Via its Laser Ignition Fusion Energy (LIFE) project, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in the United States has a unique double mandate: not only must it prove fusion power can be a viable source of energy—and become a game-changer for the world’s energy supply—but it must also plan to commercialize the energy source even before practical fusion energy is a reality.
If it seems like having an advanced business plan for an as-yet unproven technology is putting the cart before the horse, the imposed 20-year timeline for this project actually represents an accelerated pace—from experimental stage to working prototype and then to commercial 1,000 MW power plants dotting the landscape.
(By comparison, nuclear power was conceived in the late 1930s and didn’t become a commercial energy source until the late 1950s.)
As well, the NIF has postulated that bringing the plants online in the 2030s will have a major impact on reducing carbon emissions as older, coal-producing power plants are then retired.
With the U.S. under environmental and political stress to provide itself with alternative sources of energy, moving fusion power from the chalkboard to the power grid as quickly as possible was really the only option when the NIF was approved in 1997.
Mike Dunne, managing director of Laser Fusion Energy at the NIF, says that to achieve its goal of commercialization, the NIF has already brought in the utilities industry and vendors, concurrent with experimentation at LIFE. This is in contrast to simply producing lab results with no real commercial plan down the road.
That means looking critically at the economics of the utilities industry as well as the supply chain, and steering the experimental work as closely as possible to create an energy source that can be integrated with the technical infrastructure of the existing power industry.
In an academic paper on the timely delivery of a fusion plant, Dunne and his colleagues outlined what has to be in place to make the plant a reality. It must be built with existing technologies, be economically competitive in the electrical production market and pose no risks due to instabilities related to the fusion technology. Moreover, mission-critical processes—like the internal production of tritium—that do not yet exist in today’s industrial environment can’t be designed in a way that threatens ongoing plans for the plant.
Mike Sellman, former CEO of the Nuclear Management Company, which managed a half-dozen nuclear plants in the northern U.S. 10 years ago, is the chairman of an advisory board of CEOs who are helping guide the commercialization of LIFE.
He says that when he came on board, he was concerned with LIFE’s unrealistic costs. For instance, the cost of the fingertip-size ‘hohlraum,’ the target chamber or ‘oven’ where deuterium and tritium fuel is cooked, was $10,000 each. In a commercial enterprise, up to 10 of these capsules could be destroyed per second as a continuous stream of fuel is needed for the fusion reaction.
“NIF said ‘Don’t worry, we’ll find people in Silicon Valley who can do this for much cheaper’ and I said ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’ But they have since gone out for bids and it looks like [the hohlraums] are down to the order of a couple pennies each with a contract to do millions of them,” Sellman says.
The plant will also be composed of modular components for ease of building and design and to deal with the materials exposed to the radiation the plant will generate.
Dunne says materials that can withstand 60 years of exposure to radiation from fusion operations simply don’t exist. Instead of seeking to discover new materials, NIF takes the view that components can be replaced as they age or as technologies supersede old ones.
Using a modular plan helps with another aspect of the LIFE plant: what to do with the small amounts of radiation that are generated by the fusion reaction.
Dr. Allan Offenberger, a Canadian advocate of the potential of laser fusion, said the radiation generated by fusion is orders of magnitude less than that generated by a nuclear fission plant.
“You don’t have to store (spent radioactive materials) for hundreds of thousands of years. After a finite time underground, after a few tens of years, you could reprocess the stainless steel and use it all over again,” he said.
One of the greatest differences between the National Ignition Facility’s experimental efforts and a working fusion plant will be the compactness of the lasers. The NIF’s 192 lasers currently represent the most powerful system in the world, generating up to 1.8 megajoules and 500 terawatts of ultraviolet laser energy. By comparison, world power output in 2006 was 16 terawatts. Despite the lasers’ immense power, they’re built with technology dating back to the 1970s and are bulky, being housed in 100 by 50 metre bays.
New laser systems will be built utilizing advances in semi-conductor technology that has shrunk all our gadgets down to compact size and maximum efficiency. With no loss in power, lasers as long as football fields can eventually shrink to 10 metres long.
While the plants must be competitive in the electrical utility market, it is the environmental impact that could be the most exciting. One scientific estimate calculated that if fusion replaces aging coal-fired plants in the 2030s, and the number of fusion plants double every five to 10 years, 90–140 gigatons of CO2-equivalent carbon emissions would be eliminated by the end of the century.
Says Dunne, “Our goal is to ensure there is a sufficiently attractive fusion solution out there so that people don’t have to revert to choices that have dramatic consequences on our environment.”