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back to article MIT boffins crack fusion plasma snag

Boffins at MIT say they have cracked some tricky problems in the design of power stations running on nuclear fusion, though they hasten to add that many more hurdles remain before fusion energy becomes a reality. "There's been a lot of progress," says Earl Marmar, head of the Alcator Project at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion …

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Good news

Always good news to hear further steps have been taken towards a fusion powered Earth.

Big shame is by the time its cracked and used main stream I'll no doubt be long dead from alcohol abuse. Should I be unlucky enough to knock out children they'll probably be retarded due to a low sperm count.

This post isn't going to make it is it, dam moderation.

(Yes it is. Damn contributors - Ed)

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price of uranium

Uranium is not that scarce or expensive, and breeder reactors can multiply the effective fuel available by many times as long as you're prepared to put up with the costs and risks of reprocessing. The problems with fission reactors are a) the problem of disposal - which still hasn't been settled effectively and b) the association with military use and bomb production. With effective fusion power, a) is less of a problem and b) is no problem at all.

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Boffin

Nobody is sure why it works!!

Thats not the sort of thing i like to hear on a project that involves the words 'fusion' and 'reactor'!

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Flame

Sounds familier

"Clean and abundant fusion electricity, quite apart from rendering the wind/coal/fission power-station debate irrelevant,"

gosh, we could have electricity too cheap to meter, again.

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Anonymous Coward

Go fusion go!

Fusion may largely solve our energy problems, but I would like to venture a correction:

"Indeed, most of the world's troubles actually boil down to energy in the end."

I would replace "energy" with "rampant and unsustainable population growth".

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Mmmmm Fusiony goodness

If fusion ever gets off the ground, all the people who put their careers into making it work should all be knighted and given big shiny medals. These are the lads using their brains to make a difference and push the human race onwards and upwards and should be rewarded.

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Crosses Fingers

I know fusion has been on the horizon for decades now but I really can't help but hope that ITER works out in my lifetime. Workable fusion reactors would (will!) change the world so massively, the spiel at the end of this article is no exaggeration.

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So when do I get my Mr Fusion Car?

Good news - I hope that ITER is a success and fusion power becomes a reality.

Next problem - making batteries/ accumulators to store all this energy. If fusion power takes off we'll need a lot of batteries or other ways of keeping leccy portable.

ttfn

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Boffin

controlled fusion not much nearer

Since I started following these experiments in the sixties, no respectable scientist working in this has promised practical controlled fusion as a cheap electricity source as within the realms of possibility in less than 30 years. This announcement might help cast some of the remaining problems yet to be understood, let alone solved, into slightly clearer focus, but I think we are very far from having a complete picture of all the problems yet to be solved. I agree that it is worth continuing with globally funded research into this, but let's not get overexcited by something that may take a very long time to deliver this potential.

In the meantime, maintaining quality of life and feeding the hungry in developing countries has to go on, so we need to see much more research, development and investment in more practical nearer-term and more mature sustainable energy technologies.

We also need to accept carbon polluters (this means all of us) paying to clean up this mess so dirty technologies don't get subsidised through externalities, i.e. our neighbours picking up the cost of having to clean up after us. Renewable technologies can only compete on a level playing field when dirty energy technologies are no longer subsidised by this means.

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Bronze badge

Scarce and expensive uranium?

The current market price is $55 a pound (in 250 pound lots - it fell as low as $14 a few years ago) and Gen-IV technologies will allow U238 to be used as well as U235, increasing utilisation by a factor of 50 or so. David MacKay's sums suggest that there's easily enough available to supply electricity for 1,000 years or so.

Fission may not be renewable in the very long term, but it's a major part of the solution to present-day needs.

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Max
Joke

500 years later...

Boffin1: "Great, the oceans are almost dry. What are we going to do now?"

Boffin2: "If those fools in the 21st century had actually thought about that we wouldn't be in this situation."

Boffin3:"Look on the bright side, now I can DRIVE to Australia"

Seriously though our energy problems will only truly be solved once we can extract energy from a resource that has either (a) an "infinite" supply, (b) a detrimental effect on society (i.e. waste), (c) can be recreated from something else, or (d) something that the later generations will have to worry about :)

In any case this will make it much easier for my generation and my children's generation so I'm all for it!

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Happy

While we're waxing lyrical ...

With unlimited energy, there is no effective limit to how hot this planet can get. Getting rid of planetary homeostatis is just an energy problem.

With unlimited energy, growth capitalism will never need adjusting. Maintaining an unsustainable system is just an energy problem.

With unlimited energy we can have eternal war. Peace is just an energy problem.

It all depends on what you do with the energy. Technology will not make this planet a utopia. Only people can do that.

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Too much free energy?

To paraphrase what my school physics teacher said: "if we had infinite free energy we would still have a problem, because we would use so much energy that we would expel enough heat to bake the world."

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Boffin

Fix the problem, not the symptoms!

Until we, as a species, decide to limit our numbers there will ALWAYS be a shortage of energy.

Even if we beat the current problems with Greenhouse Gases and scarcity of fissionable fuels, we will still have to deal with the heat.

Even if Fusion is perfect and issues no heat and no by-products, all the energy produced ends up as heat in our biosphere. So just the sheer amount of heat is going to cause global warming, and don't tell me that excess heat will never be an issue. That very phrase was used about Greenhouse Gases just 30 years ago.

Let's face it, 6 billion people on this planet is just too many.

We need to find a way of managing it down to less than 1 Billion and keeping it there.

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Coat

So...

... I should get my Mr Fusion within the next ten years? Cool!

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Joke

Patently obvious solution to spurious flows - Robotic arms wired to your spine!

"The Alcator team are also proud to announce their development of a cunning noble-gas extinguisher method for quenching troublesome beams of "runaway electrons", which can apparently be an issue in the event of a fusion reactor's magnetic containment fields having a collywobble."

Yes ppl, why didn't any of the scientists watch Spiderman 2 in which the same issues of Plasma containment and troublesome beams became an issue. Only to be easily tamed with robotic arms hardwired to your spinal column!

And siting the test fusion reactor experiment in Cadarache, France! What are they thinking? It has to be in the middle of Paris!

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Stop

Agree with Bload

Tokamak reactors have always failed to produce net energy. Why will building a bigger one help?

Anyone interested should check out some of the work the late Dr Bussard did with electrostatic confinement fusion. It's interesting stuff!

http://www.emc2fusion.org/

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"as the mighty machine is already half built."

Then it's way ahead of schedule. They were quoting ten years when it was given the go ahead two years ago.

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Paris Hilton

We already HAVE fusion power to spare.

its garvitationally contained. its called the sun.

We can get a lot more energy using these big bucks for solar collection.

That said, i personally believe fusion will eventually achieved on the micro or nano scale using nanotech devices to reassemble atoms.

paris because i like how her atoms are assembled.

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Coat

collywobbles like quarks?

Excuse me being pedantic on a Friday, but isn't the colleywobbles, like news, plural-looking with singular meaning?

My coat had a quark in it when I hung it up.

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Anonymous Coward

Couldn't they just...

... use a central heating pump to circulate the plasma? I believe they are specially rated for hot fluids.

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@big_boomer

can i get you the phone number of Dr Kevorkian ? Maybe you could lead the way ..

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Boffin

Fusion has been just around the corner for over 50 years

And we will be lucky if it is ready in another 50. Fusion is just a Science Welfare program.

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Boffin

Moving things...

results in recoil. If they use radio waves, I wonder how they transmit the impulse from the radio wave transmitter to the plasma (waves tend to be symmetric and the integrated force / impulse will average out to 0). But maybe they use nonlinear processes and interferences between different waves ... intriguing

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Bload the failure

It's amusing the way some jumped up child can attempt to dismiss Bussard from the perspective of overwhelming ignorance. Learn some respect for your betters and watch that attitude problem. Also you don't know how to use the word fail properly, so stop.

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@BLoad

Could you explain what you mean? AFAIK the Bussard Polywell works in theory (something no Tokamak ever did), all they need is money to build one of the right size.

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RW
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The end is not yet in sight

As long as I've been an adult (no, don't ask!), the fusion energy research community have claimed that net production of energy from fusion is a decade away. That's what they said in the 1960s and that's what they're saying today. Why does the lack of progress make me a disbeliever in the fairy tale of fusion power?

It seems like within the key problem is another problem, and within that problem yet another, and so on ad infinitum.

As for the article's bald assertion "Indeed, most of the world's troubles actually boil down to energy in the end", a loud bronx cheer. Most of the world's troubles (if not all of them) boil down to overpopulation. Energy shortages are only a symptom of this.

Flame icon in honor of fusion, even though it's never worked and quite likely never will.

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screw fusion!

forget toroids and silly containment lasers...let's put the lasers to better use!

https://publicaffairs.llnl.gov/news/news_releases/2008/NR-08-11-03.html

give me antimatter reactors! Total mass conversion! Output energy completely throttleable!

Of course, it may take more energy to make the antimatter than you get out of it, but such realities don't stop the enviro-nuts from their wind/solar/rubberband powered clown cars and perpetual motion machines....

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Coat

@Bload...

Does the plasma in the containment field behave like a liquid?

If so, it will work. Not a big fail as you suggest. In other words, if you can get lets say the center band of plasma moving due to the radio waves, how does the other plasma around it react?

There's obviously more to this, but I doubt you'd grok it.

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Go

Disagree (respectfully of course) with Bload

Bussard's polywell may or may not work. It stands ahead of ITER because in principle, net power units need not require billions of dollars to develop. The science can be adequately proven (or disproven) with much smaller amounts of funding.

I think that research like this stands to benefit humanity considerably. I would award such efforts a

A PASS

(with respects to BLoad's much harsher scoring system).

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Boffin

Things and stuff (as well as the reverse)

"The current market price is $55 a pound (in 250 pound lots - it fell as low as $14 a few years ago) and Gen-IV technologies will allow U238 to be used as well as U235, increasing utilisation by a factor of 50 or so. David MacKay's sums suggest that there's easily enough available to supply electricity for 1,000 years or so."

Is that $55/pound figure based on the price of the fissionable uranium itself, or the processed fuel pellets? Big difference... If I recall correctly, most reactor fuel in the US (except, maybe, the small amount of MOX we use) is around 3-5% U-235. That being said, the price of fissionable uranium is a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of building and decomissioning nuclear power facilities.

As for U-238 being "used," it's a little more complicated that that. If, and again I stress that if, my recall is accurate, the method does not involve the direct fission of U-238 (which is not a fissionable isotope), but rather, the deployment of U-238 in a shell surrounding the reaction mass, so that by neutron capture some of the U-238 is transformed into a fissionable isotope (Probably Pu-239) which can be reprocessed into new fuel rods.

Blah blah blah blah blah

And other things

The blue scientist-type fellow because that is the type of person I, in my undereducated hubris, seek to emulate. Giggity.

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"Scarce and expensive uranium"?

Scarce and expensive uranium? Who do they think they're kidding? It costs barely a dollar per BOE, a penny a BOE to find. If it were scarce and expensive, oil and gas money would not be threatened and antinuclearism would be its own reward.

"... the hydrogen isotopes which would be used for fusion are commonplace and could readily be extracted from seawater ..." as if uranium couldn't. Fukyu. Or more precisely, http://jolisfukyu.tokai-sc.jaea.go.jp/fukyu/mirai-en/2006/4_5.html

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Anonymous Coward

In a nutshell

Help, help, I'm trapped in a nutshell.

Seriously, though, the world's problems do generally boil down to energy .... and it's portability. (At some point we hit another obstacle, being availability of critical raw materials, at least terrestrially, assuming that recovery of certain waste materials is infeasible).

At high enough energy usage, waste heat output (as opposed to increased entrapment of incident solar heat) does seem to become a problem, in theory.

As an example, I wonder if someone could calculate the total waste heat of all computing and routing equipment in the world, assuming current geometric growth rates continue. What would be the total waste heat in the year 2100, for instance?

BTW: Bload may just be trying to be a troll, mixing a little truth with a little misdirection - it wouldn't be the first time someone's done that on El Reg (.... dum de dum de dum ....)

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Cold Fusion?

Melt Antarctica!

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Yes, more tech is the solution to our food problems

>Farms in the Third World could easily feed the world's hungry if they had energy-intensive fertilisers and powered machinery: starvation is essentially an energy problem.

Now I know that our correspondent gets a giant robot chubby for anything high tech and horrifically expensive, but this is just depressingly stupid.

How about agriculture issues like, say, soil managament, animal husbandry, veterinary and crop disease knowledge, access to markets, etc etc etc etc. Throwing lots of cheap energy at farming is a recipe for disaster. Go visit one of those large indoor air-conditioned dairy farms in Saudi Arabia.

Applying "energy" as a solution to farming yeild is the same blunt-instrument approach that got us into the climate and ecological mess in the first place -- like building huge industrial farms using heavy irrigation and synthetic fertilisers in sensitive desert environments (bloody grapes for wine in the Orange River/Namib desert, anyone?) -- which collapse after years/decades leaving a huge mess that the poor locals then get stuck with fixing.

Lewis, you know close to nothing about agriculture or environmental geography. Just stick to talking about whizzy things that go boom, there's a good chap.

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Boffin

Look to Fission instead

I still think braking radiation dooms the ITER project and any form of magnetic containment fusion from ever producing net power.

Look to fission instead: there is a tiny but dedicated group supporting molten salt reactor using Thorium, which is very cheap and very abundant. Thorium is bred by the reactor into U233 then burned, in a continuous operation.

Molten salt reactors run continuously, no need to stop them to refuel or remove the fission products as they can be respectively dissolved and pumped out of the liquide fluoride while it is running. Plus it is not pressurized (it's typically run below ambient pressure for safety), and cannot fail à la Tchernobyl. And to top it off, its waste products have a half-life in the tens of years only. At an estimated 1$/W it should be very competitive with wind and solar power, too. Oh, and it can be designed around a breeding factor of exactly 1.0 so proliferation risk is seriously reduced, plus there exists not even plans for nuclear weapons using Uranium-233 anyway.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory had a working reactor of this type producing 7.4 MW for several years in the 60s. The design is compact and can be scaled down, in fact one such reactor was built and tested as the power plant for aircraft. Fuji has planned to build a 100 MWe such reactor (FUJI MSR) in the near future.

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Boffin

Heat Shunting

I have been wondering about this on and off for a few years now. Let's say we automagically get fusion working, and there are gazillions of fusion plants all over the shop producing super cheap leccy for farthings, and we're generating lots and lots of heat on the planet. Is there a way of shunting this excess heat off-planet ? I guess IR radiation outbound would help, but is there a physics-acceptable way of heat-pumping outwards ?

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Ed

So....

When a fusion reactor goes Boom.... is it a bigger boom than a fission reactor... and is there any radioactive fall out of any sort ? or is that just from the urainium

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Paris Hilton

BLoad, you may or may not have a point but...

...you just come across as an arrogant asshat. Learn to not alienate people, and you might find that people might actually start to listen.

Posted anonymously, because I am at work and I -know- my boss reads these comments!

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Happy

@Max

The nearest we have to "infinite supply" is, of course, sunlight. By the time that runs out our own situation as regards energy needs may well have changed.

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Boffin

Other alternatives...

Maybe we could get cheap energy out of the collective flame issued by the brains of those reading BLoad explanations of the hard science behind this...

I doubt we will stop breeding like rats to lower the population to sustainable levels, as much as that would solve the problem instantly -- everybody just seems to think that in the end, those with the bigger army will linger. Although I doubt that too...

Fission is OK for me as long as you find a way of either having the reactors offplanet or sending the waste there -- you could just let the waste fall in to the sun, for a few million years free energy boost.

I had had never heard of the molten salt reactor idea. It looks promising, as long a it is also not nationalised by some -- then we're back at the bigger army scenario.

Oh, and thanks to the Reg and its audience for slowly turning me into a rocket scientist, one article at a time (I'll get there circa the end of the century...).

The dude in the blue environment, for obvious reasons (Green? Who needs green? Forget green!)

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