A concept for a Massachusetts Institute of Technology pilot smelter plant
Plans to build a prototype fusion power plant in the United States have become more focused, as a new report outlines an approximate timeline for building the multi-dollar plant and a strategy for developing its design. The United States should strive to begin construction of the pilot by 2035 and have it operating by 2040, according to a report released this week by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine ( NASEM). To meet this tight schedule, the report calls on the US Department of Energy (DOE) to help fund two to four teams that, in collaboration with the private sector, would develop different conceptual designs by 2028.
It’s credible and doable, says William Madia, vice president emeritus of Stanford University, who has often criticized the DOE’s merger efforts. However, Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear energy safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists, notes that the report also highlights many key technologies that are in low technical readiness and questions whether they can be developed in time. Reading between the lines, I don’t feel like it gives you much certainty that these times are realistic, Lyman says.
The timeline suggested by the 91-page report, released on February 17, does not reflect a bottom-up assessment of how long it would take to complete R&D for a particular design. Rather, it presents a top-down assessment of when fusion energy must be feasible if utilities are to include it as they shift to carbon-free energy sources by 2050. The timeline has really been set. from utility contributions, says Brian Wirth, a nuclear engineer at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and one of the 12 report authors. Madia predicts that if the merger has not proven to be feasible by 2035, it will miss the train and be left out of the future carbon-free energy mix.
Enthusiasm is growing among American fusion researchers to build a prototype power plant that would finally harness nuclear fusion, the process that powers the Sun, to produce electricity. The idea emerged in 2018 in another NASEM report which suggested that the United States remain true to their commitment to ITER, the gigantic international fusion experiment being built in France, but also prepare to build a pilot plant. national shortly thereafter. In December 2020, US fusion researchers incorporated the pilot plant into their new long-term plan.
Using intense magnetic fields, ITER will trap a plasma of deuterium and tritium, the heavy isotopes of hydrogen in a donut-shaped vacuum chamber heated to 150 million degrees Celsius. The experiment aims to show that the fusion of deuterium and tritium nuclei can produce more energy than plasma generation consumes. The pilot plant would go further and produce useful amounts of electricity.
Proponents of the proposal say building a pilot plant would allow US researchers to overtake competitors in Europe and Asia and take the lead in fusion research. Additionally, they say, due to recent advancements in magnets made from high-temperature superconductors, 3D printing, and computer modeling, the plant could be much smaller and cheaper than ITER, which measures 30 meters high and will cost over $ 20. billion.
The pilot plant would not be extremely powerful. The new report plans to produce just 50 megawatts of electricity, a few percent of what a large gas-fired power plant can generate. That’s just enough to see how such a plant would interact with the power grid, says David Roop, engineer at DWR Associates LLC and author of the new report. This value of at least 50 megawatts allows you to test your ability to transfer power to the grid, he says. The pilot plant is expected to cost no more than $ 5 billion or $ 6 billion, the report said, which is the amount it estimates utilities would be willing to pay for the first commercial power plant to follow, which would produce hundreds of megawatts electricity.
Before a pilot plant can be built, several major technological challenges must be overcome, the report says. For example, if the plant operates as ITER and fuses deuterium and tritium (there are a few other possibilities), researchers also need to develop a way to raise more tritium in a specially designed blanket of material around the reactor. Otherwise, the plant could quickly consume the entire global supply of tritium, which comes only from certain nuclear reactors. If the blanket contains lithium, the neutrons will split some of these nuclei to form more tritium. But tritium is a highly regulated and difficult to manipulate radioactive substance, and Lyman wonders if such a closed system can be developed by 2035.
The timeline debate reflects tensions over the advent of new private merger companies, which would presumably partner with the DOE to develop the ideas they already have. Some startups have piqued the interest of high-tech billionaires. For example, Bill Gates supports Commonwealth Fusion Systems, whose ideas focus on using magnetic coils made from high-temperature superconductors, and Jeff Bezos supports General Fusion, which uses mechanical pumps to squeeze and heat a plasma. Such private investment is one of the main reasons Madia is optimistic about the pilot plant. When guys like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos get involved, they do cool things, he says.
But the merger startups promise more than they can deliver, Lyman argues. He fears that investors familiar with the high-tech economy, in which failure may not be fatal, may adopt the same high-risk attitude towards capital-intensive energy research, which is much less forgiving. They think they can just have an idea and get rich without actually making it happen, Lyman says. Developing a fusion reactor is not something you can do in your garage, so you need to be careful with that mindset. Lyman also warns that the merger startups are asking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to relax safety requirements in a way he says is not warranted.
Still, reports call for forming public-private teams to flesh out the different concepts of a pilot plant would be very beneficial, says Steven Cowley, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, the DOE fusion lab. The United States has to have its own version of designing a fusion reactor to see what it is and how close we are, says Cowley. I think there is tremendous value in this.
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