Nuclear fusion is the preferred deus ex machina in the minds of some who long for cheap, abundant energy, although fusion will never be either. The challenge: containing the plasma fuel that heats to millions of degrees inside a “bottle” made of magnetic fields produced by a superconducting magnet kept at absolute zero a few feet away. The concept’s been likened to trying to hold water inside rubber bands. A press release from MIT News entitled “New Insights on Fusion Power” celebrates the kind of esoteric advances that indicate that fusion lies somewhere beyond the Hubble Deep Field in the cosmology of future energy sources (i.e. just as distant as when I first wrote about it in 1978).
MIT scientists have discovered a way to “push the plasma around inside the [reactor] vessel” with radio-frequency waves. With this, they can prevent heat loss to the vessel walls, as well as the “internal turbulence that can reduce the efficiency of fusion reactions.” That, they say, could be crucial to the planned International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), currently being constructed in France. But these are just a couple of a number of issues preventing fusion reactors from producing more energy than they consume.
Another recent development which could help the ITER: a new way of injecting a blast of argon or neon into the reactor vessel– to quench “a kind of runaway effect that could cause severe damage to reactor components” (uh-oh)– by turning plasma energy into light. For the ITER, such a blast would require, for a mere thousandth of a second, the equivalent of the total electricity production of the United States. I can smell the grid frying from Caribou, Maine, to San Diego.
So, for the near future, EVs will depend on coal (which produces slightly less than half of US electricity), natural gas (21 percent), nuclear (19 percent), hydro (6.9 percent) and “other” (includes wind, 3.3 percent) and oil (1.1 percent).
CarnotCycle on Dec 04, 2008Imagine what a fusion reaction gone bad could do (hint - create the sun on planet earth). There is no way a fusion reactor of any kind could create a disaster of that magnitude in a failure. Fusion reactors and reactions are totally different than their fission analogs. Fusion is actually much like chemical combustion in its behavior, its just the fuels and their products are nuclear instead of molecular in energy-density. That also means it takes an very hot "spark plug" and high compression to both ignite and burn the fuels respectively.
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