November 19, 2015

FASTER, PLEASE: Three Alternative Fusion Projects That Are Making Progress.

The past few months have proved that hope for nuclear fusion as the ultimate clean and nonpolluting energy source springs eternal. One reactor plan projects a tantalizing gigawatts-per-year net energy out of its still-on-the-drawing-board idea. Another scheme uses the same reaction as the first but seeks smaller-scale reactors. A third uses the familiar “heavy hydrogen” reactions of decades past—deuterium and ­tritium hydrogen isotopes combining to create helium, neutrons, and energy—but relies on possibly transformative design changes enabled by using the latest superconducting magnets.

To be clear, unexpected errors or oversights could still ground one or all of these efforts. But when so much of the research world is depending on the overdue and overbudget US $20 billion ITER project, each of these efforts counteracts the monoculture mind-set in fusion research that has been the subject of some industry questioning and criticism.

“There’s inertia in having the established magnetic [fusion reactors], and it’s a mature technology that’s being used,” says Dennis Whyte, director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. “But the new superconducting technology has improved over even the last three to four years. Even since we started the project, the capability of the technology has improved.”

I’d certainly like to see a success here.

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