Physicists working on hot fusion, which seeks to unleash limitless energy by fusing hydrogen atoms together in chambers heated to the temperature of the surface of the Sun, have struggled for decades to make their technology work, despite billions of private and taxpayer dollars invested and serial claims of “breakthroughs.” (See “Nuclear Fusion,” Trends Journal, 19 July, 2019.)
The goal is to engineer a controllable process that yields more energy than it consumes—a source of infinite, clean energy predicted by the world’s most famous equation, E=mc2.
The dream lives on, stoked now by two significant advances.
In the first, scientists at the National Ignition Facility, a fusion skunkworks that’s part of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, ran a test that returned 70 percent of the energy used to set it off, more than 10 times better than most previous tests.
The team shot 192 lasers at a group of hydrogen and deuterium atoms encased in a gold cylinder the size of a pencil eraser. The laser beams destroyed the cylinder and propelled its atoms into the hydrogen and deuterium atoms, jamming them together with so much force that they fused, unleashing the blast of energy.
Meanwhile, researchers at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center and its spinoff, Commonwealth Fusion Systems, are testing a new magnet, said to be one of the world’s most powerful and, they claim, twice as strong as those planned for use in the €100-billion, 35-nation ITER fusion reactor collaboration now under way in France.
In a spherical fusion reactor called a tokamak, magnets surround and squeeze a hydrogen plasma until the hydrogen atoms become hot enough to fuse, at least six million degrees F.
The MIT and Commonwealth team claims that its new magnet will finally make hot fusion commercially viable. The group is planning to have a working model ready before 2026.
TRENDPOST: Hot fusion is a hothouse of scientific and engineering creativity that, so far, has shown no ability to deliver the technology needed to make a commercially viable power plant that can continuously and indefinitely contain temperatures of millions of degrees without degrading.
Still, various “breakthroughs” continue to draw money from governments, private companies, and financial adventurers including Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. (See “New Fusion Energy Method Revives Advocates’ Hopes,” Trends Journal, 2 March, 2021.)
A commercial hot fusion plant may be practical—some day. For now, claims of breakthroughs can’t be judged credible until they’re scaled and tested in the real world.