy source offering much greater power and efficiency than rocket fuel. The agency is also interested in conducting mining and testing operations on planets and asteroids to extract water, metals, and minerals.
Nuclear fusion could be the energy source opening up NASA’s potential for greater space exploration along with partners such as SpaceX, Boeing, and Blue Origin.