Praise and suggestions for fusion research from a utility industry think tank
Research to develop fusion energy has shown “significant progress” in many areas, according to a new report from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a think tank whose members represent some 90 percent of the electricity produced in the United States. At the same time, the report said that a commercial fusion power plant is at least 30 years away, and called for more research on the engineering challenges.
“Our executives think that fusion is a potential contribution to producing energy,” said Albert Machiels, a senior technical executive at EPRI who participated in the study, which was released on Oct. 15, 2012. While Machiels called it “premature” for the electric power industry to become involved in fusion energy programs at present, he noted that the industry wants to be kept informed of future findings and developments.
The report surveyed three main approaches to fusion technology. These ranged from magnetic fusion to inertial fusion energy to fusion-fission hybrids. Magnetic fusion uses magnetic fields to control the hot, charged plasma gas that fuels fusion reactions. Inertial fusion uses lasers to produce fusion energy by imploding fuel capsules. Fusion-fission hybrids combine nuclear fusion and nuclear fission technologies.
Stewart Prager, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), saw encouraging signs in the report. “I think it’s great that they did an assessment of fusion,” said Prager, who participated in a multi-institutional presentation of magnetic fusion to EPRI. “For me, the two take-away messages are that the program should be more aggressive—that’s the only way it could be focused on electricity production—and should be larger—that’s the only way to do the research that they recommend.
“While the report doesn’t come out and say that the program should be more aggressive and larger,” Prager added, “the only way to satisfy what they say is to have a larger program.”
Key recommendations of the 66-page utility industry document:
• Focus more fusion research on the engineering and operational challenges of a power plant.
• Identify the material and technology issues that a fusion test facility should address.
• Engage the power industry in monitoring progress.
• At the appropriate time, create a utility advisory group to focus fusion research on utility needs, and begin to consider regulatory requirements for commercial fusion power plants.
The full EPRI report can be downloaded here: http://my.epri.com/portal/server.pt?Abstract_id=000000000001025636