An Industry Emerges
“We’re here to put a dent in the universe, otherwise why else even be here?” – Steve Jobs
ITER is expensive. Nobody knows how much. It could be 16, 21 or 50 billion dollars [9-12]. It is not going to be commercial at that price. Moreover, ITER will never make energy. That was fine, when it was the only path to fusion power. But that is not true anymore.
NIF has failed. It cannot get ignition . Even if it could, would it be commercial? The machine is complex. It is expensive and inefficient. Heaps of taxpayer dollars were spent on this. The public should be furious. Someone needs to be held accountable.
These efforts have stalled. Their future looks dim. But, we cannot wait fifty years for fusion power. Climate change will not allow us. Young fusioneers realize this. They are not joining ITER or NIF. They are joining a new breed of companies. Together, they are building an entirely new fusion industry. Their collective hope, is to put a dent in the universe.
Old ideas are ending:
Traditionally, fusion has focused on any idea in the laser or tokomak family. Laser fusion means inertial confinement fusion. This includes: direct drive or indirect drive, fast ignition or magneto-inertial fusion . Basically, any time you are squashing stuff with a laser. This set of ideas has received over 12 billion in US funding in its’ fifty year lifespan . Currently, it has a poor outlook. The flagship machine, NIF, was costly and complex. It was also a colossal failure . The other family of ideas revolves around the tokamak. The tokamak family covers: spheromaks, the levitating dipole and all the stellerator designs [56, 57]. Basically anytime plasma is raced around in a loop. Over 177 tokamaks have been built, designed or operated. The newest version, ITER is very expensive, complex and behind schedule . Things are not going well.
Even attempts to commercialize the tokamak are not succeeding. Tokamak Solutions is a British startup doing just that. It was founded in 2009 . But, after spending 10 million, the company is little more than a diversion for retired scientists. The staffs’ average age is over 60 [58 - 63]. They speculate about using the Tokamak as a neutron source. If this is their business model - they are going to get killed. Phoenix Nuclear Labs has already commercialized a smaller, cheaper and better neutron source. Their technology is based on fusors a much simpler path to fusion plasmas . Bottom line: tokamaks and lasers are on their way out.
This is a historic. For decades, our focus has been on just “getting there”. Merely getting fusion. This meant holding a hotter plasma with a higher density for longer. This is known in the field, as the triple product (density, temperature and confinement time). People ran roughshod over price, scalability, efficiency or size. No one cared: they built massive, expensive and complex machines. But today; we have arrived. We can do fusion - continuously - for thousands of hours, and for thousands of dollars [35, 22]. We are done with “getting there”. The next step is commercialization.
An alternative fusion industry:
Since 2000, a dozen fusion companies have been founded [73-105]. Together, they represent a fledgling new industry. The alternative fusion industry. What does this industry look like? I estimate that as of December 2014, it has roughly 450 million in total investment [73-105]. It also engages roughly 330 people [73-105]. These people are spread across a dozen organizations. A summary of some of the relevant groups is given below [73-105].
These firms are expanding several root technologies simultaneously. These are: polywells, fusors, dense plasma focus, beam fusion, field reversed configurations and cusp confinement. There is plenty of overlap. For example: general fusion has a hybrid between a field reversed configuration and a laser fusion style implosion . Because it is so new - the industry suffers the classic “first-mover” disadvantages. They have to find a way to get funding, train talent and solve incredible technical problems. The groups have plenty in common: determined founders, failures and funding issues. The collective goal is fusion energy - but there are differing views on how get there.
Paths to fusion power:
All these concepts work with plasma. This is a soup of electrons and ions. The goal for every ides is to make the ions collide and fuse. This makes neutrons. The more neutrons, the more fusion. Amateurs can make a million a second [22, 23]. Phoenix Nuclear Labs can do 100 billion while JET can do at least 16 quadrillion (the world record) [24, 65]. Next, you must sustain fusion. This “shot time” is driven by containment. Focus fusion argues that all they need is a nanosecond for net power, while General Fusion is aiming for hundreds of microseconds and Tri Alpha Energy says it can do 5 milliseconds [30, 31, 66, 67]. But who knows? Mr. Griengers’ homemade fusor can fuse for hours at room temperature [22, 23]. Could the polywell give the same behavior? Dr. Park has suggested it; especially if the plasma can be heated steadily .
Once you contain the hot plasma, you must extract energy. Not every team has planned this far. General Fusion wants to absorb everything in a liquid blanket, heat it and make steam . Focus fusion has suggested a traveling wave tube . Polywellers have pushed for a form of direct conversion. These last two ideas are shown below.
Here is how these ideas work: exhaust from fusion is a mixture of neutrals, ions, electrons and gas. It is a mess. It comes off in all directions. It comes off at many speeds. First, we must beat this stuff into submission. Ideally, we only want a beam with one kind of charge. The traveling wave tube uses a positive beam. Ions fly down the center. They pull electrons from the surrounding wire. This makes a flowing current. Direct conversion puts metal in the way of the beam [127 - 129]. Ions are absorbed – holding one side of a circuit, steadily positive. You can draw a current from this. Several teams have discussed integrating these extraction methods directly into their design [20, 122]. But, though we can do relatively cheap fusion, for hours [22, 23, 35] no commercial team can steadily draw a current from fusion. Not yet.
The Energy Balance:
What comes after energy collection? Optimization. That will revolve around the energy balance. Any hot plasma concept must grapple with this equation.
John Lawson gave us this equation in 1957 . It is the energy balance for a machine fusing with a hot plasma. We have always merely tried to boost the first term: the fusion rate. But we may finally be changing focus. The next term is conduction. This is the loss of mass. Anytime a plasma touches a surface, it is lost. The newest designs (polywells, Lockheeds’ machine, the dynomak, Phoenix Nuclear Labs’ device) all appreciate this. They all have smooth surfaces - and some cases, no surfaces at all. Both PNL and the polywell have vast spaces in the center [1, 24]. Space without a solid wall limits conduction loss. After this comes the radiation term. If a particle ever changes speed, it loses some energy as light . This happens everywhere inside the cloud, and for many reasons. Radiation is a function of cloud composition, temperature, density, size and structure. Fusioneers are just starting to tune their plasmas to beat this problem. For example: the polywell works best with tons of cold electrons, and a few hot ions .
Can this distribution be done? We do not know – mixing and instabilities will fight against it . But, it is possible to make plasmas which do not have the common bell curve [25, 110]. Tuning plasma clouds to beat radiation loss is going to be important. Finally, there is machine efficiency. Most fusion machines are very inefficient. NIF is one example. It takes 200 units of electrical energy to make one unit of laser energy . New methods for energy capture will go a long way to improve overall efficiency. Realize: if the energy balance was correct; the fusor could make net power.
New Design Principals:
Wither they know it or not, these groups are embracing a new set of design principals. I call these the new principals of fusion energy. They that have emerged in the past 10 years - outside tokamaks and laser fusion worlds.
4. Direct conversion. Direct conversion has been discussed for decades. The trend of incorporating it directly into designs is what is exciting. This was tested on the TMX fusion device and it achieved a 48% efficiency .
Certainly, fusion is changing. We need to stop seeing it as a hodge-podge of technological novelties and start seeing it as a fledgling industry. An industry where innovation is happening much faster than in “big science”. An industry which must work around price. Where will all this take us? No one knows. My hope is to a cheap, scalable, clean, carbon-free energy source for all mankind. My hope is we can summon effort needed to build this tool and the wisdom to use it wisely.
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