Copyright © BusinessAMBE 2023
The Biden administration has grand plans to reduce U.S. emissions in the coming years and decades. A key role in this is nuclear power, a technology into which the president is going to pump billions of dollars. But the Biden administration wants to go further and hopes to build nuclear fusion reactors in the near future.
The United States still gets more than three-quarters of its energy from fossil fuels. With the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the largest climate package in the country's history, the Biden administration wants to accelerate the transition to green power. Hundreds of billions of dollars will flow to wind farms, battery projects and factories for electric cars, among other things. But the nuclear power industry, which has been in decline in the US for some time, will also get a $30 billion cash injection. Some of that money is also flowing into the development of a commercial nuclear fusion reactor.
The gist: Within 10 years, the first commercial nuclear fusion reactor should be operational in the country (and the world). So said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm Monday during an interview with The Associated Press. According to the politician, the technology could play a key role in the energy transition.
- "It's not beyond the realm of possibility" that the country can realize Biden's "decadal vision of commercial nuclear fusion," it sounds. Granholm refers, among other things, to the success of nuclear fusion reactions at California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which last December for the first time extracted more energy from a reaction than was needed to start it up. That feat was repeated this summer, and experiments will follow soon.
- The Biden administration is also supporting a series of private projects. In May this year, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it will invest 46 million in eight different companies, each developing a nuclear fusion reactor in its own way. The goal is for the funded companies to demonstrate a demonstration reactor within 10 years.
- Private companies are also showing increasing interest in the technology. Microsoft, for example, is working with U.S. company Helion Energy (which is not on the list of eight above) to build its first commercial reactor within five years. Google and Chevron invested last year in another merger company that does not receive government funding, TAE Technologies. That company wants to get a first prototype operational by 2030.
Still to note: So far, building a working nuclear fusion reactor has proven extremely difficult.
- Although the experiments at Lawrence Livermore were promising, those reactions lasted only a fraction of a second and only the energy generated in the lasers was included in the calculations. So the energy taken from the power grid to drive the lasers was not included. Building a commercial reactor would require reactions that generate 30 to 100 times more energy than the lasers.
- Other projects are also proving more complicated than initially thought. The main example is ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), the world's largest nuclear fusion reactor currently under construction in southern France. The current timeline for the project envisions a startup in 2025, with the reactor to be fully operational a decade later. However, due to technical challenges and the after-effects of the COVID pandemic, it looks increasingly likely that the timeline will be pushed into the future.
- In addition, there may be problems finding enough fuel to power the reactors. After all, most experimental nuclear fusion reactors operate by fusing together deuterium and tritium, two heavier isotopes of hydrogen. But global supplies of usable tritium are limited, and it is not yet clear whether the isotope can be produced in reactors as a byproduct of fusion reactions. Another solution are so-called Canada Deuterium Uranium (CANDU) reactors. There are currently 19 of these, each producing 0.5 kilograms of tritium per year. But by the end of this decade, half of the existing CANDU reactors will be shut down, and currently there are no plans to build new ones.
What is nuclear fusion?
Reminder: Nuclear fusion works by squeezing atomic nuclei together until they, as the name implies, fuse or fuse together.
- When this happens with light atomic nuclei, such as certain isotopes of hydrogen or helium, a large amount of energy is released. After all, the fusion of hydrogen is what powers our sun. The technology is promising because it is virtually impossible to run out of fuel, while releasing almost no pollutants or CO2 in energy production.
- But the enormously high pressure inside the sun's core, caused by our star's gravitational field, is impossible to replicate on Earth. Therefore, reactors must be built that fuse atomic nuclei under tremendously high temperatures, up to 100 million degrees Celsius.
- There is no question that developing a reactor that can control plasma of 100 million degrees is not obvious. Scientists have been working on the technology for nearly a century. But slowly but surely, breakthroughs are being made here and there and enthusiasm is growing. The amount of money being pumped into nuclear fusion is also growing slowly but surely. (resume)