Fusion Energy (not fission)

Nuclear FUSION is NOT nuclear fission. The sun (pictured) is a natural fusion reactor. The fusion program aims at creating a very small version of the sun in a fusion reactor, potentially yielding immense power with few drawbacks.


Introduction to Fusion Power

Fusion power has many potential attractive features:

  • Abundant fuel
  • Intrinsically safe
  • No production of CO2 or atmospheric pollutants
  • "Clean nuclear stove" producing relatively short-lived waste.

Fusion power advocates commonly propose the use of deuterium, or tritium, both isotopes of hydrogen, as fuel and in many current designs also lithium and boron. Assuming a fusion energy output equal to the current global output and that this does not increase in the future, then the known current lithium reserves would last 3000 years, lithium from sea water would last 60 million years, and a more complicated fusion process using only deuterium from sea water would have fuel for 150 billion years. For more background, see HERE.

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Topical information on fusion energy? The first thing to discuss is  ITER.


ITER is the most advanced fusion project, now being constructed in Cadarache, France. It is a long-term development project that hopefully will take fusion out of the laboratory and into commercial use. ITER is jointly financed by the countries in the above logo. "ITER" means "journey" in Latin.

HERE is the official ITER site. Here is a picture of what the device will look like:

A cut-away view of the ITER Tokamak, revealing the donut-shaped plasma inside of the vacuum vessel.

Here is a short VIDEO about ITER:


HERE is news about ITER from Gary Johnson, Deputy Director.

Recent photo of ITER construction:

EVENT: ITER Industry Day

On 4 December 2017, around 100 policy-makers, senior company executives and energy experts from Europe and the rest of the world participating in the ITER project met at the ITER Industry Day, organised by the European Commission in Brussels. The event centred on how fusion is already delivering concrete opportunities for industry and is having a positive effect on jobs, economic growth and innovation. 


Opening Speech by Miguel Arias Cañete, European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy 

Opening Speech by Frédérique Vidal, Minister for Higher Education, Research and Innovation, France 

Opening presentation by Bernard Bigot, Director-General, ITER Organization 

Text of the video message by Guenther H. Oettinger, European Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources 


Read more about EU research on fusion



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Other Fusion Devices (Stellarator, Lasers)

The Stellarator

Stellarators have a more complicated geometry than tokamaks (ITER is a tokamak), with extra twists. These are designed to help make the fusion reaction last for a longer time. Recent experiments have shown that stellarators may become competitive, see HERE for a popular account.

Here is a picture:

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Laser fusion

Also called inertial confinement fusion, laser fusion works by focusing laser beams on a microcapsule pellet to high accuracy, heating the pellet and driving the fusion reaction. Here is a picture of the NOVA laser fusion facility in California:


And here is a picture of a fuel microcapsule pellet:

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Commercial Fusion Power Reactors

Source: Richard Mattas, Retired Scientist from Argonne National Laboratory

Both inertial and magnetic fusion approaches can be modified for power production.  Fusion power plant design studies have been performed since the 1960’s, and there are numerous design concepts that have been analyzed and tested.

Magnetic fusion

Once the plasma physics of fusion is demonstrated in ITER, the next step is to use that fusion power to produce useful energy for the public. 

The overall features of a power production facility are surprisingly similar to ITER.  The main differences are in the components closest to the plasma, generally known as the blanket and first wall.  In ITER the blanket absorbs the neutrons generated within the plasma so it acts as a radiation shield for the rest of the reactor.  In a power plant, the blanket must also produce tritium fuel and remove the power at high temperatures so it can be efficiently used for electric power conversion. 

The overall size of the fusion reactor is marginally larger than ITER, so the non-nuclear components, e.g., the large superconducting magnets, will be effectively field tested with ITER.  The nuclear components will only be tested on a small scale in ITER, so additional materials and long-term reliability tests are needed before building a commercial power reactor.

Inertial Fusion

A first wall and blanket are also added to the inertial fusion system, but there are some differences compared to magnetic fusion.  First, inertial fusion does not require a magnetic field, so there are no magnets to constrain the geometry.  Second, high-energy beans must penetrate to the fuel pellet in the center of the reactor to ignite it, and thus there are many holes in the first wall and blanket to accommodate the beams.  Third, an inertial power reactor has a pellet ignition repetition rate of about one per second.

The types of materials used for inertial power reactors are similar to those used for magnetic systems, but the geometry and power response are considerably different.

Research to Commercial: When?

Fusion R&D is expensive since the test facilities alone to demonstrate the physics and technology typically cost more than $1B.  The overall cost of ITER for construction and operation is estimated to be about $20B, and it is now the largest international research project in the world.  The large cost along with the long times for construction and testing mean that a commercial fusion power plant is still 20-30 years away.    

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Last edit 15Jan2018


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