Will Compact Fusion Reactors Generate Our Electricity?
Since 1946, when a patent was granted for a Fusion Reactor, scientists around the world have been collaborating to develop a reactor that will produce fusion energy. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is presently under construction in southern, France at the Cadarache scientific research facility. In 2005, Cadarache, the worlds largest nuclear reactor facility, was selected to be the site for the ITER. Initial operation is now expected during the mid 2020’s with fusion D-T (deuterium and tritium hydrogen isotope fuel) plasmas several years later, ref. 1. When ITER becomes operational it is expected that it will be the first large scale fusion reactor to produce more energy than is used to initiate its fusion reactions.
The Problem with Size
The ITER machine will weigh 23,000 tons. For comparison, the metal contained in the Eiffel Tower weighs 7,300 tons. The ITER building site measures 1.0 kilometer (3,281. ft.) long by 0.4 kilometer (1,312 ft.) wide and compares in size to 60 soccer fields. The building will be 60 meters (197. ft.) high above ground and 13 meters (98 ft.) deep below ground level. The ITER will have taken decades to build, and required international collaboration for funding support. The large machines, including the UK’s Joint European Torus (JET), ref. 2, have consumed a large proportion of the total resources allocated to fusion research, ref. 1.
Recent theoretical analyses, on the power and size of a Tokamak fusion pilot plant and reactor, implies that a small scale fusion reactor may be a real possibility, ref. 1. The tokamak is a plasma control device that uses a magnetic field to hold the plasma in the shape of a taurus, or doughnut shape. The tokamak maintains the reaction by inducing a current inside the plasma itself with a second set of electromagnets. The compact fusion reactor could be available in small units, ideal for rapid and relatively inexpensive development, which would be a huge advantage when compared to the ITER.
Compact Fusion is becoming increasingly popular especially as concern grows over the high cost and long timescales of achieving commercial fusion with the very large machine such as the ITER, ref. 1. Recent innovations and discoveries suggest that the tokomak route may be possible on a much smaller scale than that implied by the JET-ITER family. As a result the Compact Fusion Reactor can be developed rapidly, benefiting from the past 60 years of tokamak research, and offers the opportunity to attract private investment.
1. Sykes, Alan, Tokamak Energy Ltd, UK,”The Search for Compact Fusion Energy” Pub.: American Nuclear Society, Fusion Energy Division, Dec. 2014, Newsletter
2. Linscott, Brad, “Renewable Energy: A Common Sense Energy Plan”, Tate Publishers, 2011.