Center for Strategic Assessment and forecasts

Autonomous non-profit organization

Home / Politics and Geopolitics / The future of Russia and the world: estimates and projections / Articles
Material posted: Publication date: 15-12-2021
American scientists have stated that the thermonuclear reactor has switched to the long-awaited plasma "burning" mode for the first time. This news was announced against the background of billions of dollars of investments in "thermonuclear" companies. Is the era of safe and cheap energy really on the threshold?

Thermonuclear energy is a long-standing dream of mankind. One gram of deuterium, the main thermonuclear fuel, is energetically equivalent to 10,000 liters of gasoline. Meanwhile, deuterium is extracted from ordinary water, and even now, with far from mass production, the mentioned gram costs only $16. In addition, the only harmful waste of thermonuclear generation will be the expired reactor shells. Finally, in principle, a catastrophe like Chernobyl cannot happen at such a power plant — at the slightest deviation of the parameters from the norm, the reaction fades by itself.

The latter circumstance is excellent from the point of view of security. But for more than half a century, it does not allow the "thermonuclear" to turn from a field of research into an energy industry. A thermonuclear reactor requires plasma heated to tens of millions of degrees. Every now and then a damped reaction gives too little energy to even maintain this enormous temperature, not to mention giving the excess power to the consumer. Until recently, no one could boast of an installation in which a thermonuclear reaction would be the main source of plasma heating. Physicists call this coveted mode of operation "burning plasma mode" (burning plasma).

Incendiary success

And here are physicists from Livermore National Laboratory. Lawrence, owned by the US Department of Energy, said that they managed to "ignite" the plasma. The preliminary results of the experiment were announced in August 2021. And in November, the researchers reported on this achievement at the annual meeting of the Department of Plasma Physics of the American Physical Society and presented a preprint of a scientific article sent to the journal Nature.

The experiment was conducted at the National Ignition Facility, which can be roughly translated as "national ignition complex" (meaning plasma ignition). In this device, a target with thermonuclear fuel is irradiated with powerful lasers. This area of research (laser fusion) has been considered less promising for decades than the use of tokamaks (tokamak is a "toroidal chamber with magnetic Coils", a reactor that is a hollow torus inside which plasma is created. — Forbes). Surprisingly, it was here that a landmark success was achieved.

In the NIF installation, 192 laser beams are focused on a golden target. In some 20 nanoseconds, a cylinder with a radius of several millimeters receives energy of 1.9 MJ (0.5 kWh). This causes the gold to evaporate and emit X-rays. The latter irradiate a capsule with a mixture of deuterium and tritium hidden inside the target, turning it into a cloud of compressed incandescent plasma. As a result, a thermonuclear reaction occurs between deuterium and tritium.

Experiments at NIF began in 2009 and were initially unsuccessful. At one time, the project was on the verge of closure. However, after several years of attempts, physicists have achieved notable success. Researchers were constantly improving the technology, achieving an increasingly effective response. And finally they demonstrated a "burning" plasma: the contribution of the thermonuclear reaction to the heating of the plasma turned out to be greater than the contribution of the laser.

This news should not be understood to mean that the reactor produced more energy than it spent. The fact is that not all the energy of laser beams reaches the plasma in which the reaction takes place. It is spent on the evaporation of gold, on the generation of X-rays, most of which goes into milk and other side processes. As a result, the laser spent 1.9 MJ of energy, and the reaction produced a little more than 1.3 MJ. That is, the reactor returned about 70% of the spent energy. This is a performance record for thermonuclear installations, but it's not even a zero yet.

The Economy of promises

Coincidence or not, this scientific and technical news was followed by business news. On December 1, the startup Commonwealth Fusion Systems announced the raising of $1.8 billion. According to The Wall Street Journal, this is the largest private investment in the development of thermonuclear reactors in history. The extensive list of investors includes Bill Gates and George Soros, as well as Google. Financial and technology giants are apparently attracted by the company's ambitious promise to build the first commercial thermonuclear power plant by the early 2030s.

However, Commonwealth Fusion Systems is not alone in its optimism. Tokamak Energy calls the same terms. The promises of General Fusion — 2025 sound even bolder. Helion Energy and First Light Fusion expect to create reactors by 2024 that will generate more energy than they consume. Zap Energy plans to reach this milestone in 2023. By the way, Helion Energy recently attracted $ 500 million of private investment, and General Fusion - $ 130 million.

Note that not all of these companies are so young. So, Helion Energy was founded in 2013, First Light Fusion — in 2011, Tokamak Energy - in 2009, General Fusion - in 2002. Real startups can only be called Zap Energy (2017) and Commonwealth Fusion Systems (2018). At the same time, the old-timers of the thermonuclear promises market have already, to put it mildly, fallen behind schedule. General Fusion in 2009 promised to present a prototype power plant in ten years. Helion Energy in 2015 was going to build a "useful reactor" for three years. At the same time, Tokamak Energy predicted a positive energy balance of the reactor by 2020.

What can these companies demonstrate to the market today, besides optimism? Commonwealth Fusion Systems has innovative electromagnets of enormous power that are supposed to hold plasma in a tokamak. The Zap Energy website claims that the company's specialists carried out their first thermonuclear reaction back in 2018. Physicists from Helion Energy have heated the plasma to 100 million degrees — the temperature considered optimal for a thermonuclear reaction. Tokamak Energy is also close to this milestone. All this is wonderful in itself, but these are only separate steps to the finished power plant.

But to build such a station is not everything. Thermonuclear energy requires a variety of related technologies, from the production of deuterium from water to the disposal of radioactive reactor shells. Some of them have already been mastered and are just waiting for scaling, but others have yet to be developed and implemented.

In general, despite the loud statements of businessmen and the optimism of investors, do not forget about the "law of nature" that has firmly entered physical folklore: no matter what year it is in the yard, there are always 30 years left before commercial thermonuclear power plants.

Anatoly Glossev


Tags: forecasts , energy

RELATED MATERIALS: Politics and Geopolitics