In a situation where global warming, climate change and their unexpected fallouts such as the COVID-19 pandemic, have made the need to adopt carbon free sources of power even more urgent, efforts to generate energy from nuclear fusion achieved a breakthrough recently at the state-run Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US where researchers focused 192 giant lasers at the National Ignition Facility to heat a tiny fuel pellet, resulting in the release of 1.3 megajoules of energy in 100 trillionths of a second.
However, although the development of a commercial power reactor based on the nuclear fusion principle is still some distance away in the future, the private sector too has not been far behind on research in this area, using diverse methodologies. Last month, Washington (US)-based Helion Energy announced it has broken ground on a new facility which will house its seventh generation fusion prototype named Polaris. Construction of the plant in Everett, which will also produce Helium-3 fuel, is expected to be completed in 2022.
A Helion release said it is developing a cost-effective, zero-carbon electrical power plant using its pulsed, non-ignition fusion technology. The company said that its fusion power plant will provide “flexible, scalable, baseload power that is affordable, providing the world a new path to full decarbonisation of electricity generation”.
“At this facility, Helion will close in on its goal of breaking the fusion barrier and pushing the world towards the end of the fossil fuel era”, Helion Energy founder and CEO David Kirtley said. “Helion has deep roots in Washington, having spent the last eight-plus years here researching and developing a technology with unparalleled implications for reshaping how the world obtains its energy”, he added.
Helion earlier announced that its sixth fusion generator prototype, known as Trenta, has exceeded 100 million degrees Celsius, the temperature at which a commercial reactor would operate. It also said that Trenta has undergone a 16-month series of reliability and durability tests on key components of the fusion process, giving the company the confidence to go ahead with development of its unique pulsed-fusion, ignition-free device.
According to Helion, the climate change crisis needs a breakthrough and renewables can no longer be the primary source of energy production. As energy needs become more widespread, fusion can provide an abundant and reliable basic energy solution. Nuclear fusion does not produce carbon dioxide or long-lasting radioactive waste, since the fuel required – two types of hydrogen known as deuterium and tritium – is abundant enough to last for thousands of years, and because there is zero chance of meltdown.
Helion also says its approach to fusion energy differs in three major ways from other approaches. Firstly, it uses a pulsed fusion system, which helps overcome the hardest physics challenges, keeps its fusion device smaller than other approaches, and allows it to adjust the power output based on need. Besides, its system is built to directly recover electricity, while other fusion systems heat water to create steam to turn a turbine which loses a lot of energy in the process. Moreover, its technology uses deuterium and helium-3 as fuel, which helps keep its system small and efficient.
The Canada-based General Fusion’s Magnetised Target Fusion (MTF) approach to fusion involves injecting hydrogen plasma into a liquid metal sphere, where it is compressed and heated to set off the fusion reaction. General Fusion plans to demonstrate its MTF technology with its Fusion Demonstration Plant (FDP), to be built at the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s facility at Oxfordshire in the UK. The FDP, expected to begin operations in 2025, would be followed by a commercial pilot plant. The company says it plans to bring commercial fusion energy by the early 2030s.
General Fusion has also announced that it will work with the state-run Canadian Nuclear Laboratories to identify the most promising approaches for managing tritium in fusion energy systems, specifically, the process involving extraction of tritium from liquid metal to provide a limitless supply of tritium fuel.
As per the Fusion Industry Association estimates, more than $2 billion of investment has been poured into fusion startups, while the construction of experimental reactors by these firms is proceeding at a rapid rate.For instance, Commonwealth Fusion Systems has begun building a demonstration reactor in Massachusetts in the US and TAE Technologies has recently raised $280 million to build a fusion device. First Light Fusion and Tokamak Energy are operating from the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s campus near Oxford.
According to General Fusion, its approach of maximising the use of technologies such as pneumatic pistons, and not relying on giant, superconducting magnets like at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) being assembled in France as a joint effort by 35 nations, or expensive lasers like at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US, means a more readily available supply chain, making MTF easier to manufacture and scale than other fusion technologies.