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The World Is One Step Closer To Commercial Nuclear Fusion

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is the largest nuclear fusion experiment in the world. The megaproject is a collaborative effort funded and run by seven members: the European Union, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, with the United Kingdom and Switzerland participating through The European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), a massive lineup of members which altogether represents 35 countries, half the citizens in the world, and a whopping 85% of global GDP. The project, which involves a massive-scale tokamak that began construction last year, spans 42 hectares in Saint Paul-lez-Durance, southern France--approximately the size of 60 soccer fields. 

This gargantuan megaproject has been considered as one of humanity’s best shots at achieving commercializable nuclear fusion. While nuclear fusion has been achieved before, it has always consumed considerably more energy than it produces. Fusing atoms, the process that fuels our sun, is many times more powerful than splitting atoms--the process currently used in nuclear power production. What’s more, nuclear fusion can be achieved without emitting any greenhouse gases or using any radioactive nuclear fuel, a process which creates hazardous waste that can threaten human health for millennia--not to mention put a huge financial strain on the taxpayers who are funding its maintenance

For these reasons, nuclear fusion has been considered as the holy grail of clean energy. And, much like the holy grail itself, commercial nuclear fusion has proven to be as unattainable as it is tantalizing. Projects like ITER have poured tens of billions of dollars into the potentially world-altering technology, but so far creating net energy has proven elusive--until now.

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And the guys who just showed that their nuclear fusion model can achieve net electricity are about as antithetical to ITER as you can get. Their breakthrough shows that the key to nuclear fusion may not lie in massive megaprojects, but in a much, much smaller package. Researchers at San Diego, California’s General Atomics DIII-D National Fusion Facility have just published a paper in Nuclear Fusion that shows that their new “compact nuclear fusion plant” concept can achieve 200 megawatts (MW) of net electricity after the energy cost of the fusion process through the use of relatively tiny, self-sustaining tokamaks powered by pressurized plasma. 

The pressurized plasma component is key. Achieving a high density of plasma “means more energy bang for your buck, reducing the footprint of the tokamak reactor itself as well as increasing its relative energy output,” Popular Mechanics reported this week. In the scientists’ own words, “this physics-based approach leads to new insights and understanding of reactor optimization. In particular, the levering role of high plasma density is identified, which raises fusion performance and self-driven ‘bootstrap currents’, to reduce current drive demands and enable high pressure with net electricity at a compact scale.”

If all goes according to plan, DIII-D, the largest nuclear fusion research facility in the U.S., would be the very first fusion power plant in history to create more energy through fusion than was consumed in the fusion process itself. It’s hard to overstate how important this breakthrough would be, and what a giant leap forward it represents. Currently, the best ratio of energy production achieved by any extant nuclear fusion plant is just 67% of the amount of energy consumed. 

While we’re closer to commercial nuclear fusion than ever, however, we still have a long way to go. The DIII-D model, while extremely promising, is highly theoretical. It is not a blueprint, but a road map for future research and modelling. “While a traditional tokamak reactor that produces net power is still at least 9 to 14 years away, a pressurized tokamak is almost definitely even further out,” Popular Mechanics reports. Until then, it’s hard to say which form of nuclear fusion will be the most effective, and which project will reign supreme. But regardless of who wins the nuclear fusion race, in a scenario with commercial, scalable, and potentially infinite clean energy, we’re all winners. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com 

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