UK news Yahoo Fri, Oct 2, 2015
Fusion reactors could become an economically viable way of generating electricity within decades and replace traditional nuclear power or fossil fuels, scientists have said.
Advances in superconductor technology have led researchers from Durham University and the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire to re-calculate the costs, previously considered too high for commercial power generation.
They have concluded that fusion reactors could generate electricity at a cost similar to a traditional fission plant. The advantage would be that fusion reactors do not create highly radioactive waste.
Professor Damian Hampshire, of the Centre for Material Physics at Durham University, who led the study, said: “Obviously we have had to make assumptions, but what we can say is that our predictions suggest that fusion won’t be vastly more expensive than fission.”
The findings, published in Fusion Engineering and Design, support the idea that fusion reactors could offer almost unlimited power without contributing to global warming or producing large amounts of hazardous waste.
They work by heating plasma to 100 million degrees centigrade so hydrogen atoms fuse together, releasing energy. Fission reactors work by splitting atoms at much lower temperatures.
Fusion reactors are considered safer as there is no high level radioactive material to leak out, meaning disasters like Chernobyl or Fukushima could not happen. Plasma would simply fizzle out if it escaped. Nor do they create weapons grade material as a by-product.
Fusion is fuelled by deuterium, or heavy water, which is extracted from seawater, and tritium, which is created within the reactor, so supply is not limited.
A French test reactor is around a decade away from being operational and Prof Hampshire hoped the latest findings would encourage politicians and the private sector to invest.
He said: “We have known about the possibility of fusion reactors for many years but many people did not believe that they would ever be built because of the technological challenges that have had to be overcome and the uncertain costs.
“While there are still some technological challenges to overcome we have produced a strong argument, supported by the best available data, that fusion power stations could soon be economically viable.
“We hope this kick-starts investment to overcome the remaining technological challenges and speeds up the planning process for the possibility of a fusion-powered world.”
The advances in superconductors mean they could be used to build the powerful magnets needed to keep the hot plasma in position.
If they were built in sections, rather than one piece, they would be cheaper to maintain, which has long been an expensive part of nuclear power.