Tom Evslin: The nuclear fusion breakthrough is very good news

This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. It is republished from the Fractals of Change blog.

For more than 50 years, scientists have hoped to use nuclear fusion to produce electricity in great quantities, cheaply, and without environmentally harmful byproducts. Progress has been painfully slow until two weeks ago when Livermore Labs announced that an experiment produced about 50% more energy from a target mass than the energy directed at that mass to get it to fuse. The experiment was very expensive and the amount of net energy tiny so don’t expect a nuclear fusion plant in your neighborhood soon. Nevertheless, the experiment proved that the fusion process, which produces the energy of the sun, can be replicated on earth other than explosively as in a hydrogen (fusion) bomb.

Tom Evslin

If we have reliable, limitless clean energy at an all-in price less than today’s electricity, concerns about human-caused global warming would (or at least should) disappear. No more coal, oil, natural gas, or even wood burned at power plants so no greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from electrical generation. No need for nuclear fission plants and the radioactive waste they produce. With enough cheap electricity available (assuming we do get around to building a better electric grid), no reason not to electrify most transportation and thermal processes including space heating, smelting, recycling, fertilizer, and other chemical production. In fact, with enough cheap electricity we can even put excess carbon in the atmosphere back into the ground so no reason not to use some fossil fuels where their energy densities make them more practical than batteries. In fact, we won’t need batteries in the electrical grid since fusion energy can be produced 24×7 and during all seasons. And, of course, no need for fields of intermittently-operating solar panels or huge wind turbines. We wouldn’t even have to nag people to stop using energy to save the planet.

This should all be good news, right? Well, not quite. Suppose you’re in the solar energy or nuclear energy or battery business. Should subsidies continue to flow to you or should we have a Manhattan project to commercialize nuclear fusion given evidence that it can be harnessed? Do we need mandates for electric cars in advance of a grid and power source sufficient to keep them running or should we just let automakers and auto buyers follow the economics as electricity gets cheaper and cheaper? Ditto electric heat pumps. Even if it’s 20 years before significant amounts of the world’s energy are produced through fusion, what today seem like over-ambitious goals for decarbonization by mid-century will easily be met while still allowing the developing world to develop and without cratering existing lifestyles.

The renewable-industrial complex doesn’t like competition (most of us business people don’t). Before 2008 natural gas was considered a good transition fuel for decarbonization since it produces half the GHGs per kilowatt generated than coal and only 75% as much as oil. The renewable-industrial complex wasn’t afraid of natural gas because it was very expensive and America’s known reserves were being depleted. We were about to build import terminals which would make natural gas even more expensive. Then the commercialization of fracking made natural gas much more abundant and much cheaper. In the real world this abundance had wonderful environmental consequences because natural gas replaced coal as America’s electrical generation power fuel of choice without any mandate except comparative cost. After 2008, natural gas was demonized.

Since natural gas was and is a cheaper way to reduce GHG emissions than unsubsidized renewables (although their price is coming down), a relentless propaganda campaign against fracking, the technology which made gas and oil cheaper and more abundant, began and convinced most of the unintelligent intelligentsia that Europe should stop drilling (and buy from Russia) and that the US should discourage drilling and not build needed pipelines even though replacing coal with natural gas is still the fastest way to reduce emissions.

It’s not time to bet all our chips on fusion but we should be upping the ante with more government-sponsored basic research like that which Livermore Labs does and less subsidies elsewhere. Government can help encourage private investment in fusion by not sprinkling grants around to politically favored commercialization schemes. Otherwise productive human energy goes into grant-seeking rather than engineering.

If there is now serious progress towards commercial fusion (it’s my bet there will be), serious opposition will emerge from rival energy vested interests including fossil fuels, nuclear fusion, and the very effective renewable-industrial complex. There are legitimate arguments now that we don’t know how long it will take to commercialize fusion. There will be a cacophony of mostly spurious arguments about dangers that fusion somehow poses as there have been against fracking. We should leave those arguments blowing in the wind and let nuclear fusion create a new age of abundance.

Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy
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18 thoughts on “Tom Evslin: The nuclear fusion breakthrough is very good news

  1. A good read to understand those who are anti-energy under the guise of climate change is Fossil Future by Alex Epstein. In it, Epstein does a good job exposing a mindset that is actually against all forms of power because they are ultimately anti-human. It is a mindset that is far beyond confused and they have been allowed to gain significant positions of power in our nation and elsewhere. The first order for any of these ideas is to expose them and remove them from any positions of power. Fossil Future gives many ways to work toward that end and we must because they are the biggest threat to our world, far bigger than any environmental concern.

  2. Tom,

    The net gain was only 20%, not 50%.
    Just google

    Based on having studied nuclear fusion at RPI, some decades ago, and there being no NEW physics since then, and my 40 years in large-scale energy systems, I estimate a 100 MW prototype plant would not be in operation until at least 2050 or later

    • The laboratory lasers supplied, say, 100 million joules of heat for a second, and after fusion, about 120 million joules of heat was measured for a second.

      It would require a great quantity of cooling to prevent the entire lab experiment from evaporating

      In a power plant, you would have to, somehow, get that 20 million joules out in one second so it can be used to heat water to make steam to make electricity. That heat-to-electricity efficiency is at most 30%

      • The Challenge of Fusion Ignition

        Fusion ignition is the term for a fusion reaction that becomes self-sustaining, in which the reaction creates more energy than it uses up. Up until now, scientists were only able to break even.

        The National Ignition Facility used a special setup called inertial confinement fusion that involves bombarding a tiny pellet of hydrogen plasma with lasers to achieve fusion ignition.

        LLNL’s experiment surpassed the fusion threshold by delivering 2.05 megajoules (MJ) of energy to the target, resulting in 3.15 MJ of fusion energy output, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

        Can Nuclear Fusion Energy Be Commercialized Soon?

        In recent years, fusion technology has been attracting the attention of governments as well as private companies such as Chevron and Google. Bloomberg Intelligence estimates that the fusion market will eventually be worth $40 trillion.

        Besides energy generation, fusion is expected to be used in other markets like space propulsion, marine propulsion, and medical and industrial heat.

        However, according to the director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Kim Budil, it will take “probably decades” before nuclear fusion energy is commercialized.

        During the breakthrough announcement, she noted that it was necessary to produce “many many fusion ignition events per minute” as well as have a “robust system of drivers” before fusion can be commercialized successfully.

        • Re: “Can Nuclear Fusion Energy Be Commercialized Soon?”

          What do you mean, Willem? How soon is ‘soon’? Better put, how soon is soon enough?

          You make the important point… “Up until now, scientists were only able to break even.”

          In other words, fusion power (with the exception to the H-Bomb, of course) was theoretical. And for the last 50 years, since I discussed the prospects of fusion power with my college physics professors, back when I watched ‘one small step for man’ that was, indeed, ‘one giant leap for mankind’, ‘break-even’ was the holy grail.

          My point is that windmills, terrestrial solar collectors, methane digestors, even nuclear fission (because of its inherent danger and waste generation – diminished as it may be), are ‘bridge technologies’. I have yet to see or hear anyone say anything to the contrary. The question is, as you so aptly put it, “Can Nuclear Fusion Energy Be Commercialized Soon?”

          And the answer to this question can only be given with respect to relativity…. compared to what? What are the cost/benefit ratios for the alternatives to viable fusion power? And the answer, as with all investment decisions, is that ‘it depends’. It always depends.

          Here in Vermont, we have a unique circumstance. We happen to be sitting next door to the Saudi Arabia of clean, green, and relatively inexpensive hydro-electric power. Hydro Quebec (HQ). Not only that, hydroelectric power plants have a high-efficiency rate, and modern hydro turbines can convert up to 90% of the energy available into electricity… although 50% is more realistic for smaller turbines.

          My continued question, expressly as the prospect of fusion power gets closer and closer, is: why in the world are we spending 21 cents per kwh on antiquated bridge technologies like windmills, and solar collectors located in arguably one of the worst places on earth for optimum solar gain efficiency, when we could be paying 7 cents per kwh without making any capital investment in electric generation infrastructure?

          Yes – I know the answer. We’re being subjected to the greed and corruption of short-sighted political n’er-do-wells. Not to mention the idiots who elect them. But that doesn’t change the ever more obvious superior cost/benefit ratios of investing in fusion, especially given our proximity to HQ.

          Fusion will be here sooner or later. Certainly, not soon enough. But we have the luxury of mitigating the timing issue and investing the savings in the future instead of the past, if only we’d choose to take it.

        • The a-to-z efficiency (energy out/energy in) of nuclear power plant is about 30%

          If Lawrence Radiation National Laboratories had a 100 MW nuclear reactor, at least 40 MW of it would be used to run a fusion pilot plant, and to provide power to the lasers that fuse a supercooled, solid, pellet of hydrogen into helium, with a byproduct of heat.

          At present that process is sustainable for about 1 second.
          It needs to be sustainable 24/7/365

          That heat would need to be used to superheat steam for a steam turbine to make electricity; the heat to electricity process is about 30% efficient

          Maximum overall system efficiency is 30%, nuclear plant x 30%, heat to electricity plant = 9%

          It looks like time to celebrate

          • Where do we stand with fusion? – your guess is as good as mine.

            In 2016, Chinese Fusion Reactor Sustains 90 Million Degree Plasma Blast for Over 100 Seconds.
            https://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/infrastructure/a19350/chinese-east-fusion-reaction-sustains-102-second-plasma-blast/

            That was six years ago. The point is that the recent announcement of net energy gain demonstrates that fusion power is feasible and we should continue its development.

            But again, Willem, why do you ignore my point. We’re getting closer to practical fusion power. How much time do we have? If we agree to use HQ hydro power to bridge the gap, we have decades of time. And we can cut our current electric costs in half by doing so.

            So, what’s your point? Are you advocating more investment in wind and solar? Should we invest 9 billion+ in a new fission power plant? Or just flip a switch to HQ and use the savings to upgrade the grid in preparation for that day, whenever it gets here, when fusion power attains its potential.

          • CHINESE FUSION REACTOR SETS NEW RECORD OF 1,056 SECONDS – JANUARY 4, 2022

            That’s a sustained fusion reaction lasting more than 15 minutes.
            https://thedebrief.org/chinese-fusion-reactor-sets-new-record-of-1056-seconds/

            “The reactor also reached a whopping 216 million degrees Fahrenheit,…”

            That’s 2 1/2 times as hot as the 2016 record.

            You may think fusion power is unattainable, Willem, in whatever you consider to be a reasonable time period. But it seems that the technology is moving ahead a lot faster than previously thought possible. And if we’re not careful, fusion power is going to be one more technology controlled by the CCP at our expense.

            And using as much HQ power as we can in the interim is the best of both worlds.

  3. I truly question the science and timing of this fusion breakthrough publication. The governments know their push to electrify everything is unrealistic and unsustainable based on available, required precious metal type components. And by the way, Hydroquebec is not just hydro based energy. They have several carbon producing generators that constitute a significant amount of their energy production under the name of Hydroquebec. Do a little research.

    • The HQ carbon generation plants are commonsensical business backups. HQ diesel- and gas-powered generation provide a paltry 542 megawatts of HQ’s massive 37 gigawatt generating capacity. And even that ratio is decreases during the peak spring runoff season in northern Quebec. HQ also has significant wind generating capability (3508 megawatts – 6 times its carbon-based footprint).

      But as long as we’re doing the research, don’t forget to compare the 7 cents per kwh cost of HQ power to the 21 cents per kwh cost of GMP’s wind and solar generating costs.

  4. It’s not only the wind-solar-cow/methane industry who will slow (if not try to eliminate) the prospects of fusion power, but also the doubting Thomas’ who have no faith in the entrepreneurial spirit that has made America great for decades. We won’t see fusion for 40 years, says one commenter. I can’t wait 30 years, says another. What do we do in the meantime, laments another.

    Well, to all of you who will feel depressed when you have nothing to complain about after Mr. Evslin’s well-deserved enthusiasm finally catches on, please put a sock in it. Nothing you’re saying does anything to ‘make America great again’. Nothing!

    Think about it. If you’re going to invest in a start-up business, why not invest in the one with the greatest (and now proven) potential? And if you want a ‘bridge technology’ to carry you through the interim, WHAT ABOUT HYDRO QUEBEC? IT’S GREEN. IT’S SUSTAINABLE. IT’S CHEAP.

    That’s right. We have the fourth largest hydro-electric producer in the world right next door. Vermont already purchases 30% of its power from HQ, and it costs less than half what Vermont rate payers invest in solar and wind. If Vermont bought all its power from HQ, current electric rates would decline immediately. And HQ can provide that power for as long as it takes to get us to a fusion based power source.

    But NOOOOO! Can’t be done, they say. And our corrupt new senator, Peter Welch (of Sam Bankman-Fried fame), and his wife, Margaret Cheney (who is one of Vermont’s three Public Utility Commissioners), aren’t going to rock the boat because they receive too much money from the political pork trough as it is. Never-mind Welch’s comrades in arms, Bernie Sanders and Becca Balint, all experienced gravy-train aficionados.

    The only point missing from Mr. Evslin’s missive is the HQ bridge energy that can get us from point A to point B. And the savings realized by purchasing HQ power can be reinvested in the grid, in preparation for that day in the sun. In the meantime, hopefully, we’ll see some common sense for once from all of our doubting Thomas’s too.

    • Q. “WHAT ABOUT HYDRO QUEBEC?” A. They will have their own cars to plug in. The demand we are talking about is 3 to 5 times our current electrical demand…and you say they only provide 30% of our current demand of 5,000 GWh/year? tsk tsk. The only way we would be able to keep another 20 or 30 year contract is if we hold them at gunpoint.

      A nuclear plant is the way forward. Sorry to shoot you down on this one, but Hydro-Quebec’s resources are limited. They’ve been good partners and friends by letting us take a good part of their resources at a reasonable rate.

      • Where is your data?

        HQ is the 4th largest hydro-electric producer in the world. They have 61 generators, 681 dams and 91 control structures, with total generating capacity of 37.2 GW.

        VT Yankee generated at most 620 MW at full power… one tenth of one percent of HQ capacity.

        HQ is soliciting our markets. They don’t have anyone else to sell their power to. HQ already provides 30% of Vermont’s power. And they already own 80% of Vermont’s electric utilities. That’s right. GMP and CVPS are wholly owned by the same conglomerate that owns HQ, as are the dozen or so hydro dams on the CT River.

        And where is this nuclear plant you’re talking about? A drawing on a napkin? How much will that cost? How long will it take to build? And why build it when Vermont already purchases back up nuclear power from the Seabrook, NH plant?

        We can build and buy more solar, wind and cow-methane power at 21 cents per kwh. Or we can build a new nuclear power plant for anywhere up to $9 Billion. Or we can flip a switch tomorrow, with little if any additional capital investment, and get HQ power at about 7 cents per kwh.

        It’s a no-brainer. Even for Vermonters.

        • Jay, you forget one thing about Hydro Quebec and all the cheap power they offer….that is, VT Enviros, Progressives and Socialists are NOT on board for this cheap power source. WHY? becuase it supposedly harms “ingenous peoples”.. If there is the will they will make teh way……Liberal Insane Enviros will make it so there is no power or energy in VT….here are some sentances on teh hate in VT of HQ over indenegous peoples:

          “But environmentalists say the state (VT) is greenwashing power that has resulted in catastrophic damage to ecosystems, significant releases of carbon emissions from submerged trees and the displacement of indigenous communities in northern Quebec. HydroQuebec’s 550 dikes and dams have destroyed 3.8 million acres of native lands across Quebec.

          “The IPCC has refused to address carbon emissions from hydro,” said Margaret Sheehan, coordinator of the North American Megadam Resistance Alliance and energy lawyer. “It’s a huge political issue, and so Vermont regulators and politicians are buying into this narrative and not acknowledging the carbon loophole,” said Sheehan.

          But Saunders wants New England purchasers of Canadian hydropower to understand that, while large scale Canadian hydroelectricity is renewable, it’s not green.
          “It’s not good for our environment,” she said. “For us, everything is at stake.”

          • Of course I know this point. Who doesn’t? It’s an old argument. And its been resolved in spades. Do the research.

            Nothing about what I’m saying can cure stupidity and incompetence. I’m just saying the best risk-reward investment is in fusion power, with HQ power bridging the gap. Run the numbers.

            But I’ll be the last person to say most Vermonters are smart enough to figure this out… even though they ought to be.

  5. Mr. Evslin’s article is well-intentioned, apparently trying to provide a hopeful outlook. The future could be very bright indeed. However, there are serious errors in the essay.

    * Even if we do develop enough electrical generation capacity to replace fossil fuels, it is not feasible to convert vehicles and home heating systems to electric. There are two problems: storage and transmission. There are definitely ways to solve these, but not as proposed. The author’s statement “no reason not to electrify most transportation and thermal processes including space heating…” is false.

    * Another ignorant-sounding statement seems to be re-iterating a bad concept that is not only false but suicidal: “In fact, with enough cheap electricity we can even put excess carbon in the atmosphere back into the ground ” There is no such thing as “excess carbon” and putting what little we have back into the ground will cause life on Earth to eventually cease. This concept of storing carbon underground was invented by hysterical politicians. We need *more* carbon in our ecosphere, not less. All life is carbon-based, and the lack of carbon, which had been stored as fossil fuels over billions of years, is one of the reasons the planet has developed so many barren regions.

    * As jeffrey pointed out, the experiment was only promising in a theoretical sense. Before anyone gets excited, they will need to demonstrate that the process is capable of sustaining itself. Once that happens, it will take many years to reach commercial feasibility and undergo years of field tests.

    * There is nothing wrong with current Fission nuclear power plant designs. The benefits far outweigh the risks.

    Should we invest in developing Fusion for the future? Yes. Should we continue following the non-sensical, unworkable, and unfounded CO2 fear-mongering path our politicians are jamming down our throats without debate? No.

  6. Mr. Eveslin, you are far too quick to “buy into the hype”…..and celebrate. Here’s a longish quote from someone in-the-know…..fusion is interesting, but a DUD!

    “A lot of noise was made about a fusion energy breakthrough, but I hate to tell you that for all the hoopla the results they announced were actually a big dud.
    So why was the breakthrough far less impressive than advertised? Let me count the ways.
    First, the net energy gain is a myth. It is true that the scientists ignited the fuel and the energy release was more than the energy put into the fuel pellet. But that is not what you should be interested in. The energy used to “put that energy into the pellet” was vastly more than what was released.
    In simple terms the lasers delivered X amount of energy to ignite the fusion process, and the fusion process delivered about 1.5X coming out. But in order to deliver that X amount of energy (about 2 million joules) they needed 150X to generate it.
    In other words, the net energy “breakthrough” was actually a huge energy drain. It took 300 joules of energy to get just over 3 joules out.
    That is not an achievement. It is a disappointment. They made a somewhat interesting experiment that shows achieving fusion is possible but they are about as close to nuclear fusion power on the grid as they were 40 years ago. Uncounted billions of dollars later.”

  7. Tom,
    There is still a very long engineering road to get past a few milliseconds of over unity to 24/7 full continuous power. It will require a complete new field of materials engineering and testing. The neutron radiation emitted by the fusion process embrittles the current containment system which is not at all useful.

    You are correct in hoping for a Manhattan style project, because that is what it will take. We are just at proof concept (which took 50 years). The rest is engineering, which could take another 20 years.
    This takes a government with the political will to handle long term commitments instead of looking for campaign contributions for the next election or worrying about social justice. Unless something drastic happens to change that myopic, selfish view, fusion will still remain a dream just out of reach.

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