Fusion processes require fuel and a confined environment with sufficient temperature, pressure, and confinement time to create a plasma in which fusion can occur. The combination of these figures that results in a power-producing system is known as the Lawson criterion. In stars, the most common fuel is hydrogen, and gravity provides extremely long confinement times that reach the conditions needed for fusion energy production. Proposed fusion reactors generally use hydrogen isotopes such as deuterium and tritium (and especially a mixture of the two), which react more easily than hydrogen to allow them to reach the Lawson criterion requirements with less extreme conditions. Most designs aim to heat their fuel to around 100 million degrees, which presents a major challenge in producing a successful design.
As a source of power, nuclear fusion is expected to have many advantages over fission. These include reduced radioactivity in operation and little high-level nuclear waste, ample fuel supplies, and increased safety. However, the necessary combination of temperature, pressure, and duration has proven to be difficult to produce in a practical and economical manner. Research into fusion reactors began in the 1940s, but to date, no design has produced more fusion power output than the electrical power input. A second issue that affects common reactions is managing neutrons that are released during the reaction, which over time degrade many common materials used within the reaction chamber.
The Sun, like other stars, is a natural fusion reactor, where stellar nucleosynthesis transforms lighter elements into heavier elements with the release of energy.
Binding energy for different atomic nuclei. Iron-56 has the highest, making it the most stable. Nuclei to the left are likely to release energy when they fuse (fusion); those to the far right are likely to be unstable and release energy when they split (fission).
Fusion reactions occur when two or more atomic nuclei come close enough for long enough that the nuclear force pulling them together exceeds the electrostatic force pushing them apart, fusing them into heavier nuclei. For nuclei heavier than iron-56, the reaction is endothermic, requiring an input of energy. The heavy nuclei bigger than iron have many more protons resulting in a greater repulsive force. For nuclei lighter than iron-56, the reaction is exothermic, releasing energy when they fuse. Since hydrogen has a single proton in its nucleus, it requires the least effort to attain fusion, and yields the most net energy output. Also since it has one electron, hydrogen is the easiest fuel to fully ionize.
The strong force acts only over short distances (at most one femtometer, the diameter of one proton or neutron), while the repulsive electrostatic force between nuclei acts over longer distances. In order to undergo fusion, the fuel atoms need to be given enough kinetic energy to approach each other closely enough for the strong force to overcome the electrostatic repulsion. The amount of kinetic energy needed to bring the fuel atoms close enough is known as the "Coulomb barrier". Ways of providing this energy include speeding up atoms in a particle accelerator, or heating them to high temperatures.
Once an atom is heated above its ionization energy, its electrons are stripped away, leaving just the bare nucleus. This process is known as ionization, and the resulting nucleus is known as an ion. The result is a hot cloud of ions and free electrons formerly attached to them known as plasma. Because the charges are separated, plasmas are electrically conductive and magnetically controllable. Many fusion devices take advantage of this to confine the particles as they are heated.
The fusion reaction rate increases rapidly with temperature until it maximizes and then gradually drops off. The deuterium-tritium fusion rate peaks at a lower temperature (about 70 keV, or 800 million kelvin) and at a higher value than other reactions commonly considered for fusion energy.
A reaction's cross section, denoted σ, measures the probability that a fusion reaction will happen. This depends on the relative velocity of the two nuclei. Higher relative velocities generally increase the probability, but the probability begins to decrease again at very high energies.
n is the number density of species A or B, of the particles in the volume
is the cross section of that reaction, average over all the velocities of the two species v
is the energy released by that fusion reaction.
The Lawson criterion shows how energy output varies with temperature, density, speed of collision for any given fuel. This equation was central to John Lawson's analysis of fusion working with a hot plasma. Lawson assumed an energy balance, shown below.
, conduction losses as energetic mass leaves the plasma
, radiation losses as energy leaves as light
, net power from fusion
, is rate of energy generated by the fusion reactions.
Plasma clouds lose energy through conduction and radiation. Conduction occurs when ions, electrons, or neutrals impact other substances, typically a surface of the device, and transfer a portion of their kinetic energy to the other atoms. Radiation is energy that leaves the cloud as light. Radiation increases with temperature. Fusion power technologies must overcome these losses.
Triple product: density, temperature, time
The Lawson criterion argues that a machine holding a thermalized and quasi-neutral plasma has to generate enough energy to overcome its energy losses. The amount of energy released in a given volume is a function of the temperature, and thus the reaction rate on a per-particle basis, the density of particles within that volume, and finally the confinement time, the length of time that energy stays within the volume. This is known as the "triple product": the plasma density, temperature, and confinement time.
In magnetic confinement, the density is low, on the order of a "good vacuum". For instance, in the ITER device the fuel density is about 10 x 1019, which is about one-millionth atmospheric density. This means that the temperature and/or confinement time must increase. Fusion-relevant temperatures have been achieved using a variety of heating methods that were developed in the early 1970s. In modern machines, as of 2019[update], the major remaining issue was the confinement time. Plasmas in strong magnetic fields are subject to a number of inherent instabilities, which must be suppressed to reach useful durations. One way to do this is to simply make the reactor volume larger, which reduces the rate of leakage due to classical diffusion. This is why ITER is so large.
In contrast, inertial confinement systems approach useful triple product values via higher density, and have short confinement intervals. In NIF, the initial frozen hydrogen fuel load has a density less than water that is increased to about 100 times the density of lead. In these conditions, the rate of fusion is so high that the fuel fuses in the microseconds it takes for the heat generated by the reactions to blow the fuel apart. Although NIF is also large, this is a function of its "driver" design, not inherent to the fusion process.
Multiple approaches have been proposed to capture the energy that fusion produces. The simplest is to heat a fluid. The commonly targeted D-T reaction releases much of its energy as fast-moving neutrons. Electrically neutral, the neutron is unaffected by the confinement scheme. In most such designs, it is captured in a thick "blanket" of lithium surrounding the reactor core. When struck by a high-energy neutron, the blanket heats up. It is then actively cooled with a working fluid that drives a turbine to produce power.
Another design proposed to use the neutrons to breed fission fuel in a blanket of nuclear waste, a concept known as a fission-fusion hybrid. In these systems, the power output is enhanced by the fission events, and power is extracted using systems like those in conventional fission reactors.
Designs that use other fuels, notably the proton-boron aneutronic fusion reaction, release much more of their energy in the form of charged particles. In these cases, power extraction systems based on the movement of these charges are possible. Direct energy conversion was developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in the 1980s as a method to maintain a voltage directly using fusion reaction products. This has demonstrated energy capture efficiency of 48 percent.
Tokamak: the most well-developed and well-funded approach. This method drives hot plasma around in a magnetically confined torus, with an internal current. When completed, ITER will become the world's largest tokamak. As of April 2012 an estimated 215 experimental tokamaks were either planned, decommissioned or operating (35) worldwide.
Spherical tokamak: also known as spherical torus. A variation on the tokamak with a spherical shape.
Stellarator: Twisted rings of hot plasma. The stellarator attempts to create a natural twisted plasma path, using external magnets. Stellarators were developed by Lyman Spitzer in 1950 and evolved into four designs: Torsatron, Heliotron, Heliac and Helias. One example is Wendelstein 7-X, a German device. It is the world's largest stellarator.
Internal rings: Stellarators create a twisted plasma using external magnets, while tokamaks do so using a current induced in the plasma. Several classes of designs provide this twist using conductors inside the plasma. Early calculations showed that collisions between the plasma and the supports for the conductors would remove energy faster than fusion reactions could replace it. Modern variations, including the Levitated Dipole Experiment (LDX), use a solid superconducting torus that is magnetically levitated inside the reactor chamber.
Magnetic mirror: Developed by Richard F. Post and teams at LLNL in the 1960s. Magnetic mirrors reflect plasma back and forth in a line. Variations included the Tandem Mirror, magnetic bottle and the biconic cusp. A series of mirror machines were built by the US government in the 1970s and 1980s, principally at LLNL. However, calculations in the 1970s estimated it was unlikely these would ever be commercially useful.
Bumpy torus: A number of magnetic mirrors are arranged end-to-end in a toroidal ring. Any fuel ions that leak out of one are confined in a neighboring mirror, permitting the plasma pressure to be raised arbitrarily high without loss. An experimental facility, the ELMO Bumpy Torus or EBT was built and tested at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the 1970s.
Field-reversed configuration: This device traps plasma in a self-organized quasi-stable structure; where the particle motion makes an internal magnetic field which then traps itself.
Spheromak: Similar to a field-reversed configuration, a semi-stable plasma structure made by using the plasmas' self-generated magnetic field. A spheromak has both toroidal and poloidal fields, while a field-reversed configuration has no toroidal field.
Reversed field pinch: Here the plasma moves inside a ring. It has an internal magnetic field. Moving out from the center of this ring, the magnetic field reverses direction.
Indirect drive: Lasers heat a structure known as a Hohlraum that becomes so hot it begins to radiate x-ray light. These x-rays heat a fuel pellet, causing it to collapse inward to compress the fuel. The largest system using this method is the National Ignition Facility, followed closely by Laser Mégajoule.
Direct drive: Lasers directly heat the fuel pellet. Notable direct drive experiments have been conducted at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) and the GEKKO XII facilities. Good implosions require fuel pellets with close to a perfect shape in order to generate a symmetrical inward shock wave that produces the high-density plasma.
Fast ignition: This method uses two laser blasts. The first blast compresses the fusion fuel, while the second ignites it. As of 2019[update] this technique had lost favor for energy production.
Ion Beams: Ion beams replace laser beams to heat the fuel. The main difference is that the beam has momentum due to mass, whereas lasers do not. As of 2019 it appears unlikely that ion beams can be sufficiently focused spatially and in time.
Z-machine: Sends an electrical current through thin tungsten wires, heating them sufficiently to generate x-rays. Like the indirect drive approach, these x-rays then compress a fuel capsule.
Magnetic or electric pinches
Z-Pinch: A current travels in the z-direction through the plasma. The current generates a magnetic field that compresses the plasma. Pinches were the first method for man-made controlled fusion. The z-pinch has inherent instabilities that limit its compression and heating to values too low for practical fusion. The largest such machine, the UK's ZETA, was the last major experiment of the sort. The problems in z-pinch led to the tokamak design. The dense plasma focus is a possibly superior variation.
Theta-Pinch: A current circles around the outside of a plasma column, in the theta direction. This induces a magnetic field running down the center of the plasma, as opposed to around it. The early theta-pinch device Scylla was the first to conclusively demonstrate fusion, but later work demonstrated it had inherent limits that made it uninteresting for power production.
Sheared Flow Stabilized Z-Pinch: Research at the University of Washington under Uri Shumlak investigated the use of sheared-flow stabilization to smooth out the instabilities of Z-pinch reactors. This involves accelerating neutral gas along the axis of the pinch. Experimental machines included the FuZE and Zap Flow Z-Pinch experimental reactors. In 2017, Benj Conway, Brian Nelson and Uri Shumlak co-founded Zap Energy to attempt to commercialize the technology for power production.
Screw Pinch: This method combines a theta and z-pinch for improved stabilization.
Inertial electrostatic confinement
Fusor: An electric field heats ions to fusion conditions. The machine typically uses two spherical cages, a cathode inside the anode, inside a vacuum. These machines are not considered a viable approach to net power because of their high conduction and radiation losses. They are simple enough to build that amateurs have fused atoms using them.
Polywell: Attempts to combine magnetic confinement with electrostatic fields, to avoid the conduction losses generated by the cage.
Uncontrolled: Fusion has been initiated by man, using uncontrolled fission explosions to stimulate fusion. Early proposals for fusion power included using bombs to initiate reactions. See Project PACER.
Beam fusion: A beam of high energy particles fired at another beam or target can initiate fusion. This was used in the 1970s and 1980s to study the cross sections of fusion reactions. However beam systems cannot be used for power because keeping a beam coherent takes more energy than comes from fusion.
Many approaches, equipment, and mechanisms are employed across multiple projects to address fusion heating, measurement, and power production.
Electrostatic heating: an electric field can do work on charged ions or electrons, heating them.
Neutral beam injection: hydrogen is ionized and accelerated by an electric field to form a charged beam that is shone through a source of neutral hydrogen gas towards the plasma which itself is ionized and contained by a magnetic field. Some of the intermediate hydrogen gas is accelerated towards the plasma by collisions with the charged beam while remaining neutral: this neutral beam is thus unaffected by the magnetic field and so reaches the plasma. Once inside the plasma the neutral beam transmits energy to the plasma by collisions which ionize it and allow it to be contained by the magnetic field, thereby both heating and refueling the reactor in one operation. The remainder of the charged beam is diverted by magnetic fields onto cooled beam dumps.
Magnetic reconnection: when plasma gets dense, its electromagnetic properties can change, which can lead to magnetic reconnection. Reconnection helps fusion because it instantly dumps energy into a plasma, heating it quickly. Up to 45% of the magnetic field energy can heat the ions.
Magnetic oscillations: varying electrical currents can be supplied to magnetic coils that heat plasma confined within a magnetic wall.
Flux loop: a loop of wire is inserted into the magnetic field. As the field passes through the loop, a current is made. The current measures the total magnetic flux through that loop. This has been used on the National Compact Stellarator Experiment, the polywell, and the LDX machines. A Langmuir probe, a metal object placed in a plasma, can be employed. A potential is applied to it, giving it a voltage against the surrounding plasma. The metal collects charged particles, drawing a current. As the voltage changes, the current changes. This makes an IV Curve. The IV-curve can be used to determine the local plasma density, potential and temperature.
Thomson scattering: Light scatters from plasma that can be used to reconstruct plasma behavior, including density and temperature. It is common in Inertial confinement fusion,Tokamaks, and fusors. In ICF systems, firing a second beam into a gold foil adjacent to the target makes x-rays that traverse the plasma. In tokamaks, this can be done using mirrors and detectors to reflect light.
X-ray detectors Visible, IR, UV, and X-rays are emitted anytime a particle changes velocity. If the reason is deflection by a magnetic field, the radiation is cyclotron radiation at low speeds and synchrotron radiation at high speeds. If the reason is deflection by another particle, plasma radiates X-rays, known as Bremsstrahlung radiation.
Neutron blankets absorb neutrons, which heats the blanket. Power can be extracted from the blanket in various ways:
Neutron blankets: These neutrons can regenerate spent fission fuel. Tritium can be produced using a breeder blanket comprised of liquid lithium or a helium cooled pebble bed made of lithium-bearing ceramic pebbles.
Confinement refers to all the conditions necessary to keep a plasma dense and hot long enough to undergo fusion. General principles:
Equilibrium: The forces acting on the plasma must be balanced. One exception is inertial confinement, where the fusion must occur faster than the dispersal time.
Stability: The plasma must be constructed so that disturbances will not lead to the plasma dispersing.
Transport or conduction: The loss of material must be sufficiently slow. The plasma carries energy off with it, so rapid loss of material will disrupt fusion. Material can be lost by transport into different regions or conduction through a solid or liquid.
To produce self-sustaining fusion, part of the energy released by the reaction must be used to heat new reactants and maintain the conditions for fusion.
Magnetic mirror effect. If a particle follows the field line and enters a region of higher field strength, the particles can be reflected. Several devices apply this effect. The most famous was the magnetic mirror machines, a series of devices built at LLNL from the 1960s to the 1980s. Other examples include magnetic bottles and Biconic cusp. Because the mirror machines were straight, they had some advantages over ring-shaped designs. The mirrors were easier to construct and maintain and direct conversion energy capture was easier to implement. Poor confinement led this approach to be abandoned, except in the polywell design.
Magnetic loops bend the field lines back on themselves, either in circles or more commonly in nested toroidal surfaces. The most highly developed systems of this type are the tokamak, the stellarator, and the reversed field pinch. Compact toroids, especially the field-reversed configuration and the spheromak, attempt to combine the advantages of toroidal magnetic surfaces with those of a simply connected (non-toroidal) machine, resulting in a mechanically simpler and smaller confinement area.
Inertial confinement is the use of rapid implosion to heat and confine plasma. A shell surrounding the fuel is imploded using a direct laser blast (direct drive), a secondary x-ray blast (indirect drive), or heavy beams. The fuel must be compressed to about 30 times solid density with energetic beams. Direct drive can in principle be efficient, but insufficient uniformity has prevented success.:19-20 Indirect drive uses beams to heat a shell, driving the shell to radiate x-rays, which then implode the pellet. The beams are commonly laser beams, but ion and electron beams have been investigated.:182-193
Electrostatic confinement fusion devices use electrostatic fields. The best known is the fusor. This device has a cathode inside an anode wire cage. Positive ions fly towards the negative inner cage, and are heated by the electric field in the process. If they miss the inner cage they can collide and fuse. Ions typically hit the cathode, however, creating prohibitory high conduction losses. Fusion rates in fusors are low because of competing physical effects, such as energy loss in the form of light radiation. Designs have been proposed to avoid the problems associated with the cage, by generating the field using a non-neutral cloud. These include a plasma oscillating device, a magnetically-shielded-grid, a penning trap, the polywell, and the F1 cathode driver concept.
The fuels considered for fusion power have all been light elements like the isotopes of hydrogen—protium, deuterium, and tritium. The deuterium and helium-3 reaction requires helium-3, an isotope of helium so scarce on Earth that it would have to be mined extraterrestrially or produced by other nuclear reactions. Ultimately, researchers hope to adopt the protium/boron-11 reaction, because it does not directly produce neutrons, although side reactions can.
This reaction is common in research, industrial and military applications, usually as a neutron source. Deuterium is a naturally occurring isotope of hydrogen and is commonly available. The large mass ratio of the hydrogen isotopes makes their separation easy compared to the uranium enrichment process. Tritium is a natural isotope of hydrogen, but because it has a short half-life of 12.32 years, it is hard to find, store, produce, and is expensive. Consequently, the deuterium-tritium fuel cycle requires the breeding of tritium from lithium using one of the following reactions:
1 0n + 6 3Li → 3 1T + 4 2He
1 0n + 7 3Li → 3 1T + 4 2He + 1 0n
The reactant neutron is supplied by the D-T fusion reaction shown above, and the one that has the greatest energy yield. The reaction with 6Li is exothermic, providing a small energy gain for the reactor. The reaction with 7Li is endothermic, but does not consume the neutron. Neutron multiplication reactions are required to replace the neutrons lost to absorption by other elements. Leading candidate neutron multiplication materials are beryllium and lead, but the 7Li reaction helps to keep the neutron population high. Natural lithium is mainly 7Li, which has a low tritium production cross section compared to 6Li so most reactor designs use breeder blankets with enriched 6Li.
Drawbacks commonly attributed to D-T fusion power include:
80% of the resultant energy is carried off by neutrons, which limits the use of direct energy conversion.
It requires the radioisotope tritium. Tritium may leak from reactors. Some estimates suggest that this would represent a substantial environmental radioactivity release.
The neutron flux expected in a commercial D-T fusion reactor is about 100 times that of fission power reactors, posing problems for material design. After a series of D-T tests at JET, the vacuum vessel was sufficiently radioactive that it required remote handling for the year following the tests.
In a production setting, the neutrons would react with lithium in the breeder blanket composed of lithium ceramic pebbles or liquid lithium, yielding tritium. The energy of the neutrons ends up in the lithium, which would then be transferred to drive electrical production. The lithium blanket protects the outer portions of the reactor from the neutron flux. Newer designs, the advanced tokamak in particular, use lithium inside the reactor core as a design element. The plasma interacts directly with the lithium, preventing a problem known as "recycling". The advantage of this design was demonstrated in the Lithium Tokamak Experiment.
Deuterium fusion cross section (in square meters) at different ion collision energies.
Fusing two deuterium nuclei is the second easiest fusion reaction. The reaction has two branches that occur with nearly equal probability:
D + D
D + D
This reaction is also common in research. The optimum energy to initiate this reaction is 15 keV, only slightly higher than that for the D-T reaction. The first branch produces tritium, so that a D-D reactor is not tritium-free, even though it does not require an input of tritium or lithium. Unless the tritons are quickly removed, most of the tritium produced is burned in the reactor, which reduces the handling of tritium, with the disadvantage of producing more, and higher-energy, neutrons. The neutron from the second branch of the D-D reaction has an energy of only 2.45 MeV (0.393 pJ), while the neutron from the D-T reaction has an energy of 14.1 MeV (2.26 pJ), resulting in greater isotope production and material damage. When the tritons are removed quickly while allowing the 3He to react, the fuel cycle is called "tritium suppressed fusion". The removed tritium decays to 3He with a 12.5 year half life. By recycling the 3He decay into the reactor, the fusion reactor does not require materials resistant to fast neutrons.
Assuming complete tritium burn-up, the reduction in the fraction of fusion energy carried by neutrons would be only about 18%, so that the primary advantage of the D-D fuel cycle is that tritium breeding is not required. Other advantages are independence from lithium resources and a somewhat softer neutron spectrum. The disadvantage of D-D compared to D-T is that the energy confinement time (at a given pressure) must be 30 times longer and the power produced (at a given pressure and volume) is 68 times less.
Assuming complete removal of tritium and 3He recycling, only 6% of the fusion energy is carried by neutrons. The tritium-suppressed D-D fusion requires an energy confinement that is 10 times longer compared to D-T and double the plasma temperature.
A second-generation approach to controlled fusion power involves combining helium-3 (3He) and deuterium (2H):
D + 3He
This reaction produces 4He and a high-energy proton. As with the p-11B aneutronic fusion fuel cycle, most of the reaction energy is released as charged particles, reducing activation of the reactor housing and potentially allowing more efficient energy harvesting (via any of several pathways). In practice, D-D side reactions produce a significant number of neutrons, leaving p-11B as the preferred cycle for aneutronic fusion.
Both material science problems and non proliferation concerns are greatly diminished by aneutronic fusion. Theoretically, the most reactive aneutronic fuel is 3He. However, obtaining reasonable quantities of 3He implies large scale extraterrestrial mining on the moon or in the atmosphere of Uranus or Saturn. Therefore, the most promising candidate fuel for such fusion is fusing the readily available protium (i.e. a proton) and boron. Their fusion releases no neutrons, but produces energetic charged alpha (helium) particles whose energy can directly be converted to electrical power:
p + 11B → 3 4He
Side reactions are likely to yield neutrons that carry only about 0.1% of the power,:177-182 which means that neutron scattering is not used for energy transfer and material activation is reduced several thousand-fold. The optimum temperature for this reaction of 123 keV is nearly ten times higher than that for pure hydrogen reactions, and energy confinement must be 500 times better than that required for the D-T reaction. In addition, the power density is 2500 times lower than for D-T, although per unit mass of fuel, this is still considerably higher than for fission reactors.
Because the confinement properties of the tokamak and laser pellet fusion are marginal, most proposals for aneutronic fusion are based on radically different confinement concepts, such as the Polywell and the Dense Plasma Focus. In 2013, a research team led by Christine Labaune at École Polytechnique, reported a new fusion rate record for proton-boron fusion, with an estimated 80 million fusion reactions during a 1.5 nanosecond laser fire, 100x previous experiments.
Structural material stability is a critical issue. Materials that can survive the high temperatures and neutron bombardment experienced in a fusion reactor are considered key to success. The principal issues are the conditions generated by the plasma, neutron degradation of wall surfaces, and the related issue of plasma-wall surface conditions. Reducing hydrogen permeability is seen as crucial to hydrogen recycling and control of the tritium inventory. Materials with the lowest bulk hydrogen solubility and diffusivity provide the optimal candidates for stable barriers. A few pure metals, including tungsten and beryllium, and compounds such as carbides, dense oxides, and nitrides have been investigated. Research has highlighted that coating techniques for preparing well-adhered and perfect barriers are of equivalent importance. The most attractive techniques are those in which an ad-layer is formed by oxidation alone. Alternative methods utilize specific gas environments with strong magnetic and electric fields. Assessment of barrier performance represents an additional challenge. Classical coated membranes gas permeation continues to be the most reliable method to determine hydrogen permeation barrier (HPB) efficiency. In 2021, in response to increasing numbers of designs for fusion power reactors for 2040, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority published the UK Fusion Materials Roadmap 2021-2040, focusing on five priority areas, with a focus on tokamak family reactors:
Novel materials to minimise the amount of activation in the structure of the fusion power plant;
Compounds that can be used within the power plant to optimise breeding of tritium fuel to sustain the fusion process;
Magnets and insulators that are resistant to irradiation from fusion reactions – especially under cryogenic conditions;
Structural materials able to retain their strength under neutron bombardment at high operating temperatures (over 550 degrees C);
Engineering assurance for fusion materials – providing irradiated sample data and modelled predictions such that plant designers, operators and regulators have confidence that materials are suitable for use in future commercial power stations.
Even on smaller production scales, the containment apparatus is blasted with matter and energy. Designs for plasma containment must consider:
A heating and cooling cycle, up to a 10 MW/m2 thermal load.
For long term use, each atom in the wall is expected to be hit by a neutron and displaced about 100 times before the material is replaced. High-energy neutrons produce hydrogen and helium via nuclear reactions that tend to form bubbles at grain boundaries and result in swelling, blistering or embrittlement.
Selection of materials
Low-Z materials, such as graphite or beryllium are generally preferred to high-Z materials, usually tungsten with molybdenum as a second choice. Liquid metals (lithium, gallium, tin) have been proposed, e.g., by injection of 1–5 mm thick streams flowing at 10 m/s on solid substrates.
Graphite features a gross erosion rate due to physical and chemical sputtering amounting to many meters per year, requiring redeposition of the sputtered material. The redeposition site generally does not exactly match the sputter site, allowing net erosion that may be prohibitive. An even larger problem is that tritium is redeposited with the redeposited graphite. The tritium inventory in the wall and dust could build up to many kilograms, representing a waste of resources and a radiological hazard in case of an accident. Graphite found favor as material for short-lived experiments, but appears unlikely to become the primary plasma-facing material (PFM) in a commercial reactor.
Tungsten's sputtering rate is orders of magnitude smaller than carbon's, and tritium is much less incorporated into redeposited tungsten. However, tungsten plasma impurities are much more damaging than carbon impurities, and self-sputtering can be high, requiring the plasma in contact with the tungsten not be too hot (a few tens of eV rather than hundreds of eV). Tungsten also has issues around eddy currents and melting in off-normal events, as well as some radiological issues.
Safety and the environment
Fusion reactors are not subject to catastrophic meltdown. It requires precise and controlled temperature, pressure and magnetic field parameters to produce net energy, and any damage or loss of required control would rapidly quench the reaction. Fusion reactors operate with seconds or even microseconds worth of fuel at any moment. Without active refueling, the reactions immediately quench.
The same constraints prevent runaway reactions. Although the plasma is expected to have a volume of 1,000 m3 (35,000 cu ft) or more, the plasma typically contains only a few grams of fuel. By comparison, a fission reactor is typically loaded with enough fuel for months or years, and no additional fuel is necessary to continue the reaction. This large fuel supply is what offers the possibility of a meltdown.
In magnetic containment, strong fields develop in coils that are mechanically held in place by the reactor structure. Failure of this structure could release this tension and allow the magnet to "explode" outward. The severity of this event would be similar to other industrial accidents or an MRI machine quench/explosion, and could be effectively contained within a containment building similar to those used in fission reactors.
In laser-driven inertial containment the larger size of the reaction chamber reduces the stress on materials. Although failure of the reaction chamber is possible, stopping fuel delivery prevents catastrophic failure.
Most reactor designs rely on liquid hydrogen as a coolant and to convert stray neutrons into tritium, which is fed back into the reactor as fuel. Hydrogen is flammable, and it is possible that hydrogen stored on-site could ignite. In this case, the tritium fraction of the hydrogen would enter the atmosphere, posing a radiation risk. Calculations suggest that about 1 kilogram (2.2 lb) of tritium and other radioactive gases in a typical power station would be present. The amount is small enough that it would dilute to legally acceptable limits by the time they reached the station's perimeter fence.
The likelihood of small industrial accidents, including the local release of radioactivity and injury to staff, are estimated to be minor compared to fission. They would include accidental releases of lithium or tritium or mishandling of radioactive reactor components.
A magnet quench is an abnormal termination of magnet operation that occurs when part of the superconducting coil exits the superconducting state (becomes normal). This can occur because the field inside the magnet is too large, the rate of change of field is too large (causing eddy currents and resultant heating in the copper support matrix), or a combination of the two.
More rarely a magnet defect can cause a quench. When this happens, that particular spot is subject to rapid Joule heating from the current, which raises the temperature of the surrounding regions. This pushes those regions into the normal state as well, which leads to more heating in a chain reaction. The entire magnet rapidly becomes normal over several seconds, depending on the size of the superconducting coil. This is accompanied by a loud bang as the energy in the magnetic field is converted to heat, and the cryogenic fluid boils away. The abrupt decrease of current can result in kilovolt inductive voltage spikes and arcing. Permanent damage to the magnet is rare, but components can be damaged by localized heating, high voltages, or large mechanical forces.
In practice, magnets usually have safety devices to stop or limit the current when a quench is detected. If a large magnet undergoes a quench, the inert vapor formed by the evaporating cryogenic fluid can present a significant asphyxiation hazard to operators by displacing breathable air.
A large section of the superconducting magnets in CERN's Large Hadron Collider unexpectedly quenched during start-up operations in 2008, destroying multiple magnets. In order to prevent a recurrence, the LHC's superconducting magnets are equipped with fast-ramping heaters that are activated when a quench event is detected. The dipole bending magnets are connected in series. Each power circuit includes 154 individual magnets, and should a quench event occur, the entire combined stored energy of these magnets must be dumped at once. This energy is transferred into massive blocks of metal that heat up to several hundred degrees Celsius—because of resistive heating—in seconds. A magnet quench is a "fairly routine event" during the operation of a particle accelerator.
The natural product of the fusion reaction is a small amount of helium, which is harmless to life. Hazardous tritium is difficult to retain completely. During normal operation, tritium is continually released.
Although tritium is volatile and biologically active, the health risk posed by a release is much lower than that of most radioactive contaminants, because of tritium's short half-life (12.32 years) and very low decay energy (~14.95 keV), and because it does not bioaccumulate (it cycles out of the body as water, with a biological half-life of 7 to 14 days). ITER incorporates total containment facilities for tritium.
Fusion reactors create far less radioactive material than fission reactors. Further, the material it creates is less damaging biologically, and the radioactivity dissipates within a time period that is well within existing engineering capabilities for safe long-term waste storage. In specific terms, except in the case of aneutronic fusion, the neutron flux turn the structural materials radioactive. The amount of radioactive material at shut-down may be comparable to that of a fission reactor, with important differences. The half-life of fusion radioisotopes tends to be less than those from fission, so that any hazard decreases more rapidly. Whereas fission reactors produce waste that remains radioactive for thousands of years, the radioactive material in a fusion reactor (other than the tritium) would be the reactor core itself and most of this would be radioactive for about 50 years, with other low-level waste being radioactive for another 100 years or so thereafter. Although this waste is considerably more radioactive during those 50 years than fission waste, its short half-life eliminates the challenge of long-term storage. By 500 years, the material would have the same radiotoxicity as coal ash. Nonetheless, classification as intermediate level waste rather than low-level waste may complicate safety discussions.
The choice of materials is less constrained than in conventional fission, where many materials are required for their specific neutron cross-sections. Fusion reactors can be designed using "low activation", materials that do not easily become radioactive. Vanadium, for example, becomes much less radioactive than stainless steel.Carbon fiber materials are also low-activation, and are strong and light, and are promising for laser-inertial reactors where a magnetic field is not required.
Fusion's overlap with nuclear weapons is limited. A huge amount of tritium could be produced by a fusion power station; tritium is used in the trigger of hydrogen bombs and in modern boosted fission weapons, but it can be produced in other ways. The energetic neutrons from a fusion reactor could be used to breed weapons-grade plutonium or uranium for an atomic bomb (for example by transmutation of 238 U to 239Pu, or 232 Th to 233 U).
A study conducted in 2011 assessed three scenarios:
Small-scale fusion station: As a result of much higher power consumption, heat dissipation and a more recognizable design compared to enrichment gas centrifuges, this choice would be much easier to detect and therefore implausible.
Commercial facility: The production potential is significant. But no fertile or fissile substances necessary for the production of weapon-usable materials needs to be present at a civil fusion system at all. If not shielded, detection of these materials can be done by their characteristic gamma radiation. The underlying redesign could be detected by regular design information verification. In the (technically more feasible) case of solid breeder blanket modules, it would be necessary for incoming components to be inspected for the presence of fertile material, otherwise plutonium for several weapons could be produced each year.
Prioritizing weapon-grade material regardless of secrecy: The fastest way to produce weapon-usable material was seen in modifying a civil fusion power station. No weapons-compatible material is required during civil use. Even without the need for covert action, such a modification would take about 2 months to start production and at least an additional week to generate a significant amount. This was considered to be enough time to detect a military use and to react with diplomatic or military means. To stop the production, a military destruction of parts of the facility while leaving out the reactor would be sufficient.
Another study concluded "...large fusion reactors – even if not designed for fissile material breeding – could easily produce several hundred kg Pu per year with high weapon quality and very low source material requirements." It was emphasized that the implementation of features for intrinsic proliferation resistance might only be possible at an early phase of research and development. The theoretical and computational tools needed for hydrogen bomb design are closely related to those needed for inertial confinement fusion, but have very little in common with magnetic confinement fusion.
Fusion power commonly proposes the use of deuterium as fuel and many current designs also use lithium. Assuming a fusion energy output equal to the 1995 global power output of about 100 EJ/yr (= 1 × 1020 J/yr) and that this does not increase in the future, which is unlikely, then known current lithium reserves would last 3000 years. Lithium from sea water would last 60 million years, however, and a more complicated fusion process using only deuterium would have fuel for 150 billion years. To put this in context, 150 billion years is close to 30 times the remaining lifespan of the sun, and more than 10 times the estimated age of the universe.
The EU spent almost €10 billion through the 1990s.ITER represents an investment of over twenty billion dollars, and possibly tens of billions more, including in kind contributions. Under the European Union's Sixth Framework Programme, nuclear fusion research received €750 million (in addition to ITER funding), compared with €810 million for sustainable energy research, putting research into fusion power well ahead of that of any single rival technology. The United States Department of Energy has allocated $US367M–$US671M every year since 2010, peaking in 2020, with plans to reduce investment to $US425M in its FY2021 Budget Request. About a quarter of this budget is directed to support ITER.
The size of the investments and time lines results mean that fusion research has almost exclusively been publicly funded. However, start-up companies have attracted over 2.5 billion dollars from roughly 2000 to 2020, with most of the funding coming since 2015  with investors including Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel and Bill Gates, as well as institutional investors including Legal & General, and energy companies including Equinor, Eni, Chevron, and the Chinese ENN Group. In September 2019, Bloomberg found that over twenty private companies were engaged.
Scenarios developed in the 2000s and early 2010s discussed the effect of the commercialization of fusion power on the future of human civilization. Using nuclear fission as a guide, these saw ITER and later DEMO as bringing online the first commercial reactors around 2050 and a rapid expansion after mid-century. Some scenarios emphasized 'fusion nuclear science facilities' as a step beyond ITER. However, the economic obstacles to tokamak-based fusion power remain immense, requiring investment to fund prototype tokamak reactors and development of new supply chains. Tokamak designs appear to be labour-intensive, while the commercialization risk of alternatives like inertial fusion energy is high due to the lack of government resources.
Scenarios since 2010 note computing and material science advances enabling multi-phase national or cost-sharing 'Fusion Pilot Plants' (FPPs) along various technology pathways, such as the UK Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production, within the 2030-2040 time frame. Notably, in June 2021, General Fusion announced it would accept the UK government's offer to host the world's first substantial public-private partnership fusion demonstration plant, at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. The plant will be constructed from 2022 to 2025 and is intended to lead the way for commercial pilot plants in the late 2025s. The plant will be 70% of full scale and is expected to attain a stable plasma of 150 million degrees. In the United States, cost-sharing public-private partnership FPPs appear likely. Compact reactor technology based on such demonstration plants may enable commercialization via a fleet approach from the 2030s if early markets can be located.
The widespread adoption of non-nuclear renewable energy has transformed the energy landscape. Such renewables are projected to supply 74% of global energy by 2050. The steady fall of renewable energy prices challenges the economic competitiveness of fusion power.
Levelized cost of energy (LCOE) for various sources of energy including wind, solar and nuclear energy.
Some economists suggest fusion power is unlikely to match other renewable energy costs. Fusion plants are expected to face large start up and capital costs. Moreover, operation and maintenance are likely to be costly. While the costs of the CFETR are not well known, an EU DEMO fusion concept was projected to feature a levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of $121/MWh.
Furthermore, economists suggest that fusion energy cost increases by $16.5/ MWh for every $1 billion increase in the price of fusion technology. This high Levelized cost of energy is largely a result of construction costs.
In contrast, renewable levelized cost of energy estimates are substantially lower. For instance, the 2019 levelized cost of energy of solar energy was estimated to be $40-$46/MWh, on shore wind was estimated at $29-$56/MWh, and offshore wind was approximately $92/MWh.
However, fusion power may still have a role filling energy gaps left by renewables. Thus, fusion power may work in tandem with other renewable energy sources rather than becoming the primary energy source. In some applications, fusion power could provide the base load, especially if including integrated thermal storage and cogeneration and considering the potential for retrofitting coal plants.
As fusion pilot plants move within reach, legal and regulatory issues must be addressed. In September 2020, the United States National Academy of Sciences consulted with private fusion companies to consider a national pilot plant. The following month, the United States Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Fusion Industry Association co-hosted a public forum to begin the process. In November 2020, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) began working with various nations to create safety standards such as dose regulations and radioactive waste handling. In January and March 2021, NRC hosted two public meetings on regulatory frameworks. A public-private cost-sharing approach was endorsed in the 27 December H.R.133 Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, which authorized $325 million over five years for a partnership program to build fusion demonstration facilities, with a 100% match from private industry. Subsequently, the UK Regulatory Horizons Council published a report calling for a fusion regulatory framework by early 2022 in order to position the UK as a global leader in commercializing fusion power. This call was met by the UK government publishing in October 2021 both its Fusion Green Paper and its Fusion Strategy, to regulate and commercialize fusion, respectively.
Given the potential of fusion to transform the world's energy industry and mitigate climate change, fusion science has traditionally been seen as an integral part of peace-building science diplomacy. However, technological developments and private sector involvement has raised concerns over intellectual property, regulatory administration, global leadership; equity, and potential weaponization. These challenge ITER's peace-building role and led to calls for a global commission.
Developments from late 2020 onwards have led to talk of a "new space race" with multiple entrants, pitting the US against China and the UK's STEP FPP. On 24 September, the United States House of Representatives approved a research and commercialization program. The Fusion Energy Research section incorporated a milestone-based, cost-sharing, public-private partnership program modeled on NASA's COTS program, which launched the commercial space industry. In February 2021, the National Academies published Bringing Fusion to the U.S. Grid, recommending a market-driven, cost-sharing plant for 2035–2040, and the launch of the Congressional Bipartisan Fusion Caucus followed.
In December 2020, an independent expert panel reviewed EUROfusion's design and R&D work on DEMO, and EUROfusion confirmed it was proceeding with its Roadmap to Fusion Energy, beginning the conceptual design of DEMO in partnership with the European fusion community, suggesting an EU-backed machine had entered the race.
Fusion power promised to provide more energy for a given weight of fuel than any fuel-consuming energy source currently in use. The fuel (primarily deuterium) exists abundantly in the ocean: about 1 in 6500 hydrogen atoms in seawater is deuterium. Although this is only about 0.015%, seawater is plentiful and easy to access, implying that fusion could supply the world's energy needs for millions of years.
First generation fusion plants are expected to use the deuterium-tritium fuel cycle. This will require the use of lithium for breeding of the tritium. It is not known for how long global lithium supplies will suffice to supply this need as well as those of the battery and metallurgical industries. It is expected that second generation plants will move on to the more formidable deuterium-deuterium reaction. The deuterium-helium-3 reaction is also of interest, but the light helium isotope is practically non-existent on Earth. It is thought to exist in useful quantities in the lunar regolith, and is abundant in the atmospheres of the gas giant planets.
The history of fusion power began early in the 20th century as an inquiry into how stars powered themselves and expanded to incorporate a broad inquiry into the nature of matter and energy, while potential applications expanded to include warfare, rocket propulsion, and energy production. Unfortunately, generating electricity from fusion has been forecast to be 30 years in the future for the last 50 years and may still be that far off.
The history is a convoluted mixture of investigations into nuclear physics and a parallel exploration of engineering challenges ranging from identifying appropriate materials and fuels, to improving heating and confinement techniques.
The first man-made device to achieve ignition was the detonation of this fusion device, codenamed Ivy Mike.
Early photo of plasma inside a pinch machine (Imperial College 1950/1951)
The quest for fusion power has proceeded along multiple trajectories since the outset. Trajectories such as pinch designs fell away as they confronted obstacles that have yet to be surmounted. The survivors include magnetic confinement approaches such as tokamak and stellarator, along with ICF devices approaches such as laser and electrostatic confinement.
Laser advances included frequency-tripling crystals that transformed infrared laser beams into ultraviolet beams and "chirping", which changed a single wavelength into a full spectrum that could be amplified and then reconstituted into one frequency. Laser research ate money as well, consuming over one billion dollars in the 1980s.
Over time the "advanced tokamak" concept emerged, which included non-circular plasma, internal diverters and limiters, superconducting magnets, and operation in the so-called "H-mode" island of increased stability. The compact tokamak, with the magnets on the inside of the vacuum chamber.
Magnetic mirrors suffered from end losses, requiring high power, complex magnetic designs, such as the baseball coil pictured here.
The Novette target chamber (metal sphere with diagnostic devices protruding radially), which was reused from the Shiva project and two newly built laser chains visible in background.
Inertial confinement fusion implosion on the Nova laser during the 1980s was a key driver of fusion development.
The preamplifiers of the National Ignition Facility. In 2012, the NIF achieved a 500-terawatt shot.
The Wendelstein7X under construction
Example of a stellarator design: A coil system (blue) surrounds plasma (yellow). A magnetic field line is highlighted in green on the yellow plasma surface.
Private and public research accelerated in the 2010s. General Fusion developed plasma injector technology and Tri Alpha Energy tested its C-2U device. The French Laser Mégajoule began operation. NIF achieved net energy gain in 2013, as defined in the very limited sense as the hot spot at the core of the collapsed target, rather than the whole target.
In January 2021, SuperOx announced the commercialization of a new superconducting wire, with more than 700 A/mm2 current capability.
TAE Technologies announced results for its Norman device, holding a temperature of about 60 million °C (108 million °F) for 30 milliseconds, 8 and 10 times higher, respectively, than the company's previous devices.
On Sunday, August 8th 2021, the National Ignition Facility appear to have triggered fusion ignition in the laboratory for the first time in the 60+ year history of the ICF program. The shot yielded 1.3 Megajoules of fusion energy, an 8X increase over tests done in spring of 2021 and a 25X increase over NIF 2018 record experiments. Early reports estimated that 250 kilojoules of energy was deposited on the target (roughly 2/3 of the energy from the beams), which resulted in a 1.3 Megajoule output from the fusing plasma.
Fusion records have been set by a number of devices. Some follow:
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