US Senate optimism on future benefits of fusion energy

Fusion energy experts across government, academia and the private sector testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Sept. 15 about the prospects for fusion research.

“We believe that from the early 2030s onwards, we will begin serious work towards commercial fusion power plants on the grid,” said Bob Mumgaard, CEO of private fusion company Commonwealth Fusion Systems. says.

2022 Fusion Industry Association Investigation The sector has attracted more than $4.7 billion in private investment, an increase of more than $2.8 billion in just one year, according to the report.

Today’s nuclear power plants are based on nuclear fission. In other words, it uses the energy generated by splitting heavy atoms such as uranium.

fusion vs fission

In contrast, fusion energy is produced when two light nuclei combine to form a larger atom.

The fusion reaction that scientists consider the most promising involves two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium. Together, they can fuse into helium.

But to do that, the two gases would need to be heated to over 180 million degrees Fahrenheit.

As the temperature rises, the gas turns into plasma. Positively charged nuclei and negatively charged electrons become loosely jumbled. This form of matter may sound strange, but he makes up more than 99% of the visible universe.

Fusion researchers can use magnetic fields to keep that plasma in place.

ITER, a large international collaboration that includes the United States, is conducting the largest such magnetic confinement experiment.

Nuclear fusion is powerful enough to power stars. That’s how our own sun pumps out heat and light.

Nuclear fusion produces more energy than fission without producing long-lasting radioactive waste. Like nuclear fission, no greenhouse gases are produced.

lack of tritium raised concerns about the viability of deuterium-tritium fusion.

“To reproduce tritium, you need lithium,” Scott Hsu, the Department of Energy’s chief fusion coordinator, said in a Sept. 15 testimony.

Still, the benefits of fusion can leave boosters breathless.

Commission chair Joe Manchin (DW.V.) told colleagues that he believed fusion energy could help achieve world peace.

“There’s an old saying about fusion. They say it’s 30 years away and it will be. Barrasso (Republican, Wyoming) said:

Rapid Progress Burns Hope

The Commission’s optimism is rooted in recent scientific breakthroughs.

A team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory created the first “burning plasma” in 2020 and 2021. That “burning plasma” is one in which most of the heat in the plasma comes from the fusion reaction itself.

Researcher, Lawrence Livermore, August 2021 achieve ignitionThis means that the energy produced from the fusion reaction exceeded the energy injected.

UK’s Joint European Taurus (JET) also set a new benchmark. It produced 59 megajoules of energy. This is more than double his previous record of releasing 22 megajoules of energy set in 1997.

“Fusion energy is not yet ready to meet the need for abundant clean energy. But we do know that fusion has the potential to provide that energy for thousands of years.” said Tim Roos, ITER’s Director of Science and Operations.

“Fusion has long enjoyed international collaboration and should continue to do so, but arguably fusion is now also international competition,” said Hsu.

The speaker highlighted a “bold ten-year vision” for fusion energy that is the cornerstone of the March summit of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Energy. Sue was appointed to her current position at that meeting.

Senator Mazzy Hirono (D-Hawaii) asked about the safety of fusion energy.

Su pointed out that large amounts of tritium should be safely contained.

“The total level of radioactive waste from a typical fusion power plant is about 1,000 times less than that from a nuclear fission station,” said Stephen Cowley, director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. I’m here.

“Will this really happen?”

Senator John Hoven, RN.D., asked a simpler question, based on promises made over decades, but not always kept by Big Science: “This will really happen?”

Ruth replied that much of the scientific knowledge is already there.

“Technology is what we need the next frontier. That’s where the mystery is and where we need to invest,” he added.

Asked the same question by Senator Angus King of Maine, Mumgard said the various technological approaches and billions of dollars of private sector investment being considered have made real progress. said to suggest.

“We haven’t seen planes yet. But we’ve seen people gliding,” he said, likening fusion propulsion to the race for heavier-than-air flight. .

Experts defend international cooperation

Senator Bill Cassidy (R-La.) tells experts how investments in ITER can be defended given that they may be ‘slowly progressing and increasing costs’ I asked

“The U.S. pays 9% of construction costs. [and] 13% of operations. They get 100% of the results. So if they do it themselves, they will have to pay him 100%,” said Ruth of ITER, adding that the project is already underway.

Mumgaard from Commonwealth Fusion had a unique answer mentioning active contributions from a somewhat troubled legacy company.

Cowley of Princeton told Cassidy that ITER will allow researchers to study closely what is happening in fusion reactions.

He said more experimental work could lead to other innovations, citing potential insights that could reduce the size of fusion reactors.

“Ultimately, it will be a question of, ‘Are we doing enough to make our electricity bills cheaper?’ And we don’t know the answer yet,” he added.

Geopolitical impact

Barrasso asked Luce whether China and Russia should be allowed to continue participating in international fusion research.

Roos said fusion research has traditionally provided adversaries with a peaceful common ground.

“There is no possibility of weaponizing magnetic confinement fusion,” he added.

Cowley testified that China is now the United States’ biggest competitor in fusion research, echoing Su’s remarks about competitiveness in this field.

“China is spending a lot of money on the technology side,” he said.

The limitations of the US’ restrictive nuclear regulatory framework were also highlighted.

Asked by Senator John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) about the superiority of other nations in fusion research, Ruth spoke of France’s relatively innovative approach to nuclear regulation.

ITER is headquartered in Saint-Paul-les-Durance, France.

Senator Mark Kelly (D-Arizona) asked Hsu if advances in batteries combined with more solar power would be enough to eliminate the need for fusion.

“I am reminded many times that we will need more than 500, 600 exajoules of carbon-free energy per year by mid-century. I don’t know if I can,” Su replied.

Nathan Wooster