Fusion policy in the New York Times
Posted: 22 October 2012 09:07 AM   [ Ignore ]
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The failure of NIF to meet its National Ignition Campaign deadline has led to an editorial in the New York Times, followed by discussion on Andrew Revkin’s “Dot Earth” blog. Revkin made a general post on fusion funding, focusing mainly on ITER and NIF. This was followed by another post containing a speech by Robert Hirsch, delivered at the 14th US-Japan Workshop on IECF, which advocates changing the focus of the present fusion program towards concepts that would be economically competitive with existing electrical generation methods.

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Posted: 22 October 2012 11:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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My question is how do they know that alternative concepts are economically competitive?  This has been the bane of the mainline ICF and MCF programs for years.  Claims of clean, cheap energy without a configuration that is capable of producing more energy than it takes in.  Doesn’t it seem premature to assume the economics are known before the physics is demonstrated to work?  Doesn’t engineering the system need to be done to understand the components and people that are the real cost of fusion?  This will provide the inputs to decide if carbon free energy from fusion is worth the investment. 

It frustrates me to no end that national lab folks talk about clean, cheap energy as a way to keep pouring money into programs they know are not viable for producing energy.  I guess the folks at the top of these programs lost sight that they were once credible researchers that knew that science strives to be an objective process.  While not as satisfying, it is just as important to know what doesn’t work.  One can conclude with our current level of technology that fusion from NIF and ITER may be beyond us.  Are other concepts going to meet the same end?  I don’t know but isn’t it time to state honestly that the fusion program is more about hunting and pecking for what might be possible i.e. science rather than producing energy?  If a concept produces net energy, the engineering and economics will come on their own. 

Astrophysics and particle physics seem to stay funded when one can easily argue in tough times they have little practical value such a creating sustainable jobs worldwide, improving energy efficiency, reducing need for carbon based fuel, etc.  They stand on quality of their work and people continue to support them. I’m not sure what it says about fusion but I don’t think the commentary is good.

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Posted: 22 October 2012 04:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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asymmetric_implosion - 22 October 2012 11:57 AM

My question is how do they know that alternative concepts are economically competitive?

As always these are based on the starting assumption of “... if a particular method works.”

If it is assumed that a given aneutronic process works, such as Focus Fusion or Polywell, then the basic order of magnitude costs of those generators have already been gamed out. They work or they don’t. Others such as Tri-Alpha’s (whatever they’ll call it) still have insufficient public info as to base costs.

But the primary driver of baseload-class plant costs is not the power source. It’s the generators that turn that power into electricity.

So if one speaks of proton-Boron fusion as Hirsch does and as we do here, then one is perforce speaking of direct conversion of fusion energy to electricity. No turbines.

Direct conversion is not a mystery, we’ve just not had much use for it in power generation up till now. But there would be no turbines.

And that would, without a doubt, mean massive savings over the equivalent structures in any given fossil or fission power plant. Baseload electricity generation via turbines is expensive. Massive arrays of costly moving parts constantly wearing themselves down.

So in order for the cost of a given aneutronic process to be non-competitive it would not only have to exceed the cost of its fossil or fission equivalent power source but it would also have to exceed the cost of the associated generation gear. 

Not going to happen. FF units, for example, would need to have their current estimated costs come in at over *50* times the current budget in order to… draw even with current power sources. Co-gen, using the waste FF heat as industrial process heat etc etc, more than doubles that margin.

*If* a given aneutronic process works it will be competitive… and then some smile

asymmetric_implosion - 22 October 2012 11:57 AM

  This has been the bane of the mainline ICF and MCF programs for years.  Claims of clean, cheap energy without a configuration that is capable of producing more energy than it takes in.  Doesn’t it seem premature to assume the economics are known before the physics is demonstrated to work?

Nope. Not with the scale of savings that the basic concept of aneutronic fusion brings to the table.

asymmetric_implosion - 22 October 2012 11:57 AM

Doesn’t engineering the system need to be done to understand the components and people that are the real cost of fusion?  This will provide the inputs to decide if carbon free energy from fusion is worth the investment.

Sorry, no. A working aneutronic fusion process has a completely different set of cost assessments associated with it than any other power source. It has neither the noxious chemical outputs of fossil or the radioactive waste output of fission. It can provide both baseload and on-demand power. It can be both centralized and distributed….

It won’t be perfect, nothing ever is, but it will be far closer to an ideal power source than anything currently in use or planned.

asymmetric_implosion - 22 October 2012 11:57 AM

It frustrates me to no end that national lab folks talk about clean, cheap energy as a way to keep pouring money into programs they know are not viable for producing energy.

And that’s why the aneutronic contenders struggle for funding to complete their research. Do you believe they are wrong for doing that research with the clearly stated goals of achieving aneutronic fusion power sources?

 

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Posted: 22 October 2012 06:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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@Zapkitty:  I have no problem with science for the sake of science.  I support the astrophysics and nuclear physics folks.  I think they do amazing work.  My problem is hiding behind some practical application in the near term.  Inside and outside the gov’t folks invest in science for the sake of science.  They seem to hate being lied to.  If you tell me that you are interested in exploring the feasibility of a gain reaction from a PF, I don’t have a problem with it.  If I reviewed a reasonable proposal I would probably green light it.  Don’t write a proposal that says in five years I will have working reactor regardless of the fusion reaction.  It is unrealistic.  I take the LPP project as an example.  They are two years in and there are problems with arcing and pulse power.  Every project has these glitches.  Some take days to resolve, some take years.  ITER, NIF and all the alternative confinement concepts will suffer these problems before they can answer the question of whether they work or not.  It is these unknowns that make estimating the economics very difficult.  You speak of turbines which I agree are costly, but the economics are well known and cost effective as we currently use them and electricity cost are not obscene. 

If you believe that aneutronic fusion is so economically viable I give you this economic calculation for consideration.  FoFu reactor in production must run at 200 Hz.  The only switch that exists that has a hope of operating in the regime is a thyratron which carries 11 kA per switch at voltages of interest (<100 kV).  For a 3 MA PF, you need 273 units for this device rounding up for decimal places.  A typical thyratron costs $3500.  Imagine you can buy them in bulk for $500, so you need $136.5K per burn out.  Each switch lasts 5E7 shots.  At 200 Hz each switch lasts 69 hours so at 5 MW, the energy generation is 347 MW-hrs.  Using the US average cost paid by the consumer of $0.133 per kW-hr ($133 per MW-hr from http://www.bls.gov/ro9/cpilosa_energy.htm), the plant makes $46151 while it costs $136.5K.  Hmmmm.  Even if you double the money made by selling the heat from the reactor you are still coming up short.  I would argue this is a blue sky calculation so the real system would cost more per 69 days.  This neglects any people to work on the plant, ES&H, other parts that might fail like electrodes or capacitors, etc.  This is a doomed business proposition on micro-economics alone.  If you want to argue about the cost of carbon in the atmosphere and long term effects, it is all good and well but sell the technology as necessary to save us from global flooding and wars.  People might consider paying 50% more for electricity if they know it’s going to save lives, provide energy independence, etc.  And yes, I do consider a gov’t subsidy a cost to the people. 

If the next argument is that next gen switches need to be developed, I agree.  Those are 10-15 years away at the current pace.  The Army is driving the development pretty hard for their applications but that darn physics keeps cropping up in a disagreeable ways.  Even with the next amazing step, the cost of solid state which offers 1E10 shots per cycle costs ~$1000/J.  FoFu power plant will requires something like 100kJ stored to produce 3 MA reliably so a capital investment of $100M in the pulse power alone. It runs at 200 Hz for 1E10 shots or 13888 hrs.  Again, a 5 MW power plants so you make, $1.9M using $133 per MW-hr.  This assumes the replaceable materials cost, people, ES&H ,etc less than 2% of the initial capital investment in the pulse power to make money.  You might have a leg to stand on with economies of scale if you can amortize the cost of the plant over many years.  The cost of solid state pulse power is not going to drop below $100 per J in the near future so you will be right on the edge of economically viable in 10-15 years with some gov’t subsidy to hide the cost. 

This neglects all the really complicated issues like source reproducibility over the long run, beryllium chemistry with hydrogen and boron, electrode erosion, neutron production, etc.  It really doesn’t matter which subsystem is the cost driver, it is the total cost that matters or return on investment.  Fusion might have better efficiency of conversion, more compact geometry, no carbon, but as an energy source it costs more than anything we have now even in the most promising case.  When all is said and done, it will cost more than this simple calculation while the cost of energy will only increase by 10-20%. 

Should we pursue fusion science? Sure.  Fusion energy comes after fusion science is proven and proper cost modeling is possible with all the factors considered.  Is economics the only reasonable driver? No, but those decisions are above my pay grade.

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Posted: 23 October 2012 03:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Personally I’m just thrilled to see the NYTimes writing about tokamak economics, polywell, and boron fusion. Maybe the word is starting to get out, and a little big-fusion money can be pried loose for alternative approaches.

I know nothing about the engineering and economics of switches, and I’d like to see other people’s views on that. I think if FF simply demonstrates scientific feasibility, it’ll go a long way towards raising funds both for switch development and for other aneutronic designs.

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Posted: 23 October 2012 04:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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A lot of science needs to be done before you can claim to understand the economics because you don’t know what you need to make the system work.  Gain is a necessary but not sufficient condition to produce a viable fusion power plant. 


I agree that gain would push the supporting technologies like switches and capacitors (yeah, these guys burn out faster than the switches).  The potential pitfall is pushing beyond fundamental physics limitations of materials.  Many of the problems with the switches and capacitors are material wear and failure.  Thyratrons are already pushed to their limits on the material side by using hydrogen as the source gas to limit ion damage on the cathode and refractory materials when merited.  There is nothing left that can be done.  Diamond switches, which have been mentioned on this site a few times, are difficult to trigger because of the large band gap that makes them large voltage hold off.  The purity of the material is just getting good enough to approach the theoretical hold off limits. 


Information on Thyratrons is available from the vendors, English Electric Valve and L-3 Communications Electron Devices.  The bulk sales rates are just guesses based upon the limited numbers I buy.  The cost per J for the solid state number is based upon a plasma focus built by SRL that stored ~2 kJ and cost ~$2M to run at 80 Hz and 200 kA.

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Posted: 23 October 2012 07:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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asymmetric_implosion - 23 October 2012 04:10 PM

A lot of science needs to be done before you can claim to understand the economics because you don’t know what you need to make the system work.  Gain is a necessary but not sufficient condition to produce a viable fusion power plant. 


I agree that gain would push the supporting technologies like switches and capacitors (yeah, these guys burn out faster than the switches).  The potential pitfall is pushing beyond fundamental physics limitations of materials.  Many of the problems with the switches and capacitors are material wear and failure.  Thyratrons are already pushed to their limits on the material side by using hydrogen as the source gas to limit ion damage on the cathode and refractory materials when merited.  There is nothing left that can be done.  Diamond switches, which have been mentioned on this site a few times, are difficult to trigger because of the large band gap that makes them large voltage hold off.  The purity of the material is just getting good enough to approach the theoretical hold off limits. 


Information on Thyratrons is available from the vendors, English Electric Valve and L-3 Communications Electron Devices.  The bulk sales rates are just guesses based upon the limited numbers I buy.  The cost per J for the solid state number is based upon a plasma focus built by SRL that stored ~2 kJ and cost ~$2M to run at 80 Hz and 200 kA.

There are vendors who can customize equipment to your specifications.  I checked and found R. E. Beverly III & Associates.  They make spark gap switches that are very similar to the one used by FoFu1.  They have a list of products for high voltage work.

This article describes a switch that is related to the thyratron but more rugged and could be cheaper.  Characterization of high power Pseudospark Plasma Switch (PSS) 

Further developments are just waiting for enough demand.

 

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Posted: 23 October 2012 10:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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R. E. Beverly III & Associates does customize switches for the user application.  They built the original switches on FoFu-1. :( 

Pseudo-sparks are possible.  I don’t know enough about them to give stats on performance.  My guess is that their lifetime is not going to be the 1E9 shots you need to feel good about them.  Gas based switches are inherently limited by the cathode erosion.  You can increase the cathode area and optimize materials (which is largely done if I understand it correctly).  Large switches tend to be high inductance which limits current for a given charge voltage which means more switches or increased voltage.  I’ve heard mixed reviews from folks that use pseudo-sparks; some love them and some hate them. 

I offer you this bit of optimism.  FrancisL found a paper on using a transformer PF that I wrote a year or so back.  The idea, in principle, can be expanded to a 3 MA machine.  The transformer ratio would probably drop from 6:1 to 3:1 to keep the voltages reasonable for thyratron switches or pseudo-sparks, if you prefer.  This reduces the switch count by 3.  Take the $136.5K and divide by 3 to get a number slightly less than the money generated from electricity.  Now you have to address the capacitors which are truly limited to 1E8 shots.  I don’t know of a way around it in a high current cap.  I know 1 kHz caps exist and they are used commercially at the 50 kV level and currents of ~10 kA so there already is a market to drive the development.  One might argue that caps are not required if you use inductive energy storage methods but those require some work as well. 

My point is not to say it is impossible to produce cost effective fusion.  The point is that a great deal of science is required to make it cost effective.  Step 1 is showing gain.  Step 2 and so on will use the requirements of a gain configuration to develop the energy conversion, materials, pulse power and eventually the business plan.

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Posted: 24 October 2012 08:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I am somewhat skeptical of Hirsch’s recommendation. After all, it was a similar push by him to narrow the field back in the ‘70s (plus unforeseen, if not unforeseeable, budget cuts) that got us the tokamak monopoly. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much good is being done by the DOE’s present overwhelming focus on tokamaks. At any rate, I think it’s a good thing the New York Times is hosting this argument, rather than only covering the latest developments related to ITER and/or NIF. Even if the DOE is unwilling or unable to expand its focus much, a wider audience is thereby made aware of other options.

The full EPRI paper mentioned by Hirsch (and of which he was a co-author), “Criteria for Practical Fusion Power Systems”, can be found here, along with other papers related to the economics of fusion reactors (mainly tokamaks and IEC).

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Posted: 24 October 2012 10:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I submitted this as a comment on the blog:

Bob Hirsch is to be congratulated on making the, for him, painful assessment that the tokamak, deuterium-tritium approach to fusion cannot produce the safe, clean, cheap energy that the world needs. He is also right that aneutronic fuels, especially proton-boron, are essential to fusion success. But in focusing on one device, the IEC, he is repeating the basic mistake he and other policy makers made 40 years ago by putting all their eggs in one basket and betting on only one device. It was premature then, as events proved, and it is still premature.  Right now there are in addition to IEC at least three other devices that have a chance of producing net energy with proton-born fuel: the dense plasma focus, femtosecond lasers and the field reversed configuration. The first two, with extremely dense plasmas, can use the quantum magnetic field effect to reduce electron temperatures relative to ion temperatures and thus reduce the x-ray cooling of the plasma. In our own work at Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, Inc. we have achieved in experiments the ion energy and confinement time, although not yet the density, needed for net energy production.  The best and lowest risk path to fusion is therefore an International Aneutronic Fusion Program that adequately funds ALL possible approaches to aneutronic fusion, rather than determining in advance the one most likely to succeed.

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Posted: 30 October 2012 01:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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It seems a bit unfair to think that the tokamak was selected without any competition or data on other concepts.  Pinch based fusion concepts were in the works since the 1950’s but none panned out.  Laser based fusion, colliding ion beam concepts and other ideas were examined before the tokamak was declared the winner.  Admittedly, technology and modeling have come a long way since the tokamak was declared the most likely to succeed, but it wasn’t in the absence of other concepts. 

Down-select is the natural process of technology development.  You can’t run all the ponies forever.  I think models like those developed by the semiconductor industry could successfully be applied to fusion.  For the first period a pot of money is divided up among the candidates but all data is shared in the group.  At the end of first period, the most promising concepts are chosen and funded as competitive entities with schedules, time lines, etc for some period.  The winner, if you have one, becomes the focus for the last period until it is viable.  I think the real threat of killing a project will help the teams focus on the real problems and not get caught up in side lights that seem to drag these projects off course.  It might also encourage informed risk taking that is uncommon in the existing fusion programs. 

The real problem is finding unbiased reviewers that can provide adequate technical assessment without being bound by political trappings.  On might argue that ITER and NIF continue to exist as much due to their potential as capable marketing.  I think the science of NIF is starting to win out over the marketing.  ITER might lose out for budget reasons and a lack of a central bank account so where are we left?  New diagnostics and side technologies were developed but we fell short of the goal. Key problems were identified that could hamper fusion in any form such as materials.  Some information was gained which are goals of a science program but the energy program failed.

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