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Distant Nuclear Fusion

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John Benson's picture
Senior Consultant, Microgrid Labs

PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCE: Microgrid Labs, Inc. Advisor: 2014 to Present Developed product plans, conceptual and preliminary designs for projects, performed industry surveys and developed...

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  • Jan 12, 2021

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There are currently two experiments that are designed to reach “break-even” fusion within the next several years, but this means that the experiment will inject as much energy into the inner, or core process as comes out in the form of high energy neutrons. Forget any energy-conversion efficiencies outside of the core – no electric energy will come out of these initial facilities in spite of huge amounts going in.

One of these two projects, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is in Saint-Paul-lez-Durance, France. The other, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) is here in my home town of Livermore, California.

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This post is a brief review of the former and a more thorough review of the latter, including its distant past and distant future.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 12, 2021

Great to see the funding of important potential moonshots that could really change the game-- that's why these government programs exist!

John Benson's picture
John Benson on Jan 12, 2021

Thanks for the comment, Matt.

Doing good basic science could result in all types of future products, and not just in the far distant future. 


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 12, 2021

John, FYI on November 1 net energy production was achieved at NIF. From a colleague:

"The November 1 shot yielded 99 kJ of energy, a new record.  Preliminary analysis puts its q-alpha at 1.2, which would make it a burning plasma."

John Benson's picture
John Benson on Jan 13, 2021

Hi Bob, thanks for the information.

The most impressive thing to me is LIFE - they have started to develop a viable path to commercialization, including looking at the economics. 


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 13, 2021

NIF is an amazing facility. 192 lasers can deliver .6 kWh of energy to a target the size of a pencil eraser.

".6 kilowatthours?', one might say. "I pay PG&E 12¢ for that much energy. How much are taxpayers paying for this blasted thing?!".

But it's not how much energy they deliver that's important, it's how fast they do it. The pulse, lasting one billionth of a second, requires 2.15 petawatts of power (2,150,000,000,000,000 watts) - roughly 3 times the ouput capacity of all nuclear plants in the U.S. combined.

Though NIF's research is more applicable to design of thermonuclear weapons today, it all adds to the collective pool of research driving fusion energy research forward. The hard part is containment - sustaining a tiny reaction hotter than the surface of the sun for more than a billionth of a second.

John Benson's picture
John Benson on Jan 14, 2021

The date that LLNL suggested for their first commercial design (LIFE Gen 3 design) is 2040, and I believe this is realistic, assuming they continue to get the funding they need. Although the LIFE Projects have less interest for DOD (and their deep projects) hopefully the overall project (LIFE, NIF and Weapons Stewardship/development) will benefit from more cost-effective processes, and thus DOD will partner with DOE to support LIFE.


Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Jan 26, 2021

John, it seems like nuclear is left off most Clean Energy agendas.  Do you think this new technology could help pave the way into bringing nuclear back into the fold? 

John Benson's picture
John Benson on Jan 26, 2021

Yes, but around 2040.

LLNL has made remarkable progress to date. Its key advantage over fusion is that it has very low nuclear waste. Also, assuming a D-T reaction, deuterium is quite abundant, and a fusion reactor breeds its on tritium (from lithium). 

There are also market niches where solar and wind have problems competing (like in the far north). Starting commercialization here will allow them the technology to drive down costs further, and perhaps move closer to the mainstream.

Regarding fission, NuScale continues to make progress on several fronts (maybe a future post). It also looks like it can occupy several niches in the short term.


John Benson's picture
John Benson on Dec 13, 2022

Note the article linked below, where Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF) produced a theoretical net energy gain. By "theoretical" I mean that this does not include the inefficiencies of (for instance) the lasers or any other system in the process, just light-energy-in verses neutron-energy-out. However this is still a major achievement.

NIF is described in detail in Section 3 of this paper. I also describe the next step planned after NIF - to build a fully functional fusion power reactor.


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 13, 2022

Thanks for sharing, John! There are a lot of headlines about the fusion that are going to cause excitement, but it also seems we need to temper the expectations for what this means. The best way I've seen it described is that this breakthrough was huge news for the physicists, but the energy professionals should still keep a long-term view that the breakthrough still leaves us probably decades from commercialization. A critical step, but still more work to be done than not!

John Benson's picture
John Benson on Dec 14, 2022

Hi Matt:

I posted the update to this paper that I told you about this morning less than an hour ago.


John Benson's picture
Thank John for the Post!
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