Fusion technology breakthrough could herald demise of coal

Nation (Thailand) John Draper
Special to The Nation April 20, 2016 1:00 am

A major breakthrough in fusion technology was last week confirmed by a Freedom of Information Act request made by the emerging technologies website nextbigfuture.com. Previously confidential US Navy technical review reports of the progress of the US-based company EMC2 in 2012 and 2013, now publicly available, indicate one of the most significant advances made in plasma physics and magnetic fusion. The reports released confirm public claims made by the company in 2014 and 2015 that it may be able to construct a net energy gain prototype reactor by the end of 2019. EMC2 is presently seeking US$30 million in commercial funding and is understood to be in negotiations with institutions in one or more Asean countries.

Fusion is a safe form of nuclear power as it does not employ highly radioactive uranium or plutonium as in nuclear fission. Instead, it involves the same process which powers our sun – the fusing of atoms together. The radiation involved is comparable to that used in the medical field, while the relatively cheap cost of the materials involved means that net energy gain fusion holds out the economic feasibility of a complete restructuring of the planet’s energy sources.

Fusion involves low radiation, for example in a deuterium-tritium (both isotopes of hydrogen) mix, where the main by-product is helium, as used in balloons, and neutrons. After a deuterium-tritium reaction, a person could enter the reaction chamber, the main effect being that their voice would sound high-pitched However, a very low radiation or “aneutronic” fusion also exists, a proton – Boron 11 (p-B11) reaction. In both cases, the level of radiation shielding is comparable to that used in a hospital, for example lead shielding for securing medical isotopes or for protecting staff against X-rays.

EMC2 is one of world’s oldest fusion technology companies, founded in 1985, with other leading researchers including Canada’s General Fusion and the US-based Tri Alpha Energy. EMC2’s technology, “inertial electrostatic confinement”, also called polywell, dates back to the 1950s and is remarkably simple. It involves trapping a superheated gas, called plasma, in a magnetic cage, typically in the form of a cube. This “virtual cathode” is a development on the original metal grid cage used in the most basic demonstrator of fusion reactions, the Farnsworth-Hirsch fusor, which can be found in a typical plasma physics laboratory. EMC2’s polywell employs high pressure and strong magnetic fields, using conventional but powerful electro-magnets.

EMC2’s breakthrough is the creation of the “wiffleball” state, in which plasma in the polywell does not leak through the edges, corners, or centres of the magnets. Instead, high levels of energy are achieved within the centre of the polywell, with the plasma becoming magnetic. It then pushes back against the magnetic fields, sealing the holes and allowing for efficiency of plasma density over 100 times previous recorded levels.

EMC2 reported this breakthrough to the academic community in a pre-print article on Cornell University Library’s Arxiv website in June 2014, and the company publicised the results over the next year, including a presentation in January 2015 at Microsoft Research. However, the recently declassified US Navy reports provide concrete, independent evidence of this remarkable achievement. The US Navy’s review committee was composed of six senior nuclear physicists and chaired by one of the grandfathers of fusion, Dr Robert L Hirsch.

The 2013 report describes “dramatic” progress and confirms the results are unequivocally real. The report states, “EMC2 has had outstanding success in recent months in demonstrating a key feasibility issue for the wiffleball fusion concept, namely the enhancement of injected electron confinement in a wiffleball magnetic geometry. The enhancement is roughly a factor of 100 better than would be expected in a conventional cusp magnetic field geometry, the standard against which their results must be measured.” The report also mentions EMC2 were extremely careful to ensure there were no extraneous effects, and they were able to repeatedly replicate the results.

The independent US Navy scientific review committee consequently described the wiffleball as extremely robust and noted, “The committee believes that EMC2 has successfully addressed a critical issue in the feasibility of aneutronic fusion, namely the enhancement of energetic electron confinement in a wiffleball magnetic geometry by more than a factor of 100 over conventional cusp geometry.”

The reference to the wiffleball facilitating aneutronic fusion means the technology could realistically use the ultra-low radiation p-B11 reaction, which would entail minimal risks. This in turn would mean a net energy gain, the ultimate goal of fusion research. A commercial polywell fusion reactor could either be slotted into a conventional steam-turbine power plant or into a more advanced, direct energy for electricity plant, as with solar photovoltaic panels.

In achieving the wiffleball state, the committee confirmed that “recent progress in the establishment of wiffleball confinement is likely one of the most significant advances made in plasma physics and magnetic fusion over the past 50 years”. EMC2 is now approximately three years away from building a net energy gain prototype, which would then lead to the commercial plant within a decade. An initial commercial plant would likely be built in a first world country in order to establish safety protocols and guidelines for what will be a completely novel, zero-emissions energy source.

Commercial fusion power plants would then spread globally, with potentially hundreds of power plants beginning construction by 2030. Nuclear fusion would be very cheap and would replace most fission plants. Crucially, it would also herald the beginning of the end of our use of fossil fuels, first replacing all coal and oil-fired plants, then natural gas powered facilities.

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, fusion could even outperform hydro-electricity due to the fact that dam reservoirs release methane from trapped vegetation, and from the very beginning it would compete with solar. As such, major changes in energy sources in Asean are recognised by the International Energy Agency as necessary to avoid global climate change. The development of fusion by leading Asean countries would help mitigate the detrimental effects of rising sea levels and drought, which threaten the region.