back to article While USA is distracted by its President's antics, China is busy breaking another fusion record

Chinese boffins say they have smashed yet another world fusion record using their EAST contraption – aka the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak. The experimental fusion system managed to maintain a stable plasma state for 101.2 seconds, with the temperature peaking at 50,000,000 K (90,000,000°F, 50,000,000°C), we're …

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Unhappy

let me guess...

It's still 20 years away.

Like it's been since the late 1950s.

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Re: let me guess...

Hmmm, well apart from the failed efforts back in the 50s, 60s, the progress has been ahead of track since the 1970s. The JET project in Culham in the UK exceeded its research objectives, and that has now been expanded into the ITER project. There is a plan, but it is quite a long plan, but for the past 40ish years it's been running according to (or better than) plan. More or less.

ITER won't produce power, but it is aiming to be able to sustain a plasma. Once that's achieved, fusion power is a certainty, not a hope.

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Boffin

Re: let me guess...

"It's still 20 years away."

yeah, it's the focus on Tokomak and lack of actual incentive for SUCCESS that's dragging the 'research' on indefinitely.

I'm not a 'cold fusion' activist or anything. I just think that for hot fusion, TOKOMAK isn't a very good design [unless you're doing research].

What you need is a method of confinement that doesn't involve large expensive superconducting magnets. You also need a method of excitation that doesn't involve a boatload of lasers. And you need a method of generating electrical power out of the fusion reaction. NONE of these are practical in a TOKOMAK design.

A design that MIGHT work has been explored by the U.S. Navy from what I understand. The first practical nuclear reactors were created by the U.S. Navy for submarines and ships. It goes without saying that classified programs building fusion reactors for submarines and ships is a likely path to commercial fusion reactors making electrons for your lights and appliances.

Here's a 2014 media article about a potential candidate: http://www.nbcnews.com/science/science-news/low-cost-fusion-project-steps-out-shadows-looks-money-n130661

It talks about 3 basic designs, the TOKOMAK (magnetic confinement), the 'pellet' reactor (inertial confinement), and this new 'wiffle ball' design aka 'Polywell' (which as I understand tries to use the characteristics of the plasma rather than fighting against it).

I'm not an insider, so maybe some of the details are outside of my knowledge base. I just remember reading about the Navy wanting fusion reactors, and a new type of design [probalby this one] was the most interesting and practical. Seems to me they're giving up a bit early, though, or they found something better...

But yeah, a new TOKOMAK record, that's like saying "look at the cool new vacuum tube we designed". Sure, a LOT of people might be interested, but not so much a breakthrough any more.

/me points out that to use fusion energy, you must capture it, and most of it is gamma radiation. If you can't put your reactor inside of a tank of water in order to boil that water and make steam, it won't be practical. And it has to produce at least 5 times as much energy as you put into it in order to make useful power, due to the ~20% thermal efficiency of a typical steam plant. Water is the most likely PRACTICAL absorber of gamma and neutron radiation energies. A few feet of water should absorb >90% of the gamma and neutron energy from fusion, easily. And so you see what the construction is going to have to look like, and how impractical the 'under vacuum' super-conducting magnet TOKOMAK would be in trying to get ANY kind of useful power out of it.

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Re: let me guess...

With the latest results the tocamac designs look like ~ 10.

Realistically, 50-es did not have the material technology, magnet design and most importantly magnet control technology to do fusion. While the principle has not changed, we got there on the last two within the last 10 years. So 10 lapsed, 10 more to go for the tokamak designs.

At that point we run into another wonderful non-proliferation issue. Fusion reactors produce fast electrons, which can be used in a classic breeder design (in fact they are too fast - you have to slow them down a bit somehow). Anyone in a possession of a working tokamak fusion coil can potentially stamp out Plutonium by the ton as a byproduct.

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Re: let me guess...

God, I hate those downvoters who don't tell us why. Whats wrong with Bombastics post? Seems like a well thought through and presented argument to me.

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Re: let me guess...

However ideally co-sited with fission reactors as the excess neutrons can be absorbed by radioactive waste, generating heat, then steam for electricity. The waste is converted to less radioactive materials. So the main fusion reactor doesn't have to have net output if paired with a fission reactor.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: let me guess...

"due to the ~20% thermal efficiency of a typical steam plant"

That figure *should* be about 40%, for a well designed, modern steam turbine set up. Of course, combined cycle gas turbine / steam turbine plants can get over 50%, but then you've got to source the gas, which is why we aren't exclusively using those.

yours etc.

Mrs Trellis, Frustrated Engineer of Tunbridge Wells.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: let me guess...

@Mark 110,

Probably, Bombastic has previously posted something people did not like, and those people hold a grudge. Forever. Quite sad really.

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Re: let me guess...

The joke used to be that for the last 40 years fusion has been 40 years away.

If the joke has changed to 20 years I'd call that progress!

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Re: let me guess...

It's still 20 years away

Nope. UK project to get power to grid by 2030 looks to have reasonable science/engineering, if it can keep funding going. There's also SPARK/ARC at MIT and various other projects with sub-20 year timelines to at least demonstration reactor timelines.

Not that we shouldn't be building ITER, at least it has less chance of failure if everything else goes wrong (unlikely).

Maybe if news didn't keep talking about plasma experiments as fusion experiments *cough*'reg*cough* we might progress somewhere. Not that plasma experiments aren't useful but the language is all wrong and confuse the state of the art.

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Flame

Re: let me guess...

While we're discussing the future of fusion, freely admitting I don't really have what it takes assessing fusion-related claims on merit, I'm still quite partial towards the Lawrenceville Plasma Physics lab - they may not be all that well known but they seem to have achieved remarkable milestones ahead of most everyone else including the large players, in a peer-reviewed fashion no less (I'd appreciate this not devolving into questioning why they haven't been flooded with cash yet if so while acknowledging this as an... interesting question).

At any rate, nothing I've read or heard in this field makes me feel like "all we need is to sit down and design a practical plant because the proof of concept is over there happily generating more energy than it consumes" - and if that's accurate, I'm sharply questioning the arbitrary nature of claims of "10 years" or "20 years" of what may equally well turn out to be 50 or 100 or 1000 years away, considering we still don't know how to make it generate more energy than we put into it.

So let's stop this "science will advance _this_ much in _that_ many years" bullshit handwaving which never failed to fail so far about everything it ever got projected on - when we have the finalized design and project plans for a practical generating plant that will take 10 years to build and the bulldozers broke ground, THEN we can say that fusion power is merely 15 years away. Your grandchildren might even witness it...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: let me guess...

"I'm not a 'cold fusion' activist or anything. I just think that for hot fusion, TOKOMAK isn't a very good design [unless you're doing research]."

But that's the point, fusion is still at the research phase and will be for some time. I'm also suspicious that you're even bringing up cold fusion and referring to hot fusion. The odd use of all-caps for key words is also a subtle alarm bell.

The first "practical" nuclear reactor being built by the US Navy depends on your definition of practical.

If the US Navy really thought that other design you reference had legs, they would have funded it by now.

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@bombastic

As you seem to have some knowledge: why have the polywell designs I have seen on based on a cube, rather than on a dodecahedron or an icosahedron?

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Re: let me guess...

Have they moved Tunbridge wells to north Wales then ?

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Re: let me guess...

"Fusion reactors produce fast electrons, which can be used in a classic breeder design (in fact they are too fast - you have to slow them down a bit somehow)"

I think you intended to type neutrons

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Re: let me guess...

Why all the downvotes? If you don't like what Bob's saying, then reply with some reasoned argument.

If you are just downvoting Bob because of his political views (which pesonally I don't agree with either, but that's beside the point), then downvoting a post in a topic about nuclear fusion is just plain childish. Speak up, or get a grip.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: let me guess...

Why all the downvotes? If you don't like what Bob's saying, then reply with some reasoned argument.

Because it's full of nonsense?

yeah, it's the focus on Tokomak and lack of actual incentive for SUCCESS that's dragging the 'research' on indefinitely.

You can't see what's wrong with that sentence?! Try this.

BB- Hey, scientists. What are you doing?

Scientist- Well, you know when you detonate an atom bomb, and then use the nuclear fission to form a fusion reaction? (eg, nuclear explosion) We're creating nuclear fusion in the lab without using an atom bomb for ignition. And we're keeping the little ball of fusion lit, and containing it so it doesn't blow up the lab despite the fact it destroys anything it touches, and either melts or just destroys any shielding material we use in short order. Yes, that's difficult stuff. But hey, we're pushing the boundaries of what science can actually do. Oh, and we're trying to extract more electricity from the ball of plasma than we use to generate, it which is the actual goal of our research.

BB- A lack of actual incentive for SUCCESS is dragging your 'research' on indefinitely!

Scientist- !?!???

If I put it that way, does THAT explain the downvotes?

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Re: let me guess...

Whats wrong with Bombastics post?

My guess is that what those downvoters found wrong with Bob's post is that Bob wrote it. Nothing more than that. It is "argument from no authority" in its worst form.

Argument from authority and from no authority can sometimes be justified on Bayesian grounds: "X is an expert in the field and is usually right so when X says it [s]he's probably right." More often it is fallacious: "I think the sun shines out of Donald Trump's arse so when he says this he's absolutely right. Bigly."

I think most of those downvotes came from people who intensely disagree with Bob's ordinary posts (as do I) so they downvoted this particular post out of laziness (or even spite) instead of evaluating it for itself.

Looked like a reasonable argument to me, too. So I followed the link. It too, seemed reasonable. And Bob made the effort to restate it in his own words rather than regurgitate it verbatim, so he put some thought into it. It certainly didn't merit a downvote, in my opinion.

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Unhappy

"The waste is converted to less radioactive materials. "

If you want to do that a molten salt reactor, configured as a "burner" could do it, without needing any more breakthroughs in plasma physics to do so.

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Unhappy

"There's also SPARK/ARC at MIT "

There's also a similar project in the UK.

The difference between these and ITER is they are c$300m, not $10Bn+

They are also the closest to the existing tokomak knowledge base.

On that basis they would seem to be the sensible projects to fund.

Provided you really want to create cheap electricity and not just go on making an endless supply of plasma physics PhD's.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: let me guess...

Trumpastic Bob is a nuclear scientist?!?!?!?!?!

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Re: let me guess...

"And it has to produce at least 5 times as much energy as you put into it in order to make useful power, due to the ~20% thermal efficiency of a typical steam plant"

That's "put into it" at the actual sharp end. Inefficiencies along the feedin process (lasers etc) come into play too, such that to achieve breakeven (electrical power out for electrical power in) it's more likely to require at least 100-fold amplification in the actual fusion unit, more likely 1000-fold.

Even after fusion gets to the point where it's a practical reality it's likely to take 25 years to become commercially viable. We need to get moving on LFTRs in the meantime.

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Re: let me guess...

nothing I've read or heard in this field makes me feel like "all we need is to sit down and design a practical plant because the proof of concept is over there happily generating more energy than it consumes"

Designs for practical plants already exist. Some of them are a shot in the semi-dark with fairly solid science and reasoning behind them and are just engineering and funding issues (SPARC/ARC/TE's design for example) then others are more long term this will work it's just going to cost a lot of money and take all the countries on the planet to effect them and there's still engineering challenges that aren't explicitly money related (ITER into DEMO into commercial reactors).

It's not as if we're in a situation like with the Higgs Boson where nobody knew what would happen when LHC got up to full power. It's more like LHC when you knew that once you build it you could start smashing particles together and make data. When ITER is turned on it *will* make energy, it will make more energy than it consumes. The real question is will TE/SPARC et al short circuit ITER's timeline by doing what ITER sets out to do at smaller scale, or will those projects run face first into either funding or science brick walls with trying to make them work at smaller scale. The physics says no, it's more what the engineering says and if we make new physics - they're still wildly important even if they find new physics.

Also, Re: silly arguments.

Fusion reactors aren't self-sustaining, if you don't keep pushing fuel or energy into them they stop, that's why they're inherently safe - they are not bombs. The main problem with reactors is the preferred fuels ping off neutrons when they fuse (which is how they will create external energy) which can damage certain materials (good job we have fission energy and related nuclear materials science) and creating containment pressure (one of the big historical engineering problems with reactors which is improving every day hence why new smaller reactor designs are appearing).

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Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

and giving both Kelvin & Centigrade is really not needed. I might understand if this was Fox News or The Sun ... but I most El Reg readers are reasonably bright, I doubt that anyone would not grok Kelvin.

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vir
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Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

Technically, it's 49999726.8 C but what's a few hundred degrees between friends?

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Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

The Register has to sadly support our old American neighbours. Still living in the 19th Century.

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Boffin

Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

I still think in BTU's, lb-F, and Farenheit for thermal stuff. And absolute is deg Rankine. They work. It's what I learned back in the 80's. Or I suppose I could do KCal, Neutons, and Celcius. And Kelvin. It's just a conversion, really.

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Boffin

Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

"The Register has to sadly support our old American neighbours. Still living in the 19th Century."

yeah, aren't those measurements based on the body parts of a British Monarch?

reminds me of the measurements of the space shuttle's boosters were based on the size of a train car, which is based on the standard scale railway, which was based on the ruts caused by horse-drawn carts [they kept all of the same sizes when they made the standard rails], which were based on the Roman chariots [no need to break wheels because of well worn ruts in a road, if they're all the same width], which were based on the width of a horse's ass.

So the design for the boosters on a space shuttle were based, in part, on the width of a horse's ass.

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Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fahrenheit#History

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Facepalm

Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

The Fahrenheit conversions are ridiculous. He wisely dropped the 0.33 degrees at the end, but better to just put 90,000,000 and 27,000,000. No way was the temperature measured with seven or eight digits of precision, and then reported as 50,000,000 K.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

Can't we have a reg unit, maybe a "Tamale"

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Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

> Technically, it's 49999726.8 C

Wow. That's nearing 5 MegaHiltons.

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Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

Can't we have a reg unit, maybe a "Tamale"

There already is a reg unit for temperature, the Hilton.

50M℃ ~= 5M°H

That's a lot of Hilton's!

EDIT

Dammit, Adam 1 got in first while I was working out how to insert ℃ and °H symbols!

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Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

"Or I suppose I could do KCal, Ne(w)tons, and Celcius"

Make life easier for yourself, use Joules instead of KCal. And if you're working with steam tables, bare in mind you may well be using Kelvin rather than Celcius, or you might get some rather surprising answers...

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Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

Crikey! I'd forgotten I even had any steam tables!

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WTF?

Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

"They work. It's what I learned back in the 80's."

What school did you go to, Hogwarts?

I went to school in the 70's and we only learned those crazy modern measurements. I only have a rough understanding of olde worlde measurements to convert things for my parents.

I couldn't even tell you how many yards are in a mile, how many something or others are in a pint or what the boiling point of water is in Fahrenheit.

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Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

"Wow. That's nearing 5 MegaHiltons."

@ Adam 1

I think the correct term should be GigaHiltons. Your unit overstates the true value of her diminishing hotness.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

"I still think in BTU's, lb-F, and Farenheit for thermal stuff. And absolute is deg Rankine. They work. It's what I learned back in the 80's. Or I suppose I could do KCal, Neutons, and Celcius. And Kelvin. It's just a conversion, really."

It's Newtons. There -- converted that for you.

(Also, just to be perfectly pedantic about it: it would be Celsius, not Celcius, and it would be KJ, not Kcal or KCal or whatever ...)

I learned this back in the '70s.

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Pint

Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

At least they dropped the decimal point ... the world of precision was so much safer with slide rules ... then came those damn calculators with their fancy 7-segment displays ...

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Trollface

Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

Hn not °H -

https://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/10/28/additional_reg_standards/

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Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

@I3N

Hn not °H -

I concede Hn, however The Reg online standards converter lists it as ° Hilton, not just Hilton.

So one of the pages is an error, NFI which one...

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Pint

Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

@NBCanuck

I think the correct term should be GigaHiltons. Your unit overstates the true value of her diminishing hotness.
Maybe a "diminishing hotness factor" term needs to be added that adjusts the value in real terms, like when referring to money when they adjust for inflation.

5 megahiltons (I), where I indicates adjusting for Inflation.

Therefore when the factor is omitted, it refers to an "ideal" or "classical" Hilton state as opposed to the current "Inflated" Hilton state.

Working out the actual adjustment term would require intensive theoretical research and a lot of practical experimentation, involving lots of beer.

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Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

Imperial units, so many to love!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01p8bs2

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Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

"It's what I learned back in the 80's."

Really? Which 80s? Seriously, the idea that someone could have received a technical education in non-SI units at any point in the last century is pretty sad.

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Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

Bob Is American.

From: https://hbr.org/2009/10/a-metric-of-americas-competiti:

Inevitably, students ask me why Americans continue to use the old system. Most are surprised to learn that even the English have largely given up on it. That’s when I walk us over to the classroom map and ask the group how many nations other than the U.S. still officially use ounces and inches. Guesses are usually in the neighborhood of 10 or 15. When I reveal that the answer is two, they immediately assume that Canada and Australia are the holdouts. The correct answers, though, are Liberia and Myanmar, which we then proceed to find on the map. Perplexed, students cock their heads and ask again, this time with concern, why in the world Americans continue to use the old system.

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Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

Good old fashioned arrogance is the primary reason.

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Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

Even Myanmar is switching to metric now....

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Re: Who still uses farenheight for things like this ?

"The Register has to sadly support our old American neighbours. "

While that statement might make sense for any random person from the U.S., any American who is reading this article will generally be very well acquainted with different temperature and measurement systems. In fact, most of us wish the U.S. would just change so that we wouldn't have to learn every formula in two systems.

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Anonymous Coward

Worse..

if the Chinese can crack it, they'll be in possession of the must-have technology of this century

If the Chinese can crack it they will be absolutely flooded with every possible malware the US can throw at it because that's the one thing that could conceivably nuke the dollar as reserve currency, the main reason they can keep borrowing money without any real worry.

At the moment, countries need dollars for energy purchases, but if the Chinese manage to get fusion going it's pretty much game over for that scam - there is a risk the US economy would collapse.

That said, it's going to take a few more years.

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Re: Worse..

If the Chinese can crack it they will be absolutely flooded with every possible malware the US can throw at it...

Sensationalist clap trap.

China and the USA (and Russia too) are members of the ITER project. China is helping build it, just like everyone else. Even the Iranians are talking of joining in. As member nations, they all have equal access to the intellectual property developed by the project. A lot of the other projects are in support of the joint ITER effort, as is the norm with large, international, collaborative scientific research projects.

ITER is too important to be cocked up by politicians. One can only hope that Trump doesn't decide that America is too important to mix it with the Old Foes.

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