TAE and ITER: A Few Steps Closer to Fusion Power

JET/UKAEA's photo: inside their JET reactor.One way or another, energy is in the headlines nearly every day.

But I won’t be talking about the latest energy crisis, shortage or agreement.

Instead, I’ll be looking at developments in fusion power from a few months — and a few days — ago.

Getting Started: Fusion Basics

Converting Matter Into Energy: It’s Happening Every Second

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Solar Dynamics Observatory's photo: a coronal mass ejection. (August 31, 2012)
(From NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

We’ve been using fusion power since day one. In a sense.

Every second, our sun fuses around 600,000,000 tons of hydrogen, making about 596,000,000 tons of helium.

The missing four million tons of matter are converted into energy. A tiny fraction of it eventually reaches Earth, powering plants and giving us the occasional sunburn.

Hydrogen fusion happens in our sun’s core because stuff there is very dense and very hot.

Had I but world enough and time, this is where I’d start talking about plasma, nuclear binding energy, Arthur Eddington and Ivy Mike.1

But I don’t so I won’t. Not this week, at any rate.

Instead, I’ll take a quick — for me — look at progress made by scientists, technicians and AI on both sides of the Atlantic.

I’d intended to talk about this back in February. Then I got sick, and that’s another topic.

One Goal: Fusion Power — Two Approaches

ITER’s Tokamak: a Euro-British International Doughnut

JET/UKAEA's photo: inside their JET reactor; left, during a five-second pulse; right, with normal lighting.
(From TAE Technologies, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The walls of the JET reactor were changed to a material made from beryllium and tungsten”
(BBC News))

Major breakthrough on nuclear fusion energy
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (February 9, 2022)

“European scientists say they have made a major breakthrough in their quest to develop practical nuclear fusion – the energy process that powers the stars.

“The UK-based JET laboratory has smashed its own world record for the amount of energy it can extract by squeezing together two forms of hydrogen.

“If nuclear fusion can be successfully recreated on Earth it holds out the potential of virtually unlimited supplies of low-carbon, low-radiation energy….”

The JET fusion reactor produced 50 megajoules of energy. Any word with “mega” in it sounds like a lot, but in this case it’s enough to boil the water in about 60 kettles.

Even so, it’s a big deal. The experiments show that JET’s design actually works. And that’s good news, since another reactor, being built in France, uses the same basic design.

JET has been developed, built and tested at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, as part of the ITER program.2

International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor Origins: Very Briefly

BBC News' illustration of a nuclear fusion process.
(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Ultimately, the process would be used to drive steam turbines to generate electricity”
(BBC News))

“…The ITER facility in southern France is supported by a consortium of world governments, including from EU member states, the US, China and Russia. It is expected to be the last step in proving nuclear fusion can become a reliable energy provider in the second half of this century.

“Operating the power plants of the future based on fusion would produce no greenhouse gases and only very small amounts of short-lived radioactive waste….”
(Jonathan Amos, BBC News (February 9, 2022))

ITER stands or stood for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. It’s also “the way” or “the path” in Latin.

ITER’s roots go back to 1978, when the Soviet Union, European Atomic Energy Community, United States, and Japan started working together. The idea was to turn fusion power plants from a hypothetical pipe dream into a practical reality.

Their cooperation stayed hypothetical until Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet Union’s Communist Party general secretary. Today’s ITER started on October 24, 2007.

I have no idea whether this example of international cooperation will survive Putin’s efforts to disgrace Russia.3 And that’s yet another topic.

Meanwhile, in America

TAE Technologies' photo: one end of their C2W device, 'Norman'.
(From TAE Technologies, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Meet TAE Technologies’ C2W, “Norman.”)

Fusion race kicked into high gear by smart tech
Paul Rincon, BBC News (February 10, 2022)

“A US company is speeding up the path to practical fusion energy by using Google’s vast computing power.

“By applying software that can improve on its own, TAE Technologies has cut down tasks that once took two months to just a few hours.

“Google has lent the firm its expertise in ‘machine learning’ in order to help accelerate the timeline for fusion.

“Nuclear fusion promises a plentiful supply of low-carbon energy, using the same process that powers the Sun….”

I’ll admit to a bias. I like what I’ve read about TAE.

First, but not most important, it’s an American company.

I like seeing folks anywhere using their God-given brains to solve problems and help others. But I also like seeing Americans doing the same thing.

Anyway, TAE is — from one viewpoint — doing everything wrong.

Instead of setting up their own department of paperwork, liasoning with a Federal Bureau of Blotting Paper and Inertia, and employing thousands of clerks whose sole purpose is filling out forms in quadruplicate — they’re actually doing research.

Don’t get me wrong. I think there’s a time and place for record-keeping and coordination.

And I strongly suspect that doing almost nothing but coordinating and record-keeping is what put Japan in the IIMD’s digital competitiveness ranking’s 27th place.

IIMD? There’s a whole mess of IIMDs out there. This one is the International Institute for Management Development. And seems that it calls itself IMD.

It’s a business education school in Lausanne, Switzerland and Singapore. I hadn’t heard about it until this week.

Anyway, TAE’s practical approach reminds me of Lockheed’s Skunk Works,4 and that’s yet again another topic.

TAE’s “Norman:” a Different Approach

TAE Technologies' illustration: an artist's rendering of C2W, 'Norman.'
(From TAE Technologies, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Norman,” an artist’s conception.)

“…The company’s 30m (100ft) -long fusion cylinder — called C2W ‘Norman’ after TAE’s founder, physicist Norman Rostoker, who died in 2014 — represents a different approach to the doughnut-shaped ‘tokamak’ to be used for the world’s biggest fusion experiment, the multi-billion-euro ITER project….

“…[TAE CEO Dr Michl Binderbauer] says the results of the partnership with Google could shave a year from the company’s longer-term schedule, which envisages a commercial fusion test device by 2030….”
(Paul Rincon, BBC News (February 10, 2022))

I’d like to talk about TAE’s approach to practical fusion power: but got ‘page not found’ results when trying to access their research library.

So I figure they’ve changed their site architecture since the citations were made.

Or I could assume that it’s part of a vast conspiracy. Masterminded by Big Oil, the Pixie-Illuminati Cabal, or my favorite: shape-shifting space-alien lizard-men. Maybe I shouldn’t make jokes like that. Some folks take such nonsense seriously.5

Anyway, TAE’s “Norman” isn’t just like ITER’s tokamak design.

Since I won’t have time this week to find TAE’s published research and study it, I’ll skip lightly over what I have found.

Particle Accelerators and Coilguns, Pumpkins and Doughnuts

Frame from Steve Gribben's animation of a coil gun. Source: 'CRICKET — Closeout' (CRICKET: Cryogenic Reservoir Inventory by Cost-Effective Kinetically Enhanced Technology) Larry J. Paxton, Johns Hopkins University, Applied Physics Laboratory, Geospace and Earth Sciences. (2019)For starters, TAE’s “Norman” isn’t shaped like ITER’s tokamak reactors.

A tokamak looks sort of like a pumpkin: one that was assembled by a cubist sculptor, with parts from a building supply store’s remainder sale. A pumpkin with a doughnut-shaped hole in the middle.

The C2W “Norman” device — my oldest daughter came up with a shorter description than I would have.

“Kinda reminds me of a Gauss rifle.
“I’d like to thank video games for my knowledge of this monstrosity’s existence.”

“See, they’re educational!!”

“Granted, the one in Doom looks more like a fun-sized railgun, but, hey, it’s still cool….”
(From a chat between me and my oldest daughter (May 15, 2022))

Hardware in the Doom video games isn’t real. But much of it is based on stuff that is. Like Gauss rifles, which is another name for coilguns.

A coilgun is a mass driver with one or more coils which act as electromagnets. It’s like a railgun, sort of, except that a railgun has rails and a coilgun doesn’t.

A Norwegian scientist patented the first coilgun in 1904, although development probably started decades earlier.

Maybe words like coilgun, mass driver and railgun sound futuristic, but they’re all linear motors: tech that’s based on 19th century research.

Despite being called — occasionally — Gauss rifles, a coilgun’s barrel isn’t rifled. “Gauss” harks back to Carl Friedrich Gauss. He’s the German mathematician who applied his talents to, among many other things, the study of magnetism.

I could call a coilgun a particle accelerator, since its projectile is a ‘small localized object.’

But I won’t, since a particle accelerator’s particles are very small: on an atomic or subatomic scale.6

“Doing Something Quite Different….”

TAE Technologies' photo: control room.
(From TAE Technologies, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(Fusion experiments at TAE Technologies: automated and supported by machine learning technology.)

Starting a fusion reaction by firing high-energy particle beams into each other isn’t a new idea.

Scientists at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, did it in the early 1970s. They got good data out of their experiments, but I gather that most researchers decided fusion reactors using linear particle accelerators weren’t practical.

They didn’t produce enough energy, compared to the energy they consumed.

That was in the 1970s and 80s. And that’s why pretty much everyone except TAE Technologies is working with doughnut-shaped or spherical fusion reactors.

Using machine learning, where software learns from experience, isn’t unique to TAE. Artificial intelligence helps run and study the JET reactor, for example.

I’m guessing that folks at TAE think they can develop a practical fusion power plant by 2030 because their AI is unusually smart. And because they’re looking at the task from a different angle. Several different angles, probably.

For example:

“…According to Prof Jeremy Chittenden, of Imperial College London, TAE is ‘doing something quite different to what everyone else is doing’. Rather than relying on the heat of the plasma to generate fast-moving particles for fusion, the device uses external particle beams which are fired into the hot gas, similar to what happens in a particle accelerator. ‘That’s your fusion source,’ he explains….”
(Paul Rincon, BBC News (February 10, 2022))

One more thing.

The TAE reactor, if they’re successful, will run on deuterium and protium. That sounds exotic, but protium is fancy name for the most common form of hydrogen. Earth’s rivers, lakes and oceans are full of the stuff.7

Fusion Power: Panacea, No; Possible and Practical, Yes

Benefits, Risks and a Grain of Salt

National Ignition Facility's photo: high-energy laser beams converging. (2021)
(From NIH, via Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, used w/o permission.)

So, once we have fusion power plants, our environmental worries are over and we’ll all live in green-energy paradise?

Eh, yes and no.

Reactors using deuterium-tritium fusion won’t give us fits nearly as much as old-school coal-fired and nuclear power plants.

Tritium? That’s another hydrogen isotope: rare, radioactive and not particularly healthy to be around.

And, although hypothetically a deuterium-tritium reactor would turn all the hydrogen into helium, tritium included: the reality is that some tritium won’t be fused and will get into the atmosphere.

But not much, not if the stuff is handled properly. That’s good news.

Tritium combines with oxygen, forming water. Radioactive water.

The not-so-good news is that some of that water could get into our bodies, staying there for a week or so before getting cycled out.

Then there’s the tech that starts and maintains the fusion reaction: high-energy lasers or particle accelerators, powerful magnets.

All of which control and direct a whole lot of energy. If everything works as it should, it’s not a problem; but if something goes wrong, all that energy is going to go somewhere. And that could be a problem. A big one.

Basically, I see fusion power plants as a good idea; and certainly a better tradeoff between benefit and risk than those using coal or fission reactions.

But I grew up in the Sixties, and remember when folks who should have known better finally realized that asbestos wasn’t a miracle mineral after all.8 So I take glowing claims that fusion power plants are nothing but good news — with a grain of salt.

Boris Badenov’s Insight and the Greenwald Limit

I’ve said it before. There’s no such thing as completely safe technology. Even something we’ve used for ages, like fire, can hurt us if we’re not careful.

It’s like Boris Badenov said, in the original Bullwinkle Show:

Natasha Fatale
“Boris, dahlink, I thought this hiding place was foolproof.”

Boris Badenov
“Foolproof, yes. Idiot proof, no.”
(Down to Earth or the Bullwinkle Bounce/Fall Story or Adrift in the Lift,” The Bullwinkle Show (1960) via IMDB.com

Finally, I don’t know whether TAE will have their commercial fusion power test model ready by 2030.

But I am sure we’re getting close to building practical fusion power plants. Much closer.

Partly because of technology being developed, and partly because we’re learning more about how fusion works.

Recently, for example, researchers developed a mathematical model that helps explain why the Greenwald limit exists. It’s — complicated.

But it looks like tokamak reactors could handle almost almost double the plasma density that’s currently possible. That would mean nearly twice as much energy produced.9 And that’s still another a topic, for another time.

More, and less, related stuff:

1 Nuclear fusion, a sketchy background:

2 A place and a device:

3 Highlights, and otherwise, from the last few decades:

4 Good news, not-so-good news:

5 Silliness and a technology company:

6 Science in the 19th century, technology in the 20th and 21st:

7 Atoms and AI:

8 Learning, sometimes slowly:

9 A new and hopeful development:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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