Rule Five Fusion Friday

As always, practical fusion energy is just ten years away!  Maybe.

The future of carbon-free energy smells like teriyaki and sounds like a low-flying 737. A sleepy strip mall beside Boeing’s sprawling campus in Everett, WA isn’t necessarily where you’d expect to find technology promising to harness the power of the sun, release humanity from the grip of fossil fuels, and unlock an estimated US $40 trillion market.

But here, and in an even more anonymous office park nearby, startup Zap Energy is trialing a prototype reactor that is already producing high-energy neutrons from nuclear fusion—if not yet enough to send power back into the grid.

The unglamorous location is no accident, says Derek Sutherland, Zap’s senior research scientist. “If you squint hard enough, building a fusion system is not that different from building an airplane,” he tells Spectrum on a visit in June. “It requires a little bit of retooling and retraining but you can transfer a lot of those skills.”

Yeah, I think it’s a little more complex than building an airplane, given that physicists and engineers have been messing with this for decades now and we still have no commercially viable fusion power.

And that’s the catch – making it commercially viable.  That means “cheaper than any other way of generating electricity for a given market.”  So far, every prototype fusion device has only succeeded in very, very short bursts; making a reactor that can run 24/7/365 would seem to be an entirely different kettle of fish.

Zap’s Fuze-Q prototype sits in an odor-free air-conditioned room and makes only a barely-audible tick when it operates. Since going active last summer, the office-desk-size device has housed thousands of fusion reactions, each generating reams of data as Zap gradually ramps it up towards the temperatures, plasma densities, and reaction times necessary to generate more power than it consumes. The entire fusion process is about as dramatic as flipping a light switch, and Sutherland walks us right up to the small reactor shortly afterwards one such operation.

This isn’t some scaled-down experimental toy. Zap’s commercial fusion reactor, intended to reliably produce enough power for 30,000 homes—day and night, year-round—will be exactly the same size as the prototype, with the addition of a liquid-metal “blanket,” heat exchangers, and steam turbines to turn its energetic neutrons into electricity. The core reactor will be shorter than a Mini Cooper.

OK, if we take this at face value, tech like this would be amazing.  A fusion reactor like this could power a small town, or a substantial area in a rural community.  I like the idea of decentralizing the grid, too, which something like this should make possible.  Those would be great things, given an economically feasible setup.

But I have some questions:

  1. What are the startup costs?  How much to build a reactor like this, transport it, hook it into the local grid, fuel it for the initial run?
  2. How often would it require refueling?  How much does that refueling cost?
  3. What would the cost per kW/hr be compared to more conventional power plants?
  4. How will this tech function in a variety of environments?  It seems like there would be at least some exposure of the plant to local conditions, from well-below-zero temps here in Alaska to triple-digit temps in Arizona, not to mention differences in humidity, altitude and other local conditions.

The article concludes:

“We’re in a period of transition from science towards engineering, but we still have plasma physicists on staff and we will for quite some time,” says Zap’s Sutherland. “We’re trying to decarbonize the energy base load for the entire planet. If Zap works, it will change the world.”

Color me skeptical.  There are a couple of things I question about that statement; first, if your goal is to ‘decarbonize the energy base load,’ you are looking at it the wrong way.  If the goal was to ‘build an economically feasible fusion reactor,’ I’d be much more interested.  But here’s the big part: being in a ‘period of transition from science towards engineering.’  We’ve been in that transition for a long damn time now.  As long as scientists and engineers focus on political goals and not practical (economic) goals, this tech will go nowhere.

And the thing is this:  We can already accomplish everything that this startup purports to do.  We already have the technology for clean, efficient, reliable, economically feasible power generation.  It’s called fission, and we should be building more of the newest plants.  That’s the answer for any nuclear-based generation right now.