Fusion: Will Humanity Ever Harness Star Power?

Fusion is the epitome of “high risk, high reward” scientific research.

If we were to ever successfully harness the forces that power the stars, mankind could have access to power that is almost literally too cheap to meter. However, as Visual Capitalist's Nick Routley notes, reaching that goal will be a very expensive, long-term commitment – and it’s also very possible that we may never achieve a commercially viable method of fusion power generation.

Today’s video, by the talented team at Kurzgesagt, explains how fusion works, what experiments are ongoing, and the pros and cons of pursuing fusion power generation.

HOW FUSION WORKS

Fusion involves heating nuclei of atoms – usually isotopes of hydrogen – to temperatures in the millions of degrees. At extreme temperatures, atoms are stripped of their electrons and nuclei move so quickly that they overcome their “mutual repulsion”, joining together to form a heavier nucleus. This process gives off massive amounts of energy that investors and researchers hope will propel mankind into an era of cheap and abundant electricity, but without the downsides of many other forms of energy.

I would like nuclear fusion to become a practical power source. It would provide an inexhaustible supply of energy, without pollution or global warming.

 

– Stephen Hawking, award-winning theoretical physicist

Stars are so large that fusion occurs naturally in their cores – but here on Earth, we’re trying a number of complex methods in the hopes of replicating that process to achieve positive net energy.

The Cost of Bottling a Star

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), an experimental reactor currently being built in the south of France, will house the world’s largest ever tokamak – a doughnut-shaped reactor that uses a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma. Construction of the facility began in 2013 and is expected to cost €20 billion upon completion in 2021.

iter fusion reactor funding

Source: Visual Capitalist

Research organizations see ITER as a crucial step in realizing fusion. Though the facility is not designed to generate electricity, it would pave the way for functional reactors.

Competition is Heating Up

There are some who claim that the bureaucracy of government-funded labs is hampering the process. As a result, there is a pack of private companies, fueled by high-profile investors, looking to make commercially-viable fusion into a reality.

Tri Alpha, a company in southern California, is hoping their method of spinning magnetized plasma inside a containment vessel will be a lower-cost method of power generation than ITER. In 2015, they held super-heated hydrogen plasma in a stable state for 5 milliseconds, which is a huge deal in the world of fusion research. The company has attracted over $500 million in investment in the past 20 years, and has the backing of Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen.

Helion Energy, located in Redmond, Washington, believes they are only a few years away from creating nuclear fusion that can be used as a source for electricity. Their reaction is created by colliding two plasma balls made of hydrogen atom cores at one million miles per hour. Helion Energy’s ongoing research is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program, which the Trump administration slated for elimination. Thankfully, Helion still counts Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital and Y Combinator as supporters.

General Fusion, located in Burnaby, B.C., is taking a different approach. Their piston-based reactor is designed to create energy bursts lasting thousandths of seconds, rather than a sustained plasma reaction. Heat recovered bursts would be used to generate electricity much like nuclear power plants, minus the long-term radioactive waste. General Fusion has attracted millions of dollars in funding, including investment from Bezos Expeditions and the Business Development Bank of Canada.

Time Horizon

Though commercially viable fusion is still a long way off, each new technological breakthrough brings us one step closer. With such a massive payoff for success, research will likely only increase as we get closer to bottling a star here on Earth.

fusion timeline

Source: Visual Capitalist

Comments

ACP apadictionary Tue, 07/18/2017 - 02:23 Permalink

I highly encourage the development of uncontrolled fusion energy sources in dense population areas such as LA, SF and Shicago.They should be fast-tracked with no regard whatsoever to safety of the environment, such as the bird-killing windmills and desert solar power plants.Edit: Star power has already been harnessed in California. They have so much star power, the rest of the country should cut them off from EVIL FOSSIL FUELS.

In reply to by apadictionary

Motasaurus Common_Law Tue, 07/18/2017 - 04:05 Permalink

Will humanity ever achieve fusion?No. Though not for a lack of will or inventiveness but because our understanding of solar physics is fundamentally flawed. The fusion of elements in a star does not produce electromagnetic plasmas,  but happens because of electromagnetic plasmas. Fusion is not self-sustaining. It requires an external electrical input to happen. This is why we can't make it work in the lab - we always have to put more into it than it produces. 

In reply to by Common_Law

grekko Motasaurus Tue, 07/18/2017 - 04:27 Permalink

Wrong!  This is doable!  You can't do it in a lab because this baby has to be really big.  Only a full sized reactor can handle the plasma, and that's not to mention the mega-mega phased array laser systems needed to fire this sucker up (brought to you by Sandia Natl labs, called the ignition project).  I was offered a job at Oakridge, working on the confinement and vacuum systems.  We don't have all the technology needed yet, but industry is with this 100% and promises to deliver the instrumentation on the timelines needed.  This really is a world effort, and it is within our reach.  Sorry to bust your bubble Motasaurus.

In reply to by Motasaurus

OverTheHedge grekko Tue, 07/18/2017 - 04:48 Permalink

If it does happen, it will be incidental to the monumental costs of the projects, and the entire careers built around administrating them. Nuclear power is the perfect example - anyone old enough will remember the promise of unlimited, free energy, clean and environmentally friendly. The reality is what we have today, and the costs that will be borne for the next 30,000 years, but some people are super-wealthy now because of nuclear power, so that's good, isn't it?I keep looking into the internet excitement of over-unity projects, but they always get close, and then fizzle out and disappear. I'm not hopeful, but I keep searching for the  unicorn.

In reply to by grekko

Automatic Choke Mr 9x19 Tue, 07/18/2017 - 05:49 Permalink

i worked in fusion at mit for several years after my phd.  it soon became clear that the motives of the lab directors (mit, pppl, lanl, lvnl, ga) were to get the biggest slice of the funding pie....never mind progress towards applicable fusion.  it was my first painful taste of reality overcoming idealism.  i thought then .... and still think now .... that fusion is technically feasible, but politically impossible.

In reply to by Mr 9x19

MalteseFalcon AE911Truth Tue, 07/18/2017 - 07:56 Permalink

TPTB already have had think tanks consider a world where there is "unlimited" energy and they concluded that it was not a world that TPTB wanted.TPTB cannot even deal with the actual world of carbon based fuels, so we get the phony eco-movement, phony peak oil and energy that is inextricably tied up with war.It is not a question of technology.The world needs technology to save it, but TPBT do want want anything impinging on their constantly increasing power, so they ration the technology "wisely".

In reply to by AE911Truth

flapdoodle Automatic Choke Tue, 07/18/2017 - 10:14 Permalink

The environment you describe is pervasive in US.gov run labs - my guess is fusion in the US is 40 years away (that's actually a joke - the standard fusion joke is that fusion is ALWAYS 40 years away)More seriously, I believe fusion breakthroughs will NOT come from the US. There is too much vested interest (big oil for example) in fusion not succeeding... yet.A real breakthrough will come from something out in left field like cold fusion (which, if you know anything about supercavitation and "bubble fusion" and other really weird effects at the molecular level should not be all that unexpected), or from other countries that can't afford graft and political games on this type of possibly existential project.

In reply to by Automatic Choke

Canary Paint OverTheHedge Tue, 07/18/2017 - 10:31 Permalink

This fellow who has worked and done research in the field highlights several projects that stopped due to not getting relatively miniscule amounts of funding. It is an answer to a Quora question, "What's stopping us from making a fusion reactor?" It is longish, but I found it readable.He basicly makes the case that a successful fusion reactor won't be very profitable and that there is a large amount of belief that it won't work.https://www.quora.com/Whats-stopping-us-from-making-a-fusion-reactor/an…

In reply to by OverTheHedge

East Indian Common_Law Tue, 07/18/2017 - 08:14 Permalink

If Zero Point energy is ever harvested, it will conclusively prove that we live in a simulation. Here is how. Imagine a virtual world in a video game. A character in that world moves from A to B. This needs a small bit of (electrical) energy in our (real) world, for the computer to execute those lines. If that character has consciousness, it will feel as if it expended this energy out of its body. Right?Now, this energy is very less compared to the electrical energy needed to run the whole program, and is negligible when compared to the energy needed to run the monitor screen, processors, etc. Right?Suppose we are in a simulation. This universe is projected onto some unknown medium which acts like a computer monitor. This whole universe simulation needs energy, but that energy is much less compared with the energy needed to run the monitor, processor, etc of the machine that runs this universe simulation. Right? My concept is that Zero Point Energy taps directly into this energy.It is like a simcity character tapping directly into the energy of the monitor on which the simcity game is played.

In reply to by Common_Law

Four chan ACP Tue, 07/18/2017 - 03:07 Permalink

the saudis here in detroit have a facility where they test and develop combustion technology saudi aramco to be precise,they prefect and patent all these futuristic power developers and lock them away never to be seen again.i suspect the same is being done with fusion and thorium designs. aren't the jews and saudis our buddies just the best, (at fucking over humanity).

In reply to by ACP

mkkby navy62802 Wed, 07/19/2017 - 15:07 Permalink

Shit's been researched to death for 60 years.  NOT GONNA HAPPEN.  It's become another funding scam for career scientists on a religious quest.We see this in globull warming and every other field.  You chant the mantra, never thinking outside the box, or your career will be ruined.  Never ever question the status quo 'cause big money is involved.Stars can produce power because the gravity well is free.  If you have to produce this yourself, you will never break even.  This should be obvious to any 3 year old.  But politicians and scam scientists can be parasites for life, based on an obvious lie.

In reply to by navy62802

DuneCreature Tue, 07/18/2017 - 02:30 Permalink

Zero Point Energy or rather tapping the EM field potential makes fusion a mute technology even if it is possible.

Will you see ZPE in your lifetime? .. Not if the fossil fuel and nuclear power industry can help it.

Is that a bad thing, or a good thing? ........ It depends on your point of view.

Live Hard, It Is Not Physics That Limit Human Potential, It Is Human Greed, Superstition And Stupidity, Die Free

~ DC v7.3

jimmy c korn Tue, 07/18/2017 - 02:37 Permalink

It would seem like these bright scientist would come up with ways of using the super volcano under Yellowstone park as an energy source. And at the same time relieve the pressure of a volcanic explosion that's been in the news so many time recently.

Pernicious Gol… Tue, 07/18/2017 - 02:52 Permalink

Jimmy Carter, who ostensibly had a degree in nouk-you-ler engineering even though he couldn't pronounce it, killed fusion research. Drove a stake through its heart. His stated reason was it would cost nine billion dollars. In today's dollars that would be 27-36 billion dollars, probably less than the US spends on Halloween costumes for dogs. Another example of the second-worst President in action.

The Ingenious … Pernicious Gol… Tue, 07/18/2017 - 06:40 Permalink

Jimmy Carter certainly did NOT kill fusion research. Reagan did, or more specifically frequent ZeroHedge contributor David Stockman did with his 1983 budget for Congress. ...On August 27, the House of Representatives passed the fusion bill by a vote of 365 to 7. Soon after, the Senate passed a companion bill by voice vote. President Carter signed the bill into law on October 7.......But when David Stockman’s Office of Management and Budget presented the 1983 budget to Congress, with a total of $444 million for fusion, or 25 percent less than the 1977 budget, in real terms, the fusion law was dead. The White House policy was that demonstration projects should not be funded by the government, but be left to private industry. See pp23-24: http://www.21stcenturysciencetech.com/Articles_2010/Winter_2009/Who_Killed_Fusion.pdf

In reply to by Pernicious Gol…

Cardinal Fang The Ingenious … Tue, 07/18/2017 - 08:42 Permalink

They just moved it to the black budget.

Don't ask me how I know.

Almost 40 years ago, we had some big ass fucking lasers.

We did it with slide rule engineers and analog machines.

Fucking Bridgeports with bikers.

Fucking lol.

You shoulda seen the parking lot.

Old pans and shovels.

Fuck, we had 'draftsmen'...

And physicists using TRS-80s writing their own shitty programs.

Ever seen a Samsonite with handcuffs in real life?

Ha ha ha ha...jeez

In reply to by The Ingenious …

economists_do_… Tue, 07/18/2017 - 02:59 Permalink

Tesla figured out free energy decades ago.  But J.P. Morgan pulled the plug on his funding when he learned there was no profit from FREE energy.When Einstein was asked how it felt to be the smartest man on Earth, he replied, “I wouldn't know. Ask Nikola Tesla."