With 174 countries and the European Union signing on to the Paris climate agreement this past April, the clock is ticking in the quest to develop and deploy innovative technological solutions to meet the ambitious goals of the historic deal, which call for keeping global warming below an increase of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius.
Could fusion energy be one of those solutions? It holds the enormous promise of being an important global energy source that uses almost limitless fuel and yet is not intermittent like solar and wind. Fusion’s associated waste products have less environmental impact than waste from nuclear fission and fossil fuels.
To educate the public on the current state of fusion energy, the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University has just published the report, “Fusion Energy via Magnetic Confinement.” Briefly discussing the history of fusion experiments, the availability of fuel, cost sharing among nations building reactors, fusion’s impact on the global energy market, and how fusion stacks up against fission, the report is a detailed factual primer on the topic. Although the authors consulted several fusion experts at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) – a major national fusion research facility – this report was written independently of PPPL and has not been approved by PPPL.
The publication is the Center’s latest Energy Technology Distillate. Each Distillate explains the technological, economic, and political dimensions of an emerging energy technology that has the potential to contribute significantly to the world’s growing need for energy while mitigating climate change. The intended audiences include researchers, policymakers, business leaders, educators, students, and the larger public.
In this Distillate, fusion energy is examined from four angles: Technology, Politics and Progress, Economics, and Fusion and Fission. Fusion energy is produced when nuclei collide and combine, which produces a burst of energy. Fusion energy is produced in a plasma, a state of matter where atoms become unglued and lose the bonds holding electrons to nuclei. The term magnetic confinement in the Distillate’s title refers to a specific approach to fusion that uses very strong magnetic fields to confine and control the plasma. A magnetically confined plasma having the potential to generate commercially significant amounts of energy from fusion reactions needs to sustain a temperature of 200 million degrees Celsius – even higher than the 15 million degrees found in the Sun’s core, nature’s fusion reactor. This challenge requires advanced magnets and other novel equipment.
The requirement of sustaining a very high temperature is just one of many challenges that fusion energy needs to overcome on the path to a viable commercial nuclear fusion reactor, according to the Distillate. Notably, costly parts will need to be replaced periodically. The report conveys the very experimental nature of current fusion energy research and the quest to achieve “breakeven” – when power generated by fusion reactions equals the power the reactor consumes. The Distillate reviews some of the current fusion energy experiments, including the massive international ITER project currently being built in France that may be able to achieve breakeven.
Robert Socolow, professor emeritus of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton, has spearheaded the Distillates series in collaboration with members of the University’s faculty, research scholars, and graduate students. “The world needs clear-eyed assessments of fusion and other low-carbon technology in order to develop an appreciation for the challenges inherent in the Paris climate agreement,” said Socolow. “The Distillates seek to wring out the hype that surrounds nearly every technological option and that makes objective evaluation by government officials, business leaders, and the general public much more difficult than it needs to be. Our target reader has lots of curiosity but limited technical background and no background about the specific topic.”
The Center has released Distillates on grid-scale electricity storage and small modular nuclear reactors. Others are on the way.
Emily Carter, founding director of the Andlinger Center, said the Distillates are a key component of achieving the center’s mission.
“The Andlinger Center’s mission to find the solutions to preserve our energy and environmental future is among the most important challenges for humanity this century and beyond,” she said. “The Distillates serve as one important answer to this challenge — education.”
To read the Energy Technology Distillates, go to acee.princeton.edu/distillates
To learn more about the other programs and activities at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, go to acee.princeton.edu
For questions, contact Sharon Adarlo, communications specialist, at email@example.com and/or at (609) 258-9979.