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Can nuclear fusion be used as an energy source on Earth within the next ______ years?

When do you see fusion being as a viable source for energy? Can the physical and technological constraints be bypassed eventually?

5 COMMENTS

  1. Fusion is technically not a viable energy source for approx. the next 100 years. For one thing it will take about 30 years to proceed to the first real power plant designs. But then, and this is the bigger issue, there is simply not enough Tritium available on Earth to fuel the d-t reaction in more than a single plant.
    Tritium is produced by neutron capture on Lithium. We can either make it in fission reactors which have a breeding blanket (we do that for our thermonuclear device industry) or in fusion reactors themselves. However, if we do it in the fusion reactor, it only produces roughly 10% more tritium than it needs itself. So it takes roughly ten years to go from fuel for one reactor to fuel for two reactors. The geometric series allows to double the number of reactors approx. every ten years, which is ten doublings in 100 years. Two to the power of ten is 1024, roughly the number of 1GW fusion reactors it will take to supply mankind with energy.
    So unless someone finds a better way to produce tritium, fusion is not a short term solution.
    Now… you also have to consider the enormous cost of fusion devices. Currently it is very questionable if fusion reactors can ever deliver electricity for the current average cost of our conventional power plants. Now factor in that solar energy is expected to become at a much lower price power source than we have today over the next 30 years and you can see why fusion makes little economic sense.
    So why are we still researching it? Because it keeps a lot of people with economic interests in the field happy and politicians have bet on it at a time when solar was not even realistically on the horizon. Often in politics it is easier to start something than to stop it. With hundreds of billions of dollars already wasted on fusion and a whole slew of research organizations fully invested in it, it would do a lot more harm than good to the R&D infrastructure of some countries (especially in Europe) to kill the whole fusion nonsense now for good than to let it run its course and prove (at the cost of another $100 billion) that it was an empty promise.
    Now, having said all that, it might well be that approx. 100-150 years from now fusion powered spacecraft will open up the solar system for us. Not many other technologies other than fission and fusion can be used as energy sources to propel manned spacecraft in the outer solar system. Since many of the problems with either reactor type go away once you are in space (no need for radiation shielding because space radiation is worse than what the reactor produces anyway), the future for fusion might not be so dark after all. It just won’t be shining much here on earth, unless there are a couple of real breakthroughs.

  2. Experts have been saying that viable nuclear fusion is about 25 years away for about the past 50 years. And it’s still 25 years away. Hmmm.

  3. The ITER project currently underway in France should prove the capacity of the Lithium blanket for more rapid Tritium production but at only 10% excess the process will indeed take too long.
    Solar power from mirror farms is proving very successful and could potentially provide low polution power generation at suitable lattiudes. Elsewhere ugly wind farms are likely to proliferate.
    JFK challenged the USA to put a man on the moon and the resulting focus brought not only success, but produced spin off technology that we have exploited ever since. Can humanity find the necessary leadership to undertake a correspondingly difficult challenge in the 21st century?
    Fusion research is indeed expensive but the rewards are staggering and properly funding the research is arguably much more sensible than sinking £100Bn+ into a corrupt banking system or a trillion dollars into an unjust war.

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