If everything goes according to the researchers’ wishes, the term “sustainability” will take on a whole new meaning in the not too distant future. We are talking about the almost inexhaustible energy that is available with the help of nuclear fusion technology. It’s still a long way off, but the future is getting closer.
The realization of a dream of mankind may well take a little longer. In the case of an electricity-generating nuclear fusion reactor, this means: it is still decades away, mockers say: the reactor is always 30 years in the future at New Year’s, and has been for several decades. One day, however, the scientists and engineers will probably spoil the punchline – when, of course, is open. Just as nobody could predict exactly what happened in Livermore, California, in early December of last year, when a decisive breakthrough was celebrated: For the first time, researchers at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) were able to extract more energy from their experimental setup than they had previously needed to ignite the fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium nuclei. The process does not produce any persistently radiating radioactive waste, and a nuclear accident is excluded.
With the help of the most powerful laser in the world, the extreme conditions are created in the fusion chamber that are needed to force the fundamentally unwilling hydrogen atomic nuclei (because their electrical charge repels each other) to fuse into helium. This is also associated with extreme energy expenditure, and so far you have had to put in more than the yield measured in the end. Not dissimilar in design to many of the other power converters in use today, the output of the first steam engine was not yet a clear signal that the device would revolutionize life around the world. Until then came the electric and combustion engines and in turn proclaimed a revolution.
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Today’s NIF experimental set-up lets the aforementioned laser with 192 beam lines hit a very small sphere, about the size of a grain of sand, with the frozen hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium – a pulse of 15 nanoseconds. Ideally, this is enough to generate several million degrees of heat inside the test arrangement and an extremely high density of the fusion material. This, still in the ideal case, is “ignited” and a self-sustaining sequence of nuclear fusions takes place. This creates energy – and the scientific breakthrough now consisted in extracting just one and a half times as much energy as the lasers had radiated into it.
However, this does not take into account the production costs. Add in the external amount of energy input, such as the laser’s massive electricity costs, and the real yield melts away. The construction and maintenance of the test facility is of course on a completely different scale. The duration of the success, with a few fractions of a second, is not what one would expect from a reliable energy supply, and the entire process depends on the interaction of individual steps that have to be adjusted extremely precisely. The necessary “fuels” are also not so readily available, and above all not cheap.
The fusion reactor for use in everyday life is actually still a long way off. After all: From the first dreams in the 1950s to the proof that nuclear fusion can actually work, many scientific deserts have already been crossed. The goal always sounded very tangible: to imitate what has been happening inside the sun and actually all stars for billions of years in such a way that one has a direct benefit on earth. Solar energy even at night and in fog, so to speak.
With all the restrictions mentioned, something is moving on this front. “The fact that this is progress in the field, perhaps even a milestone, is largely undisputed among experts,” says the science magazine “Spektrum”. But please don’t overdo it: “However, many a euphoric statement gave the impression that the way was now clear for the fusion reactor and for the energy supply of the future.” Attention is a currency in which some things then pay off. Funding this research alone is no small matter, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted. The American space agency NASA can sing a song about it. Of course, the military are also interested in nuclear fusion, which helps with the budget.
In Europe, nuclear fusion in the “JET” test facility in Great Britain has been and still is the leader. The joint project of the EURATOM countries – EU plus associated members Switzerland and Great Britain – has already set its own records: In 1997, the largest energy yield to date was achieved for a duration of four seconds – JET doubled the record at the end of 2021 to 59 megajoules for five seconds. However, the output corresponded to only 65 percent of the energy used. Instead of using lasers, the test facility uses strong magnetic fields to initiate the fusion process.
This newer technology is also to be used in the European experimental reactor “ITER” currently under construction in southern France. Conceived as a follow-up project to JET, ITER has suffered from delays, disagreements between the 35 partners, which include other countries outside Europe, and quality and management problems since construction began in 2007. The start of the test operation, which has been postponed several times and was last planned for 2025, is now to be postponed to after 2035. Because a few days ago, ITER reported unexpected corrosion damage and errors in the assembly of crucial parts of the reactor. Expectations are high: Due to its sheer size, the goal is an energy yield of ten times the energy used. ITER, compared to JET “a swimming pool compared to a bathtub”, according to the magazine “Nature”, has the explicit long-term goal of generating electricity through nuclear fusion, i.e. far more than just an experimental field.
Nevertheless: The point at which science and business will one day flow together is still over the horizon. Numerous institutes around the world are researching the subject, in Germany tests are being carried out in Garching and Greifswald. Startups like Marvel and Focused Energy are German companies that are betting on the future of technology. But especially in the USA, private investments are flowing into the expensive experiments on a considerable scale, including Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Bill Gates, the German-born investor Peter Thiel and Google, which is involved in one of the more than 20 startups (TAE Technologies). who are working on the vision in the US.
As usual, the optimism of the Americans knows no bounds: TAE wants to generate electricity and feed it into the grid in just a few years. By then, many billions of euros later, ITER would not even be in operation. But such prophecies should be treated with caution anyway – first of all a new type of reactor would have to be developed that can overcome the horrendous inefficiency, namely that, as in the USA, you have to use a total of 300 megajoules of energy, or very briefly two megajoules to win. The hype surrounding the US success report has at least aroused the ambition of researchers and even politicians. A new group of experts, based at the Federal Ministry of Research, is to determine the way to a fusion reactor – and look after German research interests.
On the other hand, there are numerous lobby groups who find the very idea of the possibilities of the almost inexhaustible energy reprehensible: “A call for unlimited energy and thus unlimited energy consumption is out of the question from the outset,” states the Bund für Umwelt- und Naturschutz (BUND) categorically, and: “Energy efficiency and sufficiency are the order of the day.” In addition, fusion technology will increase the “profits of the few”. However, the BUND is at least as far ahead of its time as the hyper-optimists of Silicon Valley.
However, mankind’s age-old desire to grow out of want and poverty with always-on, affordable energy will not be banned. The fact that even the dream of such a thing is somehow improper is represented above all by environmental political groups from the West, spoiled by prosperity – and for transparent motives. For the majority of those people who can only dream of light and warmth, progress continues to be associated with: hope.
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