ScienceWise - Nov/Dec 2008

The Promise of Fusion

Article Illustration
View from the gantry crane of the H-1 stellarator showing the internal coils that confine the superheated plasma

Limitless power with no greenhouse emissions?

With rising oil prices, concerns over greenhouse gas emissions and dwindling fossil fuel reserves no one could fail to be aware that the world is facing an energy crisis. Whilst many sustainable energy technologies such as wind and solar power show great promise, it may be hard for them to meet the entire global power demand especially in countries with limited space and low levels of wind and sunshine.

In bridging this gap, the low greenhouse emissions of conventional nuclear plants has made them an attractive power generation option to many nations. Especially since they are compact, create large amounts of power and operate day and night. Offset against this is the concern over the storage of nuclear waste products many of which will be deadly for thousands of years.

But it doesn't have to be this way. There is an alternative nuclear technology, fusion, that has the potential to offer the best of both worlds: vast amounts of power with no greenhouse emissions.

The basic principle of a fusion reactor is to heat a mass of hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium, to many millions of degrees causing them to fuse together into helium releasing vast amounts of energy in the process. Fusion is the process that powers the sun.

Fusion has several significant advantages over fission. The raw materials can be readily extracted from seawater. The reaction product is helium not a long-lived radioactive isotope. The reactor does not contain enough fuel and any given time for a catastrophic runaway reaction of the type that can occur in fission reactors. All of these factors coupled with its zero greenhouse emissions, make fusion power a very attractive option for massive scale power generation.

The technical difficulty in achieving fusion is very great but not insurmountable. Since work began in the 1950s prototype reactors have shown a steady increase in power out to power in ratio. Current generation experimental reactors are beginning to reach "breakeven point" and within a decade or two, most scientists expect prototype reactors to be producing useful power.

Naturally, given the complexity of developing a working fusion reactor and the size and expense of such a project, most work in this area is carried out by many nations in partnership. Through the H-1 NF, Australia is able to actively participate in this international effort.

H-1 NF is a toroidal stellarator capable of holding a superheated plasma in a twisted magnetic loop. Although on a much smaller scale that prototype reactors such as ETA, H-1 offers excellent flexibility in its configuration and is particularly suited to the development of advanced diagnostic instrumentation. Some of this instrumentation has been employed on large scale reactors overseas and some has also been adapted to service other industries at home. In addition to its scientific value to Australia, H-1 also offers an excellent training ground for young Australian scientists and engineers.

The development of H-1 is supported by an $8.7M grant from the Department of Industry Science and Resources over a term that was recently extended to 2010. The facility is operated by the Australia Fusion Research Group (AFRG) consisting of a consortium of researchers from leading universities around the country.

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