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U of R: Grant boosts energy research

Imagine a source of commercial energy powerful enough to sustain entire cities without producing the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming.
Is there a source of energy fueled by materials plentiful enough to obviate the need for fuel cartels or petrol-states≠
Imagine one that does not produce significant amounts of radioactive waste or contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The development of just that kind of energy is now underway at the University of Rochester’s Fusion Science Center for Extreme States of Matter. The center recently was awarded an $8.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to conduct research that eventually could contribute to the development of nuclear fusion for commercial purposes.
The grant represents a 50 percent increase over a previous $5.5 million grant, which founded the center in 2004.
“This is the energy source that powers the stars,” said David Meyerhofer, professor of mechanical engineering, physics and astronomy and deputy director of the university’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics, which is hosting the project.
Nuclear fusion is distinct from nuclear fission, the process by which current nuclear
power plants operate, in that the nuclei of two light atoms are fused into one to produce energy, rather than a heavier atom split apart.
Fusion is the process by which both thermonuclear weapons and stars, including the sun, fuel themselves. Developing the ability to create safe, sustained, controllable fusion reactions has long been a goal of physicists, engineers and scientists.
Utilizing the University of Rochester’s newly-enhanced OMEGA EP laser to aid their research, the Laboratory for Laser Energetics is one of only a handful of centers nationwide able to do this level of work, according to Fusion Science Center Director Riccardo Betti. Other prominent sites include the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories in California and the Laser Megajoule Facility at the Commisariate a l’Energie Atomique in France.
While self-sustaining fusion burns have been achieved for brief periods under experimental conditions, the amount of energy that went into creating them was greater than the amount of energy they generated.
“A primary goal of the research we are involved in is to demonstrate ignition in the laboratory, which means demonstrating more neutron energy output than laser energy required to drive the explosion,” Meyerhofer said.
The first breakthroughs are likely to happen at Lawrence Livermore due to its higher powered laser, Meyerhofer and Betti agreed, but Livermore’s research is largely centered on improving our understanding of the kinds of reactions seen in nuclear weapons.
“The center is studying alternative but related approaches that will potentially be … more suitable for energy applications,” Meyerhofer said.
Potential benefits
The potential benefits of developing such technology are significant, say prominent scientists. As a non-carbon based source of energy, fusion would give off none of the greenhouse emissions of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas. Likewise, because of the nature of the nuclear reaction, it would produce none of the hazardous nuclear waste created by contemporary nuclear fission power plants, according to Dr. Stewart Prager, who heads up the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.
Due to the nature of the reaction, a fusion plant also would not be vulnerable to meltdowns or other catastrophic reactions and the primary fuel for such a plant, Deuterium, is available in seawater, essentially making its supply limitless, Prager wrote in an e-mail exchange. There is enough of the secondary fuel, Tritium, to last at least 1,000 years, Prager also noted.
“It would change the world dramatically,” Prager wrote. “Unlimited, safe clean energy can spur enormous health and prosperity. Conflicts over natural resources related to energy would possibly disappear.”
That, at least, is its potential, Prager said: “Whether mankind responds intelligently to a magnificent new resource, or somehow finds a way to squander the opportunity, who knows≠”
Fusion power could have significant advantages over existing so-called green energy sources, wrote Farrokh Najmabadi, director of the Center for Energy Research at UC San Diego, also during an e-mail interview. Fusion energy would be more cost-efficient and less intermittent than sources such as solar cells or wind turbines, which depend on the wind blowing or sun shining, he wrote. Solar and wind power in particular “have a very low power density and one needs to build a lot of them.”
He points out that little is known about the true environmental impacts of green energy sources in terms of the land mass they take up, or the materials or resources needed to build them.
“There have been no studies of environment impact of green technologies which I know of with the exception of biomass, which showed that the environmental impact was amazingly large,” he wrote.
Despite the fusion’s potential, Prager and Meyerhofer caution that commercially-viable fusion power is quite a way off. Development of the necessary types of reactors are at least several decades away, if they ever happen at all, Betti said.
The cost of developing fusion commercially likely will run in the hundreds of billions of dollars and fossil fuels, so far, remain relatively inexpensive in comparison.
Fusion power “has to be competitive with other energy sources,” Betti said. “The technology needs to be developed to make it competitive. At the moment, we are not working on the technology; we are just working on the physics part, the proof of principal.”
Najmabadi says the use of fusion as power is not a case of “if,” but “when.” Even if one doesn’t believe fossil fuels contribute to — or there’s even such a phenomenon as — global warming, the mere fact that there are limited supplies of such fuels eventually will necessitate the development of other sources of energy eventually. To that end, Najmabadi supports greater federal investment in energy research in general, including fusion technology.
“The question of when fusion power can become a commercial reality depends on the R-and-D funding rate,” he wrote.
The more money put into development, the faster commercialized technology will become available.
“At the present rate of expenditure, it would take probably take another 40 years,” he said.
Eric Walter is a Rochester-based freelance writer.