The Fusion Energy Dream

One of the most attractive options for our energy future is nuclear fusion, where we can turn hydrogen into helium. Nuclear fusion works, even on Earth, as we can see when a hydrogen bomb goes off. The available energy is huge. Nuclear fusion will solve our energy crisis, we have been told, and it will be available in forty years. That is what we were told about 60 years ago, and you will usually hear the same forty year prediction now!

Nuclear fusion, you will be told, is what powers the sun, however we won’t be doing what the sun does any time soon. You may guess there is a problem in that the sun is not a spectacular hydrogen bomb. What the sun does is to squeeze hydrogen atoms together to make the lightest isotope of helium, i.e. 2He. This is extremely unstable, and the electric forces will push the protons apart in an extremely short time, like a billionth of a billionth of a second might be the longest it can last, and probably not that long. However, if it can acquire an electron, or eject a positron, before it decays it turns into deuterium, which is a proton and a neutron. (The sun also uses a carbon-oxygen cycle to convert hydrogen to helium.) The difficult thing that a star does, and what we will not do anytime soon, is to make neutrons (as opposed to freeing them).

The deuterium can then fuse to make helium, usually first with another proton to make 3He, and then maybe with another to make 4He. Each fusion makes a huge amount of energy, and the star works because the immense pressure at the centre allows the occasional making of deuterium in any small volume. You may be surprised by the use of the word “occasional”; the reason the sun gives off so much energy is simply that it is so big. Occasional is good. The huge amount of energy released relieves some of the pressure caused by the gravity, and this allows the star to live a very long time. At the end of a sufficiently large star’s life, the gravity allows the material to compress sufficiently that carbon and oxygen atoms fuse, and this gives of so much energy that the increase in pressure causes  the reaction  to go out of control and you have a supernova. A bang is not good.

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been working on fusion, and has claimed a breakthrough. Their process involves firing 192 laser beams onto a hollow target about 1 cm high and a diameter of a few millimeters, which is apparently called a hohlraum. This has an inner lining of gold, and contains helium gas, while at the centre is a tiny capsule filled with deuterium/tritium, the hydrogen atoms with one or two neutrons in addition to the required proton. The lasers heat the hohlraum so that the gold coating gives off a flux of Xrays. The Xrays heat the capsule causing material on the outside to fly off at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per second. Conservation of momentum leads to the implosion of the capsule, which gives, hopefully, high enough temperatures and pressures to fuse the hydrogen isotopes.

So what could go wrong? The problem is the symmetry of the pressure. Suppose you had a spherical-shaped bag of gel that was mainly water, and, say, the size of a football and you wanted to squeeze all the water out to get a sphere that only contained the gelling solid. The difficulty is that the pressure of a fluid inside a container is equal in all directions (leaving aside the effects of gravity). If you squeeze harder in one place than another, the pressure relays the extra force per unit area to one where the external pressure is weaker, and your ball expands in that direction. You are fighting jelly! Obviously, the physics of such fluids gets very complicated. Everyone knows what is required, but nobody knows how to fill the requirement. When something is unequal in different places, the effects are predictably undesirable, but stopping them from being unequal is not so easy.

The first progress was apparently to make the laser pulses more energetic at the beginning. The net result was to get up to 17 kJ of fusion energy per pulse, an improvement on their original 10 kJ. The latest success produced 1.3 MJ, which was equivalent to 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for a 100 trillionth of a second. An energy generation of 1.3 MJ from such a small vessel may seem a genuine achievement, and it is, but there is further to go. The problem is that the energy input to the lasers was 1.9 MJ per pulse. It should be realised that that energy is not lost. It is still there so the actual output of a pulse would be 3.2 MJ of energy. The problem is that the output includes the kinetic energy of the neutrons etc produced, and it is always as heat whereas the input energy was from electricity, and we have not included the losses of power when converting electricity to laser output. Converting that heat to electricity will lose quite a bit, depending on how it is done. If you use the heat to boil water the losses are usually around 65%. In my novels I suggest using the magnetohydrodynamic effect that gets electricity out of the high velocity of the particles in the plasma. This has been made to work on plasmas made by burning fossil fuels, which doubles the efficiency of the usual approach, but controlling plasmas from nuclear fusion would be far more difficult. Again, very easy to do in theory; very much less so in practice. However, the challenge is there. If we can get sustained ignition, as opposed to such a short pulse, the amount of energy available is huge.

Sustained fusion means the energy emitted from the reaction is sufficient to keep it going with fresh material injected as opposed to having to set up containers in containers at the dead centre of a multiple laser pulse. Now, the plasma at over 100,000,000 degrees Centigrade should be sufficient to keep the fusion going. Of course that will involve even more problems: how to contain a plasma at that temperature; how to get the fuel into the reaction without melting then feed tubes or dissipating the hydrogen; how to get the energy out in a usable form; how to cool the plasma sufficiently? Many questions; few answers.