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New fusion reactor design from MIT

Discussion in 'Energy, Environment, and Policy' started by tonybelding, Aug 11, 2015.

  1. tonybelding

    tonybelding Active Member

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    This came across Slashdot today. . .

    A small, modular, efficient fusion plant | MIT News

    The importance of this news is hard to overstate.

    Until now there have been two categories of nuclear fusion research: the mainstream tokamak design embodied in ITER, and the many other "alternative" approaches. ITER represents a project with very thoroughly researched physics that is almost certain to work -- eventually, and at painfully high cost. Some of the alternatives seem potentially very promising, and could be quicker-and-cheaper, but they are are unproven and limping along on shoestring budgets, because all the major governments have put their R&D money into ITER.

    Now we get something that falls in-between. MIT have done this study showing how newly-available superconducting magnets could impact the design of a conventional ITER-like tokamak. They could effectively leapfrog past ITER with a device that uses exactly the same operating principles but is smaller, more efficient, more versatile, much cheaper and quicker to build.

    In technological terms that we'd be familiar with here on TMC, this would be like the leap from lead-acid batteries to lithium-ion!

    I've noticed that nuclear fusion rarely intrudes into discussions about energy policy or the future energy landscape. I've felt for more than ten years that this was an unfortunate blind spot. With this news fusion power should become something that everybody has to factor into their plans.
     
  2. mspohr

    mspohr Active Member

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    This is a graduate student study.
    If it could be build and all of the other problems (neutrons!!) overcome in less than 30 years, it would be good... but... this is a graduate student study. Nothing has been built.
     
  3. physicsfita

    physicsfita Member

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    There's a joke that physicists tell about fusion research: "A commercially viable reactor is just ten years away -- and it always has been!" Sadly, this has been true for the 30 years that I've been following it. I've learned to take these reports with the requisite truckload of salt. I really do hope something pans out in my lifetime, but I'm not betting the farm on it.
     
  4. ecarfan

    ecarfan Well-Known Member

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    I've been following fusion for 50 years. It's not happening any time soon. And in a few decades solar power and batteries will be ubiquitous. Fusion is a waste of time. We already have a perfectly good fusion reactor available to us. It's called the sun. PV cells will become increasingly efficient, and batteries cheaper. Problem solved.
     
  5. nwdiver

    nwdiver Active Member

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    With the precipitous drop in the cost of wind, solar and storage... there's not going to be a lot of room left if these technologies are ever commercially viable.
     
  6. rolosrevenge

    rolosrevenge Dr. EVS

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    Yes, but if we want to be multi-planetary, fusion reactors will be very useful during interstellar travel.
     
  7. tonybelding

    tonybelding Active Member

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    I'm amazed by all the negativity.

    I've heard many variations of the "Fusion power is X years away, and always will be!" The number I used to hear cited most often was 40 years. Everybody's heard the joke, and every skeptic sitting the peanut gallery is quick to trot it out whenever fusion is mentioned, as if nugget of comedic wisdom automatically trumps any and all news of progress. Well... I hate to break it to you guys, but the whole "Fusion power is X years away..." meme is exactly that: a joke. Our future is not defined by humorous witticisms.

    I can't help thinking of all the people who dismissed electric cars because "batteries haven't improved in 100 years", or those who were dead certain solar energy could never be viable due to the cost and still haven't come to grips with the price collapse of solar panels.

    We've got many people looking into many approaches to fusion power. The only thing holding them back is lack of commitment and funding. The only thing seriously funded is ITER, and it's paralyzed by international politics and bureaucracy. Can you imagine if we'd tried to do the Apollo program the way we've done ITER? Today we'd have people joking that, "A moon landing is only 40 years away -- and always will be!"

    However, even mismanagement on this scale can't hold back progress forever. At some point the dam will break, and I think it could be very soon.
     
  8. jaguar36

    jaguar36 Member

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    I think the question is "Wouldn't all the research on fusion be better spent on something else?" Particularly solar, as ecarfan mentioned, the sun is already awesome. If we could get another 10x drop in solar cells and energy storage, the whole nuclear thing goes out the window.

    If a 300W panel cost $30 and a Powerwall cost a grand not only would there be no need for new nuclear power plant designs, but the whole fossil fuel thing would be moot as well. I think thats a much more realistic solution than nuclear fusion.
     
  9. Johan

    Johan Took a TSLA bear test. Came back negative.

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    Agree eith nwdiver: viable fusion will be a niche product due to cheap and ubiquitous renewables.

    Also the reactor described in this thesis (far from production) is less likely to succeed than a Dense Plasma Focus design.
     
  10. deonb

    deonb Active Member

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    Did you actually follow the link to the article? It starts off with:

    "It’s an old joke that many fusion scientists have grown tired of hearing: Practical nuclear fusion power plants are just 30 years away — and always will be."
     
  11. ScepticMatt

    ScepticMatt Member

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    In locations without hydropower/sahara sunshine power, reliable base load energy generation is needed.
    Batteries smooth out generation/demand peaks, but don't help if longer term production capability is insufficient or unavailable.

    That could be biofuels, fusion or whatever.
     
  12. ItsNotAboutTheMoney

    ItsNotAboutTheMoney Active Member

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    Oh look, you live in California.

    You know there are places in the world that need _more_ energy when there's _less_ sun.
     
  13. perkiset

    perkiset ... this one goes to 11

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    I'm a fan of the idea, but completely unconvinced that cheap and effective fusion will occur during my lifetime. But this sort of argument bothers me. Just because solar is only about 1% of efficiency away from really beating the cost/benefit line, doesn't mean we shouldn't be researching all strong potential notions. Research is good - and we have more than enough people to be working on all of it.

    The question, to me is more, "Why are we wasting so much money subsidizing oil companies, ethanol and the like, when it could be far better spent on researching something else?"
     
  14. Johan

    Johan Took a TSLA bear test. Came back negative.

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    ... Hence: a niche product. (I disagree that Sahara levels of sunshine is required for solar to cover the energy needs, if coupled with proper storage). I believe personally that 75-80% of the world's population can have their energy needs covered by solar in the future. The rest live in areas where wind can likely contribute a lot, in many places hydro, then you're left with some 5-10% (?) or less that needs to be non-directly renewable, like fission or fusion, or biofuels.
     
  15. jaguar36

    jaguar36 Member

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    Isn't this the same thing? Ethanol could theoretically work out very well, if they can figure out a way to use waste products like corn husks to generate it.

    While we may have plenty of people, the people who are really qualified to make significant research advancements are few. There is also a very limited amount of money to be spent on energy research.
     
  16. perkiset

    perkiset ... this one goes to 11

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    Given the grand context of food and water, I don't believe it's sustainable. And ICEs, irrespective of fuel, are still vaporizing SOMETHING and putting the waste product into the atmosphere.

    But on the larger point of your post, I essentially agree as well - there are only so many qualified people and so much money.

    Which is why we need to be producing more qualified people and sending more money in this direction.
     
  17. tonybelding

    tonybelding Active Member

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    Oh gawd no! No, it would not be better spent on *anything* else (to say nothing of all the worthless crap we actually spend mind-boggling sums on). I can't think of anything that could have greater potential benefit to the world than practical, efficient, nuclear fusion power. Power is the major constraining factor on our civilization. Plentiful and inexpensive power would have a cascade effect that would enable a lot of other vexing problems to be solved as well.


    Solar is already doing well. It's economically viable, it's progressing nicely. It doesn't need a big push of support for research. As for a 10X drop in the cost of cells and storage. . . Wow! Don't ask for much, do you? The price of solar has already dropped greatly, and it's not clear how much more cost efficiency can be squeezed out. Yet, even after that, solar is only now started to reach parity with some fossil fuels in some places. And then there's the question of whether battery storage can be scaled up to the massive requirements of the whole electrical grid.


    I think it's easier to predict that nuclear fusion would drastically undercut all other forms of power generation.

    - - - Updated - - -

    I've been following fusion for 40 years. It's happening soon. (I can't really prove that, but I don't think you have a crystal ball either.)

    Solar isn't a magic wand. It has costs and limitations, just like any other power source. If fusion is cheaper and more versatile, then it will displace solar.

    However. . . Honestly, I think it's kind of stupid to pit solar and nuclear fusion against one another. Of all the possible replacements for fossil fuels, the only ones that seem to be truly scalable enough to fill our global energy are nuclear (fission or fusion) and solar. (And maybe possibly geothermal, though that's not really proven.) Solar and fusion have very different profiles, and will almost certainly prove to be complimentary technologies rather than head-to-head rivals.
     
  18. jaguar36

    jaguar36 Member

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    I think for the same cost of the research required to make a grid sized fusion reactor would produce an order of magnitude drop in solar cost. I also think that there is a much, much greater possibility that we can develop a grid size energy storage solution than a commercially viable nuclear fusion reactor.

    Now don't get me wrong, I love the idea of nuclear fusion, I just don't think its coming any time soon, whereas as you mention Solar is already well on its way. I think Solar is the solution for meeting our current energy needs, fusion however could enable all sorts of other crazy ideas that use a ton more power than we can reasonably produce today.
     
  19. ItsNotAboutTheMoney

    ItsNotAboutTheMoney Active Member

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    Ethanol could handle a not-insignificant amount of fuel needs just with sustainable agricultural practices. In fact, I'm hoping it does. Not just for moving some vehicles, but for use in ethanol heaters in BEVs.
     
  20. Ludus

    Ludus Member

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    One connection to this forum is that the ARC reactor in the Marvel universe is a power source invented by Tony Stark.
     

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