Crosscut.com By John Stang
The local firm says it will soon be able to harness the same mechanism that powers the sun to bring Washington a cleaner energy future.
The glass ampule of water is the length of your little finger, only narrower.
That single gram of deuterium-laced water has the potential to create 18 megawatt-hours of electricity — enough to power a home for at least a year. It normally takes 10 tons of coal to generate that much juice. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen, essentially a hydrogen atom with a neutron added to it.
That dream is a Holy Grail of nuclear physics — fusion power — and researchers at a small Redmond laboratory, Helion Energy, believe they are only a few years away from creating nuclear fusion that can be used as a source for electricity. Several other ventures worldwide believe they are just as close, although everyone is using different approaches.
A fusion reactor will be supposedly smaller, cheaper and safer than the huge fission power reactors that currently dot the world, but so far no one has been able to create nuclear fusion outside of a hydrogen bomb, in which nuclear fission sparks the explosion that leads to fusion. Nuclear fusion occurs naturally in our sun and in the stars.
Gov. Jay Inslee is excited about fusion power, seeing it as a way to create electricity without carbon emissions. Battling carbon emissions has been a top priority of his. A bipartisan legislative task force has been studying expanding nuclear power in Washington. It has focused mostly on small modular reactors — 50- to 300-megawatt fission reactors prefabricated in one spot and assembled where they are needed. That task force has not yet researched fusion power.
So what is fusion power and why is it so difficult to create?
Atomic bombs and nuclear reactors use fission, which splits atoms. Fusion, on the other hand, slams together the cores of two atoms to create the core of one new atom. In today’s fusion efforts, the cores of two hydrogen atoms are crunched to create a new helium atom — with the resulting energy being eyed to create electricity. The physics and engineering of splitting an atom is much simpler than slamming two atoms together to create a new one. Also, a fundamental problem with today’s fusion effort is that it takes more energy to create potential fusion than is generated by the reaction. Fusion won’t be successful until the reaction produces more energy coming out than what went in.
Fusion has existed on the drawing board since the 1920s, but it has been missing the right temperatures, the right atomic cores, the right slamming speeds, the right conditions of the plasmas to envelope the colliding atom cores, the right oscillating magnetic fields enclosing the reaction, the right balance of these forces and other factors in order to work.
“We need high pressures like in the core of the sun. The problem is that those pressures are extraordinarily difficulty to achieve on Earth,” said David Kirtley, Helion’s chief executive officer.
What Helion is trying to achieve is to shoot two plasma balls made of hydrogen atom cores at each other at one million miles per hour to collide within an indescribably strong magnetic field to create a 100 million degree Celsius reaction for a millisecond. All this occurs inside a quartz tube about eight inches in diameter and a little more than 12 feet long, surrounded by a forest of cables that generate a colossal magnetic field.
This fusion reactor prototype is the fourth one built by Helion. In Starbucks-style, the stages of development are named after coffee drink sizes. The third version was dubbed “Tall,” and the current one is “Grande,” which is capable of generating 50 million degrees of heat. The next and final version will be dubbed “Venti,” with a goal of generating the required 100 million degrees of heat to produce fusion. The Venti model is still in the design stage by Helion’s staff of seven full-time and four part-time scientists.