Saturday, October 02, 2021

How close is nuclear fusion power?

[This is a transcript of the video embedded below. Some of the explanations may not make sense without the animations in the video.]



Today I want to talk about nuclear fusion. I’ve been struggling with this video for some while. This is because I am really supportive of nuclear fusion, research and development. However, the potential benefits of current research on nuclear fusion have been incorrectly communicated for a long time. Scientists are confusing the public and policy makers in a way that makes their research appear more promising than it really is. And that’s what we’ll talk about today.

There is a lot to say about nuclear fusion, but today I want to focus on its most important aspect, how much energy goes into a fusion reactor, and how much comes out. Scientists quantify this with the energy gain, that’s the ratio of what comes out over what goes in and is usually denoted Q. If the energy gain is larger than 1 you create net energy. The point where Q reaches 1 is called “Break Even”.

The record for energy gain was just recently broken. You may have seen the headlines. An experiment at the National Ignition Facility in the United States reported they’d managed to get out seventy percent of the energy they put in, so a Q of 0.7. The previous record was 0.67. It was set in nineteen ninety-seven by the Joint European Torus, JET for short.

The most prominent fusion experiment that’s currently being built is ITER. You will find plenty of articles repeating that ITER, when completed, will produce ten times as much energy as goes in, so a Gain of 10. Here is an example from a 2019 article in the Guardian by Phillip Ball who writes
“[The Iter project] hopes to conduct its first experimental runs in 2025, and eventually to produce 500 megawatts (MW) of power – 10 times as much as is needed to operate it.”

Here is another example from Science Magazine where you can read “[ITER] is predicted to produce at least 500 megawatts of power from a 50 megawatt input.”

So this looks like we’re close to actually creating energy from fusion right? No, wrong.

Remember that nuclear fusion is the process by which the sun creates power. The sun forces nuclei into each other with the gravitational force created by its huge mass. We can’t do this on earth so we have to find some other way. The currently most widely used technology for nuclear fusion is heating the fuel in strong magnetic fields until it becomes a plasma. The temperature that must be reached is about 150 million Kelvin. The other popular option is shooting at a fuel pellet with lasers. There are some other methods but they haven’t gotten very far in research and development.

The confusion which you find in pretty much all popular science writing about nuclear fusion is that the energy gain which they quote is that for the energy that goes into the plasma and comes out of the plasma.

In the technical literature, this quantity is normally not just called Q but more specifically Q-plasma. This is not the ratio of the entire energy that comes out of the fusion reactor over that which goes into the reactor, which we can call Q-total. If you want to build a power plant, and that’s what we’re after in the end, it’s the Q-total that matters, not the Q-plasma. 

 Here’s the problem. Fusion reactors take a lot of energy to run, and most of that energy never goes into the plasma. If you keep the plasma confined with a magnetic field in a vacuum, you need to run giant magnets and cool them and maintain that. And pumping a laser isn’t energy efficient either. These energies never appear in the energy gain that is normally quoted.

The Q-plasma also doesn’t take into account that if you want to operate a power plant, the heat that is created by the plasma would still have to be converted into electric energy, and that can only be done with a limited efficiency, optimistically maybe fifty percent. As a consequence, the Q total is much lower than the Q plasma.

If you didn’t know this, you’re not alone. I didn’t know this until a few years ago either. How can such a confusion even happen? I mean, this isn’t rocket science. The total energy that goes into the reactor is more than the energy that goes into the plasma. And yet, science writers and journalists constantly get this wrong. They get the most basic fact wrong on a matter that affects tens of billions of research funding.

It’s not like we are the first to point out that this is a problem. I want to read you some words from a 1988 report from the European Parliament, more specifically from the Committee for Scientific and Technological Options Assessment. They were tasked with establishing criteria for the assessment of European fusion research.

In 1988, they already warned explicitly of this very misunderstanding.
“The use of the term `Break-even’ as defining the present programme to achieve an energy balance in the Hydrogen-Deuterium plasma reaction is open to misunderstanding. IN OUR VIEW 'BREAK-EVEN' SHOULD BE USED AS DESCRIPTIVE OF THE STAGE WHEN THERE IS AN ENERGY BREAKEVEN IN THE SYSTEM AS A WHOLE. IT IS THIS ACHIEVEMENT WHICH WILL OPEN THE WAY FOR FUSION POWER TO BE USED FOR ELECTRICITY GENERATION.”
They then point out the risk:
“In our view the correct scientific criterion must dominate the programme from the earliest stages. The danger of not doing this could be that the entire programme is dedicated to pursuing performance parameters which are simply not relevant to the eventual goal. The result of doing this could, in the very worst scenario be the enormous waste of resources on a program that is simply not scientifically feasible.”
So where are we today? Well, we’re spending lots of money on increasing Q-plasma instead of increasing the relevant quantity Q-total. How big is the difference? Let us look at ITER as an example.

You have seen in the earlier quotes about ITER that the energy input is normally said to be 50 MegaWatts. But according to the head of the Electrical Engineering Division of the ITER Project, Ivone Benfatto, ITER will consume about 440 MegaWatts while it produces fusion power. That gives us an estimate for the total energy that goes in.

Though that is misleading already because 120 of those 440 MegaWatts are consumed whether or not there’s any plasma in the reactor, so using this number assumes the thing would be running permanently. But okay, let’s leave this aside.

The plan is that ITER will generate 500 MegaWatts of fusion power in heat. If we assume a 50% efficiency for converting this heat into electricity, ITER will produce about 250 MegaWatts of electric power.

That gives us a Q total of about 0.57. That’s less than a tenth of the normally stated Q plasma of 10. Even optimistically, ITER will still consume roughly twice the power it generates. What’s with the earlier claim of a Q of 0.67 for the JET experiment? Same thing. 

If you look at the total energy, JET consumed more than 700 MegaWatts of electricity to get its sixteen MegaWatts of fusion power, that’s heat not electric. So if you again assume 50 percent efficiency in the heat to electricity conversion you get a Q-total of about 0.01 and not the claimed 0.67. 

 And those recent headlines about the NIF success? Same thing again. It’s the Q-plasma that is 0.7. That’s calculated with the energy that the laser delivers to the plasma. But how much energy do you need to fire the laser? I don’t know for sure, but NIF is a fairly old facility, so a rough estimate would be 100 times as much. If they’d upgrade their lasers, maybe 10 times as much. Either way, the Q-total of this experiment is almost certainly well below 0.1. 

Of course the people who work on this know the distinction perfectly well. But I can’t shake the impression they quite like the confusion between the two Qs. Here is for example a quote from Holtkamp who at the time was the project construction leader of ITER. He said in an interview in 2006:
“ITER will be the first fusion reactor to create more energy than it uses. Scientists measure this in terms of a simple factor—they call it Q. If ITER meets all the scientific objectives, it will create 10 times more energy than it is supplied with.”
Here is Nick Walkden from JET in a TED talk referring to ITER “ITER will produce ten times the power out from fusion energy than we put into the machine.” and “Now JET holds the record for fusion power. In 1997 it got 67 percent of the power out that we put in. Not 1 not 10 but still getting close.”

But okay, you may say, no one expects accuracy in a TED talk. Then listen to ITER Director General Dr. Bigot speaking to the House of Representatives in April 2016:

[Rep]: I look forward to learning more about the progress that ITER has made under Doctor Bigot’s leadership to address previously identified management deficiencies and to establish a more reliable path forward for the project.

[Bigot]:Okay, so ITER will have delivered in that full demonstration that we could have okay 500 Megawatt coming out of the 50 Megawatt we will put in.
What are we to make of all this?

Nuclear fusion power is a worthy research project. It could have a huge payoff for the future of our civilization. But we need to be smart about just what research to invest into because we have limited resources. For this, it is super important that we focus on the relevant question: Will it output energy into the grid. 

There seem to be a lot of people in fusion research who want you to remain confused about just what the total energy gain is. I only recently read a new book about nuclear fusion “The Star Builders” which does the same thing again (review here). Only briefly mentions the total energy gain, and never gives you a number. This misinformation has to stop. 

If you come across any popular science article or interview or video that does not clearly spell out what the total energy gain is, please call them out on it. Thanks for watching, see you next week.

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