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Breakthrough in Fusion Research Brings New Nuclear Power Source Closer

04/01/2014 03:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2014

Nuclear fusion has similarities to conventionally produced nuclear power in that it produces zero carbon electric power, but its big advantage over fission nuclear power is that it generates no nuclear waste, the bane of fission nuclear power plants. Recent research breakthroughs are bringing closer the day that power generation from fusion reactors will become a reality.

While research to develop commercially viable nuclear fusion has been underway for decades, advances have been slow due to the immense technological complexities involved and modest funding. That said, recent technological breakthroughs may hasten progress.

On March 19, the University of Michigan announced that a team of University of Michigan and Princeton researchers has uncovered a new kind of magnetic behavior that could help make nuclear fusion reactions easier to start. Designers of inertial fusion ignition systems may be able to use this newly discovered feature to place the laser spots so that they heat the target fuel cylinder more quickly and efficiently.

Assistant Professor of nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, Alexander Thomas, said:

Essentially, what we found is a completely new magnetic reconnection mechanism. Though we're studying it in an inertial confinement fusion process, it might be relevant to the surface of the sun and magnetic confinement fusion.

The research breakthroughs could help overcome fusion's major problem, how to design a fusion reactor that consumes less energy than is needed to power it. In Britain at the Culham Center for Fusion Energy Professor Steve Cowley claims that ongoing progress brings the day of sustainable fusion power ever closer, commenting: "I'm always asked, how can we put the sun in a bottle? But I already did that in the Joint European Torus. Until now, power output was small. People forget how important it was. ...You could say that the Wright brothers' flight did not matter, just because they flew about 30 feet."

Cowley was referring to the Joint European Torus experiment in 1997, when nuclear fusion briefly generated 16 megawatts of power.

In earlier research in 1994, the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory generated 10.7 million watts of power for a brief moment, with research generating plasma temperatures of 510 million degrees centigrade, the highest ever produced in a laboratory, and well beyond the 100 million degrees required for commercial fusion. Three years later, the Joint European Torus in England exceeded the PPPL's power generation at 16 million watts, but these outputs were not sustainable.

Francesco Romanelli, leader of the team of scientists operating the JET noted during an interview, "By the end of the century, 30 percent of global energy could be generated by nuclear fusion. I hope that by 2040 we will start to see fusion power injecting electricity into the grid."

The question of who might dominate this incipient energy source is unclear at present, but many Asian countries, including China, India, Japan and South Korea have expressed interest and could be countries that come to dominate the industry, should they finance breakthrough technologies leading to patents as the U.S. and the EU focus on small wind and solar energies. In a prime example of EU priorities, by 2011, the EU had already invested $110 billion annually in alternative energy sources while allocating only $400 million for ITER, an international nuclear fusion research and engineering project, which is currently building the world's largest experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor adjacent to the Cadarache facility in southern France.

With such funding priorities, the 21st century might be remembered for Asia dominating a clean energy source in the greatest technological advance since the era of oil began.

By John Daly of Oilprice.com

John C.K Daly is the chief analyst at the energy news site Oilprice.com. Dr. Daly received his Ph.D. in 1986 from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.

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