157 – Fusion at ITER

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This episode is about ITER, the international project to build an experimental fusion plant in southern France. While on vacation in that area, I had the opportunity to visit the site and talk to Richard Pitts about many aspects of the project. We focus mostly on the physics and the engineering challenges, but also address some of the organizational aspects of this huge scientific project. Note that this episode is essentially a continuation of omega tau 022 – Nuclear Fusion at MPI für Plasmaphysik; I recommend to listen to this episode first, if you haven’t done so yet.

Just when we published this episode, Lockheed Martin published some news of a breakthrough in fusion technology. So we ask Richard what he thinks about this. Below is his reponse. Please note that this is his personal opinion and not an official statement or position of ITER:

The answer I have for you is that I have no idea because no science is discussed in the articles we have seen. It looks like some kind of magnetic mirror device into which they shoot particle beams (neutral beams – we talked about these in the interview) and heat a small plasma maintained by magnetic mirror fields. The closest thing I could find after a quick search to any kind of description is here.

If it’s a mirror device, it won’t work in my view since we’ve looked at mirrors for a long time in the past and the end losses are enormous and the confinement poor. Big such devices have been tried in the past and been mothballed, notably one in the US a couple of decades ago.

Personally, I think it’s rubbish, but without more to go on it’s impossible to judge in a correct scientific way. They say they will publish in the open literature, but so far nothing for us to see. Obviously they are looking for patents … (see here). This last article is lightweight with nothing to go on. There are other private industry groups looking at similar concepts, but they never got a confinement time that would ever be feasible for generating fusion power as far as I know.

I think people at IPP Max Planck in Garching have been interviewed about this, notably Karl Lackner, one of the best known and respected plasma theorists in the world. He is just as sceptical. There is an article in German which I can only understand vaguely. Maybe that helps.

Frankly, I don’t feel like wasting much more of my time on this, but I shall be very interested to see the scientific publications.

Most of all, the concept of putting one of these on the back of a truck amuses me greatly. Very greatly. Even if the fusion core could be made to work (which it likely cannot), the amount of hardware you need to inject the beams, do the neutron screening and tritium breeding plus separation and recirculation would fill a football field. At least with today’s technology.