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Crash Program Path to Fusion Getting Clearer and Nearer?

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EIRNS—The aftermath of the Dec. 5 fusion ignition and energy-gain breakthrough at the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, included the release on Dec. 17, 2022, of a remarkably detailed 30-minute video produced by Real Engineering website, run by Irish youtuber Brian McManus, about the test reactor of Helion Energy, headquartered in Everett, Washington. The video is a remarkably detailed and open presentation of the fusion dynamics of Helion’s experiment, given the era of proprietary private fusion experiments funded by investors, and it is a first of its kind.

Real Engineering’s Brian McManus, who visited Helion for the video, commented on it that he had long considered fusion reactors to be decades away, but now thought “they might be around the corner.” Any such near-term development depends, not on this or another particular company or effort, but on an international crash program being launched to develop fusion power and plasma technologies. Nonetheless, significant signs of a pathway are being revealed in the wake of the “sudden” scaling up of the Livermore NIF results by 50 times in the past two years. Those results are being reported for the most part as “laser fusion” or “inertial fusion” results pure and simple, but they are likely to be directly relevant to the work of magnetic fusion researchers and developers in many countries.

A number of the private fusion companies, of which Helion is probably representative, appear to be carrying out work with some similar, critical characteristics:

First, it is using, not a tokamak design, but a reversed-field magnetic pinch design in which heated and ionized plasmas are shot magnetically from both ends of a cylindrical apparatus to collide and be trapped (“pinched”) by a combination of their own magnetic field lines and external magnets—and perhaps also heated and “shaped” by injected laser or particle beams. This echoes a more than 50-year legacy of the fusion pioneers who knew, and some of whom worked with, the Fusion Energy Foundation founded in 1974 by Lyndon LaRouche and these scientists.

Second, at least several are planning to use helium-3 or boron fuel for aneutronic fusion reactions (producing only charged particles), and aiming at direct energy conversion rather than a steam cycle, at such time as they can generate the necessary extremely high plasma temperatures for those fuels.

And third, these experimenters are now able to progress rapidly through design iterations of their experimental apparatus (Helion Energy is working on its eighth iteration in a decade’s existence, for example). They can thus rapidly improve the design, in particular, by use of the most advanced supercomputing capacities.

The Livermore teams were also able to use these capacities to get their breakthrough. If the INF were a fusion program rather than a weapons program, it would probably be moving to use lasers with up to 20%, rather than the 0.6% efficiency of its large laser array, and would be aiming to go rapidly toward an energy gain factor of 10 or more, from the 1.5 factor on Dec. 5. It would be working on lasers that can fire 10 shots/second rather than perhaps a few shots a day, and burn up more than 10% of the fuel. The burning fuel itself might even trigger the laser shots.

It is possible that a real crash program of experimentation, which has never been attempted, involving cooperation of major nations, could lead much more rapidly to demonstration reactors now, than at any previous time in fusion R&D. Yet total funding in the United States has been no more than about $3 billion annually, and the great majority of that recently is proprietary private investment, not government funding. ( ) [pbg]