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Fusion Energy is the future. But the future might be quite a long ways off

Nov 17, 2011

Fusion Energy. It's a concept that sounds so high-tech, so futuristic, that it could've been a topic of dinner-table conversation at the Jetsons' home. (If you're too young to remember who "The Jetsons" are, check YouTube.)

What is fusion energy? In simple layman's terms, fusion energy is the extraction of energy from bonds between particles in the nuclei of atoms, by fusing those nuclei together. Put another way, if you could somehow bottle up the sun, bring it down to Earth, and use that abundant and clean energy supply, you'd have fusion energy.

To gain the most energy, you need light elements and isotopes like hydrogen, deuterium and helium. Fusion sometimes gets confused with fission; fission is where energy is generated by breaking apart heavy nuclei.

The general principle behind fusion is relatively simple. If you can fuse together lightweight atoms, you can create a heavier atom plus lots of energy. The trick becomes that in order for the atoms to fuse together, enough energy needs to be provided to heat atoms into the range of 150 million degrees (Celsius).

So if you accept that using nuclear energy is a possible long-term solution to the issues of global warming and reducing our energy consumption through means of oil and coal and fossil fuel, then what's going on right now in the area of fusion energy is fascinating.

(Photo credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory)

To go along with several other existing labs, each practicing a slightly different form of fusion energy (I'll do my best to explain that in a minute), a new company in Vancouver, B.C. is trying to speed up the process. A man named Michel Laberge and his company, General Fusion, are working on a new form of fusion energy that combines two other forms (Inertial Fusion for Lasers, and Magnetic Fusion).

According to this story first heard on National Public Radio, General Fusion has designed a machine to generate fusion power by smashing together two variants of hydrogen atoms: deuterium, which has one neutron and one proton, and tritium, which has two neutrons and one proton. The result: helium gas (which will get released into the atmosphere) and vast amounts of energy, which will get captured and turned into electricity.

If this works, (and Laberge has raised $30 million) former Los Alamos National Laboratory Fusion Energy Program Manager Richard Siemon told me it could greatly speed up the future of fusion energy.

"This type of approach, if it were successful, can be done much faster," Siemon said in a phone interview. "There could possibly be a breakthrough in 10 years, if enough money is put into this project, and it works."

Of course, there's no guarantee it will work, which is why scientists at places like Los Alamos in New Mexico, and at the Livermore National Laboratory in California are also working on fusion energy.

And unfortunately, when you are working on a project as large and long-range-thinking as fusion energy, it can get frustrating trying to get politicians to give you money.

So if you're Glen Wurden, the Fusion Program Manager and Experimental Plasma Science Team Leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory (can you imagine how long his business card must be with that big title?), you are constantly up against it in the funding area.

Thing is, the way Wurden sees it, the concept of fusion energy being available to help save the planet is a long way off. He suggested to me in a recent interview that "it's a 50-100 year energy solution for the planet, not a 3-5 year solution."

The problem with that, of course, is that it's hard to get funding for long-term projects; as Wurden said, "it's not a highway project or a building." The bigger issue, Wurden says, is that research teams may not be able to stay together long enough for funding to kick in. Scientists have families to feed as well, and it's understandable if they need to move on to other projects.

Still, it's hard not to get excited listening to Wurden explain the process they're using at Los Alamos called Magnetized Target Fusion. Wurden and his team are working with Air Force research lab in nearby Albuquerque.

"We built a plasma injector, and they built a can-crusher, and you put the plasma into that aluminum canister, and then you crush the aluminum can, with the huge current produced by the capacitor bank," Wurden began.

""You put 11 million amps of current, and that produces a big magnetic field on the outside; that crushes the can very smoothly and uniformly.

"We put a magnetic field inside the can, we then inject the plasma from the magnetic field into the can; if the plasma's in there and you do it right; we crush it by a factor of 10."

Wurden then explained how the process works further.

"If you take a can from 10 centimeters in diameter to 1 centimeter of diameter; when you change the area by a factor of 100, the magnetic field in the can gets 100 times stronger than it was. This gives you a magnetic field of 5 million Gauss; and we have that plasma supported by this incredibly large magnetic field.

"We can hold the plasma together for 1/millionth of a second, at this incredible density and incredible temperature; we take the energy of motion in the can.

We've merged the technology of crushing a can, fast and smooth, with the plasma injector we have."

Wurden, who has been working on fusion since 1977, said that the Magnetized Target Fusion approach is something in between the strictly magnetic fields approach, and the inertial compression approach used at the Livermore Lab in California.

How would fusion energy affect us when it comes to energy consumption?

"By using the magnetic insulation, we can deliver energy on a slower time scale than conventional Inertial Fusion; with that we can deliver cheaper energy," Wurden said.

Siemon, who after leaving Los Alamos went on to teach at the University of Nevada-Reno expanded on that idea, explaining how that while fusion energy would still require large plants to make and process the energy, it would be quite different from the large electrical plants now in use.

"First, it would create a very concentrated form of electricity; you'd have big electrical plants, but you wouldn't have any huge concentrations of coal or gallons of oil; you'd bring a thimbleful of energy," Siemon said. "Fusion energy is energy condensed by a million. It would be a source of energy that looks like traditional energy, but you would use a significantly less amount of fuel.

"People who are worried about protecting the environment," Siemon added, "when they start looking into this, they realize this is a much cleaner form of energy than gas and oil."

Indeed, scientists like Siemon and Wurden know that fossil fuels will eventually run out, and in the meantime they are causing global warming. Among the benefits of fusion energy is that fusion reactors can't melt down, and they don't produce significant nuclear waste.

Both Siemon and Wurden expressed some skepticism about Laberge's project in Canada, with Wurden saying that "we're trying to answer 1-2 questions at a time, and they're trying to answer 20 questions at once."

Indeed, it's clear Laberge and his team are trying speed the process up. But if it can move the process along with its research, and equally as important, if it can garner the kind of funding possible from private sources, fusion energy's potential may be closer to us than we think.