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Prospects for fusion becoming real?

image credit: NASA
Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold 12823
Director Silverthorn Institute

Roger Arnold is a former software engineer and systems architect. He studied physics, math, and chemistry at Michigan State University's Honors College. After graduation, he worked in...

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  • Jan 14, 2022
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.. or just same old same old?

Most readers here are likely familiar with the quip to the effect that “controlled fusion is the energy source of the future – and always will be.” For the past 60 years, the date by which we can expect the arrival of practical fusion energy, as projected by researchers in the field, has remained at a relatively constant 20 to 30 years in the future from when the projection was made. Given that track record, skepticism about any claims that practical fusion energy may now be “just around the corner” are understandable. And likely correct. “This time is different” isn't a phrase that should ever inspire confidence! Still … 

Sometimes there is a wolf

In July of last year, I posted a link and commented about a PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) feature news article titled Small-scale fusion tackles energy, space applications. The article was primarily about the efforts of a group at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory to develop an alternative to the standard tokamak approach for plasma confinement. Known as the “field-reversed configuration (FRC)”, the approach looked like it might be workable at a much smaller size and lower mass than the tokamak approach. The Princeton group was investigating it specifically for advanced spacecraft propulsion.

Almost as a footnote, the article mentioned that a number of other groups were also looking into FRC-based devices. One of those was Helion Energy, a startup company headquartered in Bellevue, Washington. Around the time that the PNAS article was published, Helion had just announced the attainment of 100 million degree plasma temperatures in their then-current prototype device. That temperature is sufficient to sustain a high yield of fusion in the D-3He   fuel mix that their design employs. Not too long after that – and presumably related – Forbes reported that Helion had announced the close of a $500 million Series E funding round.

After such a major fundraising, I wouldn’t expect a startup to reappear on the news radar right away. They’d be quietly beavering away, working on the next iteration of product development that the funding had enabled. So in November, I was surprised by an article on TechCrunch headlined Helion secures $2.2B to commercialize fusion energy. As it turned out, it wasn’t actually fresh news. The already-large $500M series E funding had included provision for an additional $1.7B, conditional on milestones. Based on the TechCrunch article and more detailed reporting on New Atlas, it would appear that Helion has been progressing on the stipulated milestones.

Prospects for the future?

I must emphasize that I’m not a professional business analyst, and would not be taking a position on Helion Energy as an investment, even if they were publicly traded – which they’re not. I have not interviewed anyone at the company, nor exercised the kind of due diligence that would be essential for an informed assessment of the company’s prospects. That said, Helion’s story makes sense to me from a technical standpoint. I’m now “cautiously optimistic” about what their technology might mean for a clean energy future.

Helion’s approach is unique. It’s a pulsed fusion approach that does not involve the rapid implosion of target pellets a’la Lawrence Livermore’s inertial confinement experiments. It involves magnetic confinement of a super-hot plasma, but the confinement is fleeting (order of milliseconds). No time for plasma instabilities to become a problem. It’s a hybrid between inertial and magnetic confinement schemes which manages to sidestep the most difficult challenges that either of those “mainstream” approaches face. What’s left are relatively straightforward engineering challenges. They’re matters of ultra-precise timing and shaping of intense current pulses. Recent advances in power electronics and fiber optic controls provide the technological foundation for Helion’s approach to (apparently) work.

None of that will make a lot of sense to readers who aren’t already pretty well steeped in fusion device science and the issues I’m alluding to. In fact, I’m sounding to myself a bit like a certain type of con artist, tossing around technical jargon to impress the marks. I hate that. So I think I’ll shut up. But for those interested, Helion’s website has a nifty scroll-through animation that gives a much clearer overview than I can present here of how their device actually operates.

In the immortal words of Arte Johnson (Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in), “very interesting”.
 

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Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jan 14, 2022

Thanks Roger. While skepticism is still in order, the descriptions of recent developments have definitely changed from the «20 to 30 years in the future» that you cite.

I wonder what you make of this from November, 2021:

We're a step closer to limitless Energy. The Korea Institute of Fusion Energy has set a new record by running at one million degrees and maintaining super-hot plasma for 30 seconds, beating its own previous record by 10 seconds, a report by New Atlasreveals.

And this from January of this year:

China’s ‘artificial sun’ hits new high in clean energy boost

  • Research facility in Anhui ran at 70 million degrees Celsius for more than 17 minutes, state media reports
  • The achievement ‘lays a solid scientific and experimental foundation towards the running of a fusion reactor’, scientist in charge says

 

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jan 14, 2022

Thanks for bringing up those cases, Mark. Yes, there's been substantial progress in multiple areas. That's why, in the summary for this article, I wrote that "the fusion energy scene is heating up" -- even though I focused only on Helion in the article.

The developments you cite relate to the duration of hot plasma confinement in Tokamak devices. They are certainly significant. They signal that the barrier that has consumed most of the fusion research community for 60 years may finally have been breached. The key development behind it doesn't appear to be any new scientific insight into plasma physics. It's just advances in the field of large superconducting magnets.

A breakthrough in plasma temperature and confinement time for that class of devices does not imply that commercially viable fusion reactors are immanent. It merely opens the door for starting to work on the really hard engineering issues that will have to be solved before a practical reactor of that class can be fielded.

The engineering issues confronting any "ignite and burn" type of magnetic confinement fusion are very formidable. In my college days, there was a period when I seriously considered getting into fusion research. I took an entry level graduate course in plasma physics, but the more I learned, the more skeptical I became of the approaches that the research community was working on. It wasn't the problem of achieving a theoretically sufficient product of plasma temperature and confinement time that put me off. I (mistakenly) thought that part would be easy. But getting from an experimental device that achieved those conditions in the.plasma to something that could actually produce power looked really difficult. And getting from there to something that would be economically viable looked damn near impossible. I may or may not have been right about that; after almost 60 years we're only just arriving at the point where we can begin to find out.

What has me excited about Helion's approach is that it neatly sidesteps nearly all the issues that made me so skeptical of magnetic confinement approaches. It's not an "ignite and burn" approach that requires extended plasma confinement times. It's analogous to diesel engine using magnetic fields in place of pistons. It compresses a fuel charge, heating it to the point of a fusion ignition. The micro-explosion then drives back the magnetic field, delivering more energy to the power circuits than was needed for the compression.

I don't see any fundamental barriers to scaling the approach to viable commercial levels. That doesn't mean there aren't any, just that I don't see them. In any case, I find it exciting that the company genuinely appears to be into the engineering development phase. The plasma physics behind their approach appears to be a solved problem.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jan 17, 2022

Thanks very much for explaining that Roger! I have a feeling that in 2022 there will be more news of progress.  

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jan 14, 2022

If I am not mistaken the Sun is a huge fusion reaction. I run my home and car on Solar PV from the energy of the sun. I also get hot water from the Sun hot water system I have. I have been doing this for over 20 years. 

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jan 15, 2022

Thank you, Jim. You've make me the winner of a bet I made with myself that just such a comment would be one of the first to post in response to my article.

As it happens, I just had a new roof put on my Silicon Valley home, with solar panels on the south-facing side and a 10.4 kWh storage battery. I also recently installed a 3-room mini-split heating and air conditioning system run from a heat pump, and a level 2 charger for an EV. Oh, the virtue!

I'm looking forward to the monthly savings on my PG&E utility bill. But I'm very much aware that I'm still connected to the grid, and will be drawing. power generated from fossil fuels whenever we have a spell of cloudy weather. I'm also aware that what I've adopted is not a solution for decarbonizing the global economy and stopping global warming / climate change. But that's a matter for upcoming articles.

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