Forging a role in low-end nuclear fusion

Forging a role in low-end nuclear fusion

In one fusion reaction, merging two forms of hydrogen - tritium and deuterium - yields helium plus a neutron and energy. (Graphic courtesy ScienceNews.org)
In one fusion reaction, merging two forms of hydrogen - tritium and deuterium - yields helium plus a neutron and energy. (Graphic courtesy ScienceNews.org)

The future of our planet is in the balance. This is becoming more apparent as, in the United States, Our Children's Trust -- a non-governmental organisation representing the voice of youth for healthy environment -- is taking legal action against the federal government and the fossil fuel industry on the grounds that global greenhouse emissions, mainly from coal, are a violation of public trust. And, so far, the children are winning.

In Thailand, global warming is taking a severe toll. Twenty-seven provinces have been declared drought areas. Thailand, as leader of the G77 and prospective UN Security Council member, has a role to play -- in leading investigations into low-end nuclear fusion, a zero greenhouse gas emissions technology.

Nuclear fusion is nuclear fission's big brother and uses the physics that powers our sun instead of potentially dangerous uranium or plutonium. The fuel used is typically isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, the latter being only slightly radioactive, and in any case being consumed in the reaction. Humanity has been able to create a fusion reaction for decades, but the difficulty has always been producing net energy -- more energy than is consumed by the process.

Major world powers are currently pursuing fusion through the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) located in the south of France. ITER uses a tokamak, a giant doughnut with magnetic shielding. However, ITER has been criticised for running three times over its budget, now at US$20 billion. It also requires at least two more updates over the next 25 years, costing approximately the same as ITER for each update, before a commercial net energy reactor is envisioned.

ITER suffers all the problems of a megaproject built by a consortium, but leaner competitors exist in first-world commercial fusion companies. They are attracting significant funding, including from one of Thailand's competitors in leading Asean, Malaysia. Last year, the government of Malaysia, which spends 1.1% of its GDP on research and development, compared to Thailand's 0.4%, invested $27 million in General Fusion (GF).

GF is a Canadian company established in 2002 which has attracted over $100 million for a fusion technology. It is working on a prototype fusion reactor together with McGill University and Hatch, a global engineering company. GF's technology, magnetised target fusion, is relatively simple and dates from a design in the 1950s. Coordinated pneumatic rams pound anvils surrounding a cylinder, into which is injected a deuterium-tritium super-heated gas, or plasma. The impact on the anvils creates shockwaves, which could super-heat the plasma to 100 million degrees Celsius. Within the device is a lead-lithium liquid metal, which serves as shielding. The device then feeds into a normal heat exchanger. General Fusion is aiming for a net energy reaction within a decade.

However, GF is not the world's biggest private fusion company. That honour falls to Tri Alpha Energy (TAE), a US-based company founded in 1998 and backed by significant venture capital. Most of its $150 million has come from Goldman Sachs and venture capitalists such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc, Rockefeller's Venrock, and New Enterprise Associates. Russia also invested in TAE in 2012. The company employs over 150 staff and has registered and renewed various patents, with over 150 academic publications in the last five years. TAE's technology, a colliding beam fusion reactor, is much more complex than General Fusion's approach. It uses a long cigar-shaped cylinder, in which a plasma can be super-heated.

Also, TAE will likely use a hydrogen-boron 11 fuel, which unlike a deuterium-tritium reaction, involves almost no radiation. Crucially, the technology involved theoretically makes possible a direct energy to electricity conversion system instead of a heat exchanger. This, together with the very low levels of radiation, means limited shielding is required, thus a truck-sized 100MW reactor may be possible.

The dark horse of nuclear fusion is EMC2, founded in 1985 and the world's oldest private fusion company. EMC2 has received millions in funding from the US Navy, especially the Office of Naval Research, as well as from Darpa, Nasa, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which gave the world the Manhattan Project.

As with General Fusion, the physics behind EMC2's technology is remarkably simple and goes back to the 1950s. Inertial electrostatic confinement (IEC) employs a polygon, with the simplest design being a cube, and is an improvement on the Farnsworth-Hirsch fusor, the most basic demonstrator of nuclear fusion, present in most plasma physics laboratories. Instead of the normal inner grid of a fusor, a metal cage, an IEC creates a virtual cathode cage within the cube using electron guns.

Plasma can be injected into the centre of the cube, and at high pressure the magnetic field can trap electrons in a "wiffle ball" configuration, which can facilitate both the deuterium-tritium and the hydrogen-boron 11 reactions. EMC2's US Navy technical review reports, just made available under the Freedom of Information Act, suggest EMC2's attainment of the wiffle ball is "one of the most significant advances made in plasma physics and magnetic fusion over the past 50 years". EMC2 plans a net energy prototype within three years and hopes to have a commercial energy power plant within seven years after testing the prototype.

As the global climate crisis worsens, the actions of the leader of the G77, now 134 countries, will go down in history. The representing of members' economic interests and the coordination of member countries as a negotiating bloc is the main purpose of the G77 and the main concern of its chair. Global climate change will strip billions of dollars from the G77 members' economies. But, fusion will replace all the world's nuclear fission reactors and make medium-to-large coal power plants obsolete.

Thus, Thailand should work out a response to the possibilities these companies represent and invest in the technology itself. Instead of waiting for a UN Security Council seat to materialise, Thailand must prove it can help lead humanity's response to climate change and take responsibility for the world our children will grow up in. Only then will it prove itself worthy of a place on the council.


John Draper is project officer, Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme (ICMRP), College of Local Administration (COLA), Khon Kaen University. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, Phd, is a former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.

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