Hacking Bangkok Blog

Tech and Living in Thailand's City of Angels

The Hacking Bangkok blog covers I.T. and technology in general, and my experiences working and living in the Kingdom of Thailand. Bangkok has a very long Thai name, which starts with Krung thep - City of Angels.
Bangkok sunset from my bedroom balcony

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Commercial Fusion Powerplants - Finally Less Than 30 Years Away?

ITER - "Maybe in 2050"

For as long as I can remember (and a lot longer, actually), nuclear fusion as an energy source has been touted as "30 years away" from reality. Other than a very short few weeks twenty years ago, when two scientists (Pons and Fleischmann) announced they they had achieved room-temperature fusion - which turned out to be a dud - fusion for power has been pretty much an R&D effort only.

Heck - instead of getting closer, a working fusion reactor that puts out more power than it uses up has seemed to actually recede into the future; the global consortium of countries that finally decided to build a test reactor is planning to flip the switch on it sometime after 2018. The consortium, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), is building their beast (see the rendering above) in France. Their fast-track plan (meaning, "if all goes well"), would lead to the first commercial fusion plant starting to put out some juice around the year 2050. Yawn!

Full power to lasers, Scotty!
Not that I'm knocking their project - having fusion power in 2050 beats the crap out of "never", but yowza, this project was actually started back in 1985, and they just broke ground last year (in 2008). So I wouldn't hold your breath.

Slightly smaller in scale than ITER's tokamak is America's "National Ignition Facility" (seen posing as a Death Star under construction in photo), a DOE project.

While NIT is more aimed at modeling mini-explosions using boucoup lasers (192 world-beating lasers that all fire simultaneously), they also think they'll beat ITER to the "break-even" punch by years, possibly by 2012. Going from there to a commercial reactor is still a loongggg way, though. Call it 2030 or so.

Enter, private enterprise. Much like SpaceX and Scaled Composites have shaken up the space business, it seems there are a few companies working on commercial fusion power. And I'm not talking about complete frauds, like the infamous "Steorn Energy" (which put an ad in The Economist a few years ago declaring they'd invented a perpetual motion machine...). And some of these companies are raising millions in capital - no mean feat in the teeth of a global recession, if they can pull it off. Others raised millions over the past few years.

Just in the past few weeks, I've read about a few different companies all working on fusion. Helion Energy, which built the plasma fusion prototype shown in the photo at right (photo from Fast Company's website), is looking for $20 million right now. Granted, their prototype looks like it came straight out of Dr. Frankenstein's lab, but if the full-scale model they're hoping to build works, I'm guessing they plan to have something commercial before 2050!! (According to the Fast Company article, they hope to have a commercial plant running by 2022 or so).

Another company is the very secretive Tri Alpha Energy (their site is currently "under construction", although the internet archive shows it from last year with the simple message, "TRI ALPHA ENERGY, Inc. is a company dedicated to energy research". According to Wikepedia, Tri Alpha is working on a type of beam-collision fusion, also referred to in one article as a "plasma electric generator". They raised a cool $40 million in 2007, and haven't uttered a public peep about the fusion research since - although they did announce some sort of solar-powered electric-car charging station last year (so, I really have no idea if they're covering all bets or what?)

There are a few other companies out there - General Fusion and Electron Power Systems - which have also gotten some press. And finally - this year, on the 20th anniversary of the original conference where Pons & Fleischmann made their ill-fated announcement - a scientist at the U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWAR) announced - wait for it! - that she had, in fact, found strong evidence of cold fusion. Only, she was too clever to call it that - now it's "low energy nuclear reactions", since "cold fusion" has that "oh crap, this is bogus" ring to it.

So - we've got the long, longggg term international effort, the medium-term U.S. national effort, and some scrappy start-ups all either cutting metal, or getting ready to test out hardware. Is fusion's time finally here, or at least less than 30 years away?

I think it is. With global climate change providing part of the impetus, and a finite (if large) amount of oil that has spiked above $100/barrel in the past, there's definitely incentive like never before to pull it off. And I don't think we'll be waiting until 2050, honestly.


Anonymous said...

NIF is certainly a hugely important project, it will get "Proof of Principle" for laser fusion, probably in the next two years. This is a vital step for our future energy needs, and only NIF is on the threshold of doing this. Right behind this there is the international HiPER project, which will take the work forward once NIF has achieved break-even with a single shot. HiPER will build a demonstrator reactor to show how continuous grid level energy output can be achieved. See the web site and watch the movie on http://www.hiper-laser.org/