Opening futures with fusion energy

Eurofusion Alessandro Arlandini | October 19th 2016

EUROfusion aims to develop a reliable power source which can be used to produce energy from nuclear fusion. All efforts are concentrated on making the technology feasible for large-scale, economic electricity production. How can we really benefit from nuclear fusion and what are its advantages over other sources of energy?

From the lab to the plant

The fusion market penetration depends on three major factors which determine the energetic scenario. The figure varies between 42 percent in the best case and 1 percent in the worst case scenario. Graphic: EUROfusion/Arlandini

The potential of fusion power is worth researching a future market penetration.The nuclear fusion reaction itself is highly efficient, for instance, ITER’s power production will be ten times the power required to heat the plasma. As far as plants are concerned, we are interested in the overall plant efficiency (that is the output of electrical power divided by the fusion power), because the produced energy will also be used to operate the plant systems. DEMO will target about 25 percent efficiency, but future fusion plants would reach 30 to 40 percent. Further improvements are linked to the use of new materials or designs, both of which we expect to see in the upcoming years.

Secondly, fusion energy is suitable for supplying huge base loads. The first demonstrational fusion power plant, DEMO, targets 500 MW of net electrical output, whereas actual fusion power plants would target at least 1-1.5 GW of electrical output, a value similar to those reached by fossil fuel power plants. The basic fuel resources, deuterium (extracted from water) and lithium (used to breed tritium), are sufficient to ensure many centuries of global electricity supply. Even if the technology must overcome some testing, it appears that we will be able to scale it to meet our needs. Lastly, nuclear power plants do not emit greenhouse gases. Therefore, nuclear energy is going to be a key ingredient in decarbonising energy supplies.

Fusion energy devices, now and then

EUROfusion is involved in several major projects working towards fusion energy. The central devices on the road towards fusion electricity are:

  • JET (Joint European Torus) and ITER; nuclear fusion devices which scientists and engineers use as prototypes. JET is due to be shut down after 2018 and ITER will be inaugurated in 2025.
  • DEMO (Demonstration Fusion Power Reactor) which will be the first fully-equipped fusion device supplying energy to the grid.

Into the grid

In order to expand, nuclear fusion must also be competitive on the energy market. The advantages must then be balanced with the cost of electricity (CoE). It is possible that power plants are unattractive prospects for investors. In general, the larger the machine the lower the CoE, as Dr Richard Kembleton, Fusion System Modeller at EUROfusion’s British Research Unit CCFE (Culham Centre for Fusion Energy), home of JET, explains:

A larger reactor can either target a higher fusion power due to better energy confinement, or the same fusion power which results in lower loads on the components as the power is spread across a larger area. The second option results in longer component lifetimes and therefore a lower maintenance overhead. All these effects contribute to lowering the cost of electricity, which is the critical factor in determining how competitive fusion can be.

On the downside, greater capital investments are needed to build larger reactors to the tune of ten billion euros and more. Private investors may be discouraged and governments may face opposition from the public due to the price tag, even though the actual CoE would be low, as is the case for fission plants. This issue can be tackled through cooperation and joint ventures, as EUROfusion, the most promising European-driven work on fusion energy, shows.

Furthermore, when it comes to supplying energy to the whole community, it is the total amount of energy that matters. Western European countries require on average something in the order of 13 GW, a power level that can be supplied by 8 to 13 fusion plants, but building them takes time and money. For this reason, we should regard fusion as one option among a mix of different sources of energy.

Future scenarios

Fusion energy is going to be an essential source of energy in the future. Its availability changes the possible energetic scenarios dramatically. In conjunction with nuclear fission, it can supply huge base loads with a low CoE, so that the remaining needs can be met with intermittent and peaking sources. Simulations show how the market penetration varies greatly depending on several factors such as the environmental responsibility or the material costs, as shown in the information chart. A realistic scenario suggests it will reach about 13 percent by 2100. In this fashion, EUROfusion is providing new opportunities to the community, working hard with national research units and industry to develop fusion technologies.