Fusion power is one of those Sci Fi technologies that has long been understood in the abstract but tantalizingly out of reach in the practical “ability to generate usable power sense. We have written on the topic before and we are not about to tell you now that there has been some major break-though that will result in a fusion reactor near you anytime soon. Even major supporters of the concept (I won’t call it a technology) say it will be two decades before it could become a commercial reality. Even at that they may be optimistic but in the meantime research is getting to such a scale that it is stimulating the production of new metal technologies and processes that could have spin off benefits elsewhere.
Advanced scientific research and major long term scientific endeavors are always controversial. There are those who would rather see the millions, often billions spent on more down to earth and immediate needs. In a WSJ article, Britain’s Green Party would rather see the U.K. government investing in renewable energy sources that work already, says James Abbott, the party’s science and technology spokesman. “Our main concern [with fusion] is it’s obviously an expensive and highly specialized form of energy production, and it’s still at an experimental stage,” he says. MM would counter that any energy source that requires extensive ongoing subsidy does not “work. Coal, natural gas and hydro-electric power do not require subsidy, they work, even conventional nuclear fission requires funding guarantees only because markets don’t trust governments to change the rules over the long life of construction and operation, especially now NIMBY politics have done for Yucca mountain.
Fusion’s supporters though, which includes the governments of Europe, the US, and China are investing roughly a billion dollars a year into research. In addition to the UK’s Culham Centre for Fusion Research, France is building an even bigger International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) together with the EU, Japan, the US, India, China and Russia. The project will cost tens of billions and be housed in a building 19 stories high and five deep. The scale of the project is already stimulating research from related technologies. Corus Steel is developing a more durable steel for the 23,000 ton reactor and Oxford Instruments in the UK a maker of superconducting materials has developed a new type of wire and braiding for the project. The firm is to supply 67 tons of its wire valued at about $55m; a spokesman for Oxford Instruments says ITER will increase global demand for super conducting wire by 30% alone.
Impressive as the ITER project is, Europe is not alone in pioneering this research. In the US, the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has built a laser initiated fusion facility that is pioneering research into the use of multiple lasers to initiate a fusion reaction (there is also an entertaining little video explaining the process for anyone interested).
How researchers get from here being able to fuse a few hydrogen nuclei to being able to create and manage a stable plasma field from which heat can be used to generate electricity, is the challenge. In the meantime, metals suppliers will be challenged to create new materials to operate in the extreme environments present in the core of the reactor which hopefully will have some wider spin offs for other applications while the scientists continue playing with their big boys toys.