UK centre to shoot for nuclear fusion record

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The director of a UK science facility says scientists there will try to set a new world record in nuclear fusion.

The Jet experiment in Oxfordshire was opened in 1984 to understand fusion – the process that powers the Sun.

Prof Steve Cowley told the BBC a go-ahead to run Jet at maximum power would allow scientists to try for the record by the end of the decade.

This could bring Jet up to the coveted goal of "breakeven" where fusion yields as much energy as it consumes.

Fusion is markedly different from current nuclear power, which operates through splitting atoms – fission – rather than squashing them together as occurs in fusion.

"We're hoping to repeat our world record shots and extend them," Prof Cowley, who is director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy – which hosts Jet, told BBC News.

"Our world record was from 1997, we think we can improve on it quite considerably and get some really spectacular results. We're winding up to that and by the end of the decade we'll be doing it."

Despite its history spanning some five decades, scientists hoping to harness fusion have faced many hurdles. But it remains an attractive prospect because it can yield a near limitless supply of clean energy.

The fusion community hopes their luck could change when the multi-bn-euro Iter fusion experiment comes online in Cadarache, in the south of France, in the 2020s. And officials from Jet, based at Culham, Oxfordshire, are now in the process of signing a contract that will keep the facility running for another five years.

Jet (Joint European Torus) was the prototype for Iter and over its extended lifetime will effectively carry out a dress rehearsal for that much bigger reactor, which will aim to demonstrate the scientific viability of fusion power at scale.

Prof Cowley also hopes to use the additional five years to train up young scientists who could eventually take their expertise to Iter.

During Jet's extended run, scientists will again begin using the deuterium-tritium fuel mix needed for maximum fusion power. Until recently, scientists had been running the experiment using deuterium fuel only. While running the experiment in this mode allows scientists to gather valuable scientific knowledge, both deuterium and tritium will be needed to exceed the record set by the Oxfordshire facility 17 years ago.

"Jet is the only machine in the world that can handle that fuel. When you put tritium in, it reacts like crazy," said Prof Cowley.

Written By: Paul Rincon
continue to source article at bbc.com

13 COMMENTS

      • In reply to #3 by rtfa:

        I’m sure that some smart cookies would have seen the TED talk about it and would have posted some comments about it if it was a fraud. Its a very interesting idea and hopefully it will work.

        The history of fusion research is rife with examples of fraud and claims that were later found to be based on shoddy work. There are examples of such claims that were taken seriously by the scientific community for a while. Michio Kaku had an interesting episode of his science podcast Explorations on this a while back.

        This research probably isn’t like that but it’s worth remembering that IMO whenever you see a claim about some breakthrough in fusion.

          • In reply to #5 by obzen:

            In reply to #4 by Red Dog:

            The history of fusion research is rife with examples of fraud and claims that were…

            Cold fusion, anyone?

            Yes I remember hearing the name. Never read any decent explanation on how it was supposed to work… Hmm, I wonder why…

            In any case, this hammer strike idea seems to make sense. But there are 2 details that make me skeptical.

            1. When you compress a gas, it doesn’t get hotter, it gives off heat because it’s cooling down. The plasma needs to absorb heat to induce fusion. Am I missing something?

            2. In a magnetic bottle, the hot plasma is constrained by the strong magnetic field and never comes in physical contact with the walls of the toroid. Here, since the plasma is contained by liquid metal and thus comes in contact with it, wouldn’t that cause some metal to be vaporized and plasma-fied which would in turn contaminate the hydrogen-deuterium mix with heavy metal nuclei? Wouldn’t that also tend to cool down the plasma?

          • In reply to #6 by NearlyNakedApe:

            Regarding the 2 details that make you sceptical.

            When you compress a gas, it doesn’t get hotter, it gives off heat because it’s cooling down. The plasma needs to absorb heat to induce fusion. Am I missing something?

            When you compress a gas it does get hotter, More precisely you are concentrating energy in a smaller volume. Once it is hot and the surroundings are cool, heat-energy will leak out. (as you said “it gives off heat because it is cooling down” ). -and- The plasma needs to absorb heat .. for heat, read “energy”, which we perceive as heat but remember, heat is just molecules/atoms/nuclei moving very fast. The trick is to concentrate the energy, faster than it can leak away. That way you can/may achieve sufficiently high temperatures to force a fusion reaction, at the climax of the hammer blows.

            In a magnetic bottle, the hot plasma is constrained by the strong magnetic field and never comes in physical contact with the walls of the toroid. Here, since the plasma is contained by liquid metal and thus comes in contact with it, wouldn’t that cause some metal to be vaporized and plasma-field which would in turn contaminate the hydrogen-deuterium mix with heavy metal nuclei? Wouldn’t that also tend to cool down the plasma?

            The hot/contaminated liquid metal is much easier to extract heat (energy) from, and also de-contaminate, being a liquid. As opposed to the permanently fixed internal walls of a torus. (just basic engineering).

          • In reply to #8 by old-toy-boy:

            In reply to #6 by NearlyNakedApe:

            Regarding the 2 details that make you sceptical.

            Thanks for the clarifications old-toy-boy. So it appears that Laberge’s concept is sound then.

            The hot/contaminated liquid metal is much easier to extract heat (energy) from, and also de-contaminate, being a liquid. As opposed to the permanently fixed internal walls of a torus. (just basic engineering).

            I think you misunderstood my question. I’m not worried about the liquid metal getting contaminated with neutrons, I’m worried about the hydrogen-deuterium plasma getting contaminated with the vaporized metal’s heavy nuclei. Wouldn’t this tend to cool down the plasma and make it harder for the hydrogen nuclei to fuse?

  1. It is some future alternative indeed, especially that fossil fuels running out very fast. But the point is that when the big corporations finally smell money on that they will put their dirty hands on it. and for a simple bread-eater there will be not much change in life and difference in energy costs, only for few individuals it will bring massive profits.

    • In reply to #2 by mariano-italiano:

      …especially that fossil fuels running out very fast.

      Wrong. Where are you reading this? We’ve had 40-50 years’ worth of oil reserves on this planet for over 100 years.

      …when the big corporations finally smell money on that they will put their dirty hands on it. and for a simple bread-eater there will be not much change in life and difference in energy costs, only for few individuals it will bring massive profits.

      Partly right. People will want to get their hands on that money. But they will have to compete with all the other money grubbers wanting to do the same. In order to do that, they’ll have to bring their prices down. (All things equal, I buy the cheaper product. Don’t you?) In order to continue to keep their margins from shriveling, they’ll have to cut costs, allowing them to cut prices…a virtuous cycle. Energy is cheapening and is a shrinking part of our overall cost of living because of this effect.

      Also, the environmental advantages of fusion over fossil fuels cannot be exaggerated.

      So turn that frown upside down.

    • In reply to #2 by mariano-italiano:

      It is some future alternative indeed, especially that fossil fuels running out very fast. But the point is that when the big corporations finally smell money on that they will put their dirty hands on it.

      Unfortunately if our leaders had any sense, the fossil fuels would be left in the ground for future use in plastics etc. rather than being burned to destroy the stability of Earth’s climate.

      We should be moving as rapidly as possible to tidal power, wave power, solar thermal and photovoltaic power, wind power, geothermal energy, hydro-electric power, biofuels, and thorium nuclear generation, until fusion generators can be developed.
      We should also be reducing energy wastage with better insulated buildings, more efficient household electrical equipment, heat recovery systems on ventilation and waste water, ground heat storage, and green electric public transport in cities. – All of which could be widely in place if the obstructive carbon-Luddite sponsored deniers in politics had been cleared out of the way.
      All of these technologies (apart from Thorium nuclear) are working somewhere in the world at present.

  2. During Jet’s extended run, scientists will again begin using the deuterium-tritium fuel mix needed for maximum fusion power. Until recently, scientists had been running the experiment using deuterium fuel only.

    Fusion reactions can not only be used for carbon-free electrical generation, but could also eventually power our inter-planetary and inter-stellar plasma rocket engines. Deuterium can be extracted from water, (which is abundant on Earth, and in the Solar-System).

    http://www.space.com/23613-advanced-space-propulsion-vasimr-engine.html

    Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rockets- (Wikipedia) can be powered by solar cells, nuclear fission, or could in future be powered by nuclear fusion.

  3. JET is near me, and a friend works there in a senior role. I really think Europe is on the right track here. If JET ever achieves breakeven that would be brilliant, but that was never what it was intended to do. That is the job of ITER (which should put out at least 10 times more than it sucks in) and which should be running around 2020. The follow-up to ITER, called DEMO, is already in the works and that will be the first truly commercial fusion power station, hopefully this side of 2050.

    I am a little sceptical about what America is doing with trillion-watt lasers etc, when the basic tokomak concept is pretty well proven as the way to go now.

    Although I suppose trillion-watt lasers have some useful military spin-off possibilities….

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