The Fusion Flap – And BTW: It’s Not Just About Energy

PATRICIA REMY – A mini-sun in every town. And no radioactive waste. We’ve been hearing about it for about a week now (The official announcement was made on December 13, 2022). The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory managed to propagate a nuclear fusion reaction which elicited net energy for the first time. It was enough to boil two to three kettles of water. It was a long anticipated, since the early Seventies, scientific breakthrough.

Consider the amount of concrete, steel, plastic (from fossil fuels!), special materials – derived from minerals, processed and/or and manufactured – and the education of the employees, transport of equipment,the necessary experimentation, and the engineering effort involved. It was an expensive couple of pots of tea.

Even fusion enthusiasts agree that the commercialization of fusion is two to three decades away. More reactors would need to be built, turbines, substations, distribution lines, etc. Even if all went optimally, fusion energy would become widely available in 2050 at the earliest. And that is too late. We have to turn things around by 2030.

The big selling point for fusion is that it is clean. No radioactive waste. Just merge two atoms of hydrogen, the most plentiful element in the universe. They produce helium, the harmless gas used for filling party balloons, and, here’s the prize, an energetic neutron. Its thermal energy goes to heat water in a good old steam turbine which produces electricity.

The problems start with the hydrogen. Nuclear fusion does not work with just any old hydrogen. It requires the isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium and tritium. Garden-variety hydrogen, also called protium, possesses one proton in the nucleus and one electron in a probabilistic orbit belonging to it. (The electron is not important here. Electrons are the basis of chemical reactions; here we are talking nuclear reactions.) Deuterium also has one proton in the nucleus and in addition one neutron, so two particles, therefore deuterium. Tritium’s nucleus comprises, again, one proton, and in addition, two neutrons. So three particles, tritium.

Deuterium is found widely in nature. About 1 in 5000 molecules of the water we find in rain, rivers, ponds, lakes, seas, and oceans contains an atom of deuterium. It just needs to be extracted.

Tritium is extremely rare in nature. (It is also radioactive with a half-life of 12 years.) Tritium in any useful quantities has to be manufactured. It comes from enriched lithium, but not just any lithium. Again, it is a rare isotope of lithium which has to be used. It can be extracted using one of a number of complicated chemical processes from naturally occurring lithium (in the form of lithium hydroxide). However, supplies of lithium, it being a natural resource, are limited. It is in great demand for batteries for electric vehicles.

Or tritium can be harvested from fission reactions, yes, radioactive processes. The CANDU reactor produces tritium as a by-product, which can be captured for further use.

“A working fusion power plant would need enriched lithium to breed the tritium it needs to close the deuterium-tritium fuel cycle”

from the Office of Science >>DOE explains …Deuterium-Tritium Reactor Fuel.) Don’t believe me. Look it up.

The point I am making: The touted clean, non-radioactive fusion of deuterium and tritium does not take place without a fission, i.e. a preceding radioactive nuclear reaction which supplies the tritium on which it is based.

As previously mentioned, there are also high-energy neutrons flying around, that being the whole energy-generating point of the fusion reaction. Not all of these are captured for use, but smash around in the reactor vessel causing its walls in time to become brittle and demanding expensive repairs or replacement.

Further demands on the world’s lithium supply will/would be made by a technology, presently not even in the experimental stage, for producing tritium in the fusion reactor itself by using a lithium “blanket”. It gets pretty geeky here. If you want to know more I recommend the following web address: https://new.newenergytimes.nt/2022/01/08/lithium-lithium-everywhere-and-non-to-use-for-fusion-reactors. Plus, military organizations have the monopoly on the lithium-6 required.

So much for the challenges of making “clean” fusion a source of “unlimited” electrical energy.

Let’s say humanity did have limitless energy available. Refrigeration, heating, air-conditioning everywhere. An electric vehicle or two for every household. Cheap power for manufacturing all kinds of wares. But energy is not everything. Manufacturing also requires natural resources and their extraction, whether it be wood, minerals, or “free” goods such as water or the gasses in the atmosphere. (Hopefully, the extraction of fossil fuels will have ended.)

Transition to a sustainable civilization, the mission supported by the Greenzine, insists on protection of the environment, highly unlikely if extractive procedures increase. Humans share the Earth with millions of other species. They are just as much subjects and agents of evolution as we are. What will remain of their opportunities to exist? Political stability and social contentment require equity. And what about the economy? Limitless energy does not guarantee a just distribution of wealth.

According to a superficial google, the Lawrence Livermore complex cost 3.5 billion. That’s a figure from 2009. ITER, the European fusion project, cost $6 billion to construct and has operating costs of $2 billion annually. These are expected to rise to $18-22 billion. One wonders what could be achieved if this amount of money were invested in renewables.

Whatever, climate change is not just a matter of the availability of clean energy, which by the way, fusion is not.

The Fusion Flap – And BTW: It’s Not Just About Energy © 2022 by Patricia Remy in The Greenzine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 

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