I attended a fascinating event last night - a Cafe' Scientifique meeting held in the town of Reading in South East England. Last month it was me in the bear-pit, talking about "What Happens When the Oil Runs Out?", which remains a pertinent question. Last night it was the turn of Dr Chris Warrick from the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy based near Abingdon in Oxfordshire, which hosts both the MAST (Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak) and the better known JET (Joint European Torus) experiments. Fusion research costs an awful lot of money and we are still told actually getting energy from it is decades away. In the audience was a veteran engineer/physicist who had worked on the pioneering ZETA experiment in the late 1950s, from which neutrons were detected leading to what proved later to be false claims that fusion had occurred, their true source being different versions of the same instability processes that had beset earlier machines.
Nonetheless, his comment was salient: "In the late 50s, we were told that fusion power was 20 years away and now, 50-odd years later it is maybe 60 years away." Indeed, JET has yet to produce a positive ratio of output power/input energy, and instability of the plasma is still a problem. Dr Warrick explained that while much of the plasma physics is now sorted-out, minor aberrations in the magnetic field allow some of the plasma to leak out, and if it touches the far colder walls of the confinement chamber, it simply "dies". In JET it is fusion of nuclei of the two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium that is being undertaken, a process that requires a "temperature" of 100 million degrees.
I say "temperature" because the plasma is a rarified (very low pressure) gas, and hence the collisions between particles are not sufficiently rapid that the term means the same distribution of energy as occurs under conditions of thermal equilibrium. It is much the same as the temperatures that may be quoted for molecules in the atmospheric region known as the thermosphere which lies some 80 kilometers above the surface of the Earth. Here too, the atmosphere is highly rarified and thus derived temperatures refer to translational motion of molecules and are more usefully expressed as velocities. However put, at 100 million degrees centigrade, the nuclei of tritium and deuterium are moving fast enough (have enough energy) that they can overcome the mutual repulsion arising from their positive charges and come close enough that they are drawn together by attractive nuclear forces and fuse, releasing vast amounts of energy in the process.
JET is not a small device, at 18 metres high, but bigger machines will be necessary before the technology is likely to give out more energy than it consumes. Despite the considerable volume of the chamber it contains perhaps only one hundredth of a gram of gas, hence its very low pressure. There is another matter and that is how long the plasma and hence energy emission can be sustained. Presently it is fractions of a second but a serious "power station" would need to run for some hours. There is also the problem of getting useful energy from the plasma to convert into electricity even if the aforementioned and considerable problems can be overcome and a sustainable, large-scale plasma maintained.
The plan is to surround the chamber with a "blanket" of lithium with pipes running through it and some heat-exchanger fluid passing through them. The heated fluid would then pass on its heat to water and drive a steam-turbine, in the time-honoured fashion used for fossil fuel and nuclear power plants. Now my understanding is that this would not be lithium metal but some oxide material. The heat would be delivered in the form of very high energy neutrons that would be slowed-down as they encounter lithium nuclei on passing through the blanket. In principle this is a very neat trick, since absorption of a neutron by a lithium nucleus converts it to tritium, which could be fed back into the plasma as a fuel. Unlike deuterium, tritium does not exist is nature being radioactive with a half life of about 12 years. However produced either separately or in the blanket lithium is the ultimate fuel source, not tritium per se. Deuterium does exist in nature but only to the extent of one part in about two thousand of ordinary hydrogen (protium) and hence the energy costs of its separation are not inconsiderable.
Exposure to radiation of many potential materials necessary to make the reactor, blanket, and other components such as the heat-exchanger pipes would render them brittle, and so compromise their structural integrity. Providing a fairly intense magnetic field to confine the plasma (maybe 4 Teslas - similar to that in a hospital MRI scanner) needs power (dc not ac as switching the polarity of the field would cause the plasma to collapse) and large power-supply units containing a lot of metals including rare earths which are mined and processed using fossil fuels. The issue of rare earths is troublesome already, and whether enough of them can be recovered to meet existing planned wind and electric car projects is debatable let alone that additional pressure should be placed upon an already fragile resource to build a first generation of fusion power stations.
World supplies of lithium are also already stressed, and hence getting enough of it not only to make blankets for fusion reactors and tritium production but also for the millions-scale fleet of electric vehicles needed to divert our transportation energy demand away from oil is probably a bridge too far, unless we try getting it from seawater, which takes far more energy than mining lithium minerals.
To quote again the ZETA veteran, "I wonder if maybe man is not intended to have nuclear fusion," and all in all, other than from solar energy I wonder if he is right. At any rate, garnering real electrical power from fusion is so far distant as to have no impact on the more immediately pressing fossil fuels crisis, particularly for oil and natural gas. Fusion Power is a long-range "holy grail" and part of the illusion that humankind can continue in perpetuity to use energy on the scale that it presently does. Efficiency and conservation are the only real means to attenuate the impending crisis in energy and resources.