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Germany – a nuclear fusion leader

18 Feb 2016   by   Comments (5)

The news of the recent successful plasma experiment at a nuclear fusion research facility in Germany went wild on social media, but a lot of people wondered what kind of sense it makes for a country with a nuclear phase-out to be conducting research in nuclear fusion. In fact, Germany is a leader in nuclear fusion in two ways. Craig Morris explains.

Nuclear-Fusion

80 million degrees Celsius in a bottle. (Photo by Damien Jemison/LLNL, modified, CC BY-SA 3.0)


For the first time ever worldwide, physicists from the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald recently managed to use microwaves to create a plasma with a temperature of 80 million degrees Celsius. It lasted for a quarter of a second (press release). At that temperature, the materials used in the reactor would melt, so the plasma has to be suspended in midair magnetically. That description is admittedly simplistic; for a more in-depth (and enjoyable) explanation, I refer readers to the recent New Yorker article, whose title sums up the technology well: A star in a bottle.

Obviously, a quarter of a second is not long; a future fusion powerplant would, of course, run for decades. Furthermore, 80 million degrees is not quite what is needed; the World Nuclear Association (WNA) expects a commercial reactor to reach 100 million degrees (for what it’s worth, the New Yorker says the ITER plant being built in France aims to hit 200 million degrees).

ITER is not, however, expected to go into operation this decade, and the goal is merely to produce more energy than is put into the process for the first time. The plasma is to survive “for at least 400 seconds continuously,” the WNA says, adding: “No electricity will be generated at ITER.” In short, a commercial fusion power plant is not expected until more or less the middle of this century.

As the WNA points out, fusion research began in 1951 both in the Soviet Union and in the US. In 1954, the German foreign policy journal Außenpolitik claimed that nuclear fusion would be “practically ready to use in two years.” In 1955, German nuclear minister Franz-Josef Strauss declared at the Atomic Conference in Geneva that fusion “might be” the conference’s only real sensation. He was referring to Indian nuclear physicist Homi Bhabha, president of the conference, who had stated that the world could expect nuclear fusion in around 20 years, putting us in 1975.

In 1960, West Germany founded the Institute of Plasma Physics (IPP) in Garching, which focused on nuclear fusion under the direction of Werner Heisenberg – who, ironically, stated in 1956 that “nuclear synthesis [meaning “fusion”] is a long way off.” But if the government is handing out money, why say no? General Electric stepped away from fusion research in 1969, and around that time the head of the IPP called fusion “adventuresome… 100 million degrees is a fantastical temperature.” And so, 1975 came and went without nuclear fusion, but the hype remained (all quotes taken from this book). In 1977, an article in Der Spiegel spoke of nuclear fusion as “Europe’s last chance,” with one expert saying fusion would make up “a considerable share of European energy demand” in less than 30 years (PDF).

But what kind of sense does it make for a country with a nuclear phase-out, like Germany, to conduct research into nuclear fusion?

Nuclear proponents would argue that fusion will fix the problem of nuclear waste, which is a main concern behind the nuclear phase-out (though it does not generate nuclear waste, a fusion reactor itself is partly contaminated). But another reason for the phase-out and the Energiewende is the wish for community energy: people making their own energy in smaller, distributed systems. As the WNA points out, fusion plants will have to be big by design. There will be no community nuclear fusion. The technology requires large corporations.

Nuclear research during a nuclear phase-out reveals the dilemma that the nuclear sector currently faces. The headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is located in Vienna. Austria blocked the opening of a finished nuclear plant in 1978 – a year before the accident at Three Mile Island in the US – and adopted a nuclear phase-out in 1997. The country’s utilities have also pledged not to import any nuclear power. But nuclear research still continues in numerous European countries with a phase-out planned or completed (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and Italy) largely because of Euratom (European Atomic Energy Community). Euratom currently focuses partly on fusion research.

In 1957, Euratom was created alongside the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union. Thus, nuclear has been at the heart of the EU since the outset. Oddly, all EU member states are still Euratom members, even those without nuclear power or those with phase-out plans.

Germany is pursuing a two-pronged strategy for fusion, however, just in case the Star in a Bottle never works. Germany is building solar panels as fusion energy receivers. The Sun itself is a giant fusion reactor. Wind turbines are indirect fusion energy receivers (solar energy stirs up the atmosphere). Likewise, biomass stores fusion energy by means of photosynthesis.

So if you are a fan of fusion energy, Germany has you covered.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International.

comments

  1.   by Nathanael

    I’m going to say it again. We only need one nuclear fusion reactor. We already have it. It’s called “the sun” (“Die Sonne” in German).

  2.   by Vivi

    Oh, have they finally finished the thing? Wasn’t it supposed to be ready like 10 years ago? I remember they were already busy building that experimental fusion reactor when I went to university in Greifswald (it’s one of the oldest in Germany, though the town attached is small and poor, which together with the East-German refusal to charge university fees, meant very affordable living conditions, even if it was in the total boondocks), all the way back in 2001, so arguing that this project shouldn’t have happened on account of the more recent nuclear phase-out is silly. They probably started planning and financing in the early 1990s, and you don’t simply write off the investments already pumped into a half-finished project just because the political situation has changed. Plus, it’s a prestige project, even if the press mostly just cares bout ITER. And the technology really is a lot safer than nuclear fission, from what I understand. The irradiated building materials are only dangerous for a few hundred years at most, so the waste storage problem is far more manageable, and a fusion reaction can’t sustain itself on a scale smaller than a star, so a fusion reactor wouldn’t be able to explode.

    Even though fusion reactors, if they turn out to be possible in terms of physics, would need big corporate or state investments to build, I really do hope that one day we’ll get there. Solar and wind are all good, but they do have their problems – low energy density / EROEI compared to fossil fuels being the most important. I fear that it may not be possible to sustain an industrial civilisation solely on renewables, at least not for the whole world. Fusion would give us enough concentrated energy to make artificial liquid fuels and such, as needed for global shipping of raw materials, which would also mean that all the land currently used for biofuels could be given back to reforestation or at least to replace the food production we’ll lose to the effects of climate change (flooding of river deltas, too much heat for grain growing in the tropics, etc.)

    So let’s hope it will work out.

    @Dr. Josef Pesch:
    As far as I know, oil mainly comes from the great dying of anaerobic microorganisms when cyanobacteria first ‘invented’ photosynthesis, producing lots and lots of oxygen, which was toxic to life as it had existed up till then. This resulted in a thick layer of dead organic matter, too much for the surviving microorganisms to eat it all before it was covered by too much sand to be accessible. (Besides, the whole reaction of organic matter + oxygen = energy + CO2 had just started to evolve, since there was no free oxygen in the atmosphere before.) And coal is the result of the first trees that ‘invented’ lignin to make wood and grow tall. It took some time for the fungi to figure out a way to digest that lignin, so for a very long time, the trunks of dead trees just lay there, slowly getting buried in accumulating soil, but not actually rotting. So the organic matter was still there when enough soil had piled on top to turn the wood into coal through pressure. Both of these were one-time events. Aside from the wood we’re taking out of the carbon cycle as furniture, libraries and biochar, and rare natural events like trees sinking into bogs and being preserved or the slow accumulation of peat in low-oxygen, acidic soils, all organic matter nowadays is quickly digested by microorganisms. The best you can hope for in terms of natural long-term carbon-sequestration is humic acids (the organic carbon that makes fertile soil so dark), which can last for a few hundred years before they’re completely turned back to CO2, at least if the soil isn’t plowed. And maybe new methane clathrates on the sea floor if the climate ever gets colder again. Well, I guess all the plastic in our landfills might get compressed back into an oil-like substance in a billion years…

  3.   by Vivi

    Oh, have they finally finished the thing? Wasn’t it supposed to be ready like 10 years go? I remember they were already busy building that experimental fusion reactor when I went to university in Greifswald (it’s one of the oldest in Germany, though the town attached is small and poor, which together with the East-German refusal to charge university fees, meant very affordable living conditions), which was in 2001, so arguing that this project shouldn’t have happened on account of the nuclear phase-out is silly. They probably started planning and financing in the early 1990s, and you don’t simply write off the costs of a half-finished project just because the political situation has changed. Plus, it’s mainly a basic research project, like a particle accelerator, and basic research is always helpful. And the technology really is a lot safer than nuclear fission, from what I understand. The irradiated building materials are only dangerous for a few hundred years, so the waste storage problem is far more manageable, and a fusion reaction can’t sustain itself on a scale smaller than a star, so a fusion reactor wouldn’t be able to explode.
    Even if fusion reactors, if they turn out to be possible in terms of physics, would need big corporate or state investments, I really do hope that one day we’ll get there. Solar and wind are all good, but they do have their problems – low energy density / EROEI compared to fossil fuels being the most important. I fear that it may not be possible to sustain an industrial civilisation solely on renewables, at least not for the whole world. Fusion would give us enough concentrated energy to make artificial liquid fuels and such, as needed for global shipping of raw materials, which would also mean that all the land currently used for biofuels could be given back to reforestation or at least to replace the food production we’ll lose to the effects of climate change (flooding of river deltas, too much heat for grain growing in the tropics, etc.)
    So let’s hope it will work out.

    @Dr. Josef Pesch:
    As far as I know, oil mainly comes from the great dying of anaerobic microorganisms when cyanobacteria first ‘invented’ photosynthesis, producing lots and lots of oxygen, which was toxic to life as it had existed up till then. This resulted in a thick layer of dead organic matter, too much for the surviving microorganisms to eat it all before it was covered by too much sand to be accessible. (Besides, the whole reaction of organic matter + oxygen = energy + CO2 had just started to evolve, since there was no free oxygen in the atmosphere before.) And coal is the result of the first trees that ‘invented’ lignin to make wood and grow tall. It took some time for the fungi to figure out a way to digest lignin, so for a very long time, the logs of dead trees just lay there, slowly getting buried in accumulating soil, but not actually rotting. So the organic matter was still there when enough soil had piled on top to turn the wood into coal through pressure. Both of these were one-off events. Aside from rare events like trees sinking into oxygen-free bogs or something, all organic matter nowadays is quickly digested by microorganisms. The best you can hope for in terms of natural carbon-sequestration is humic acids (organic carbon that makes fertile soil so dark), which can last for a few hundred years before it is completely turned back to CO2. And maybe new methane clathrates on the sea floor if the climate ever gets colder again. Well, I guess all the plastic in our landfills might get compressed back into an oil-like substance in a billion years…

  4.   by Dr. Josef Pesch

    They say that nuclear fusion will take another 50 years to become commercially viable (if ever). Well, if we have not solved our energy problem with renewables by then, this latest attempt at a pie-in-the-sky project will come too late to help us.
    Perhaps there is a more useful way to spend all that money …

    P.S. Yes, as one politician in one of our coal-states pointed out “Coal is a solar energy”. It is indeed. It is just that the cycles of regeneration are a little on the long side. But if you only burn as much oil, gas and coal each year as is re-formed by nature, that would be acceptable.

  5.   by Jarmo

    “Likewise, biomass stores fusion energy by means of photosynthesis. So if you are a fan of fusion energy, Germany has you covered. ”

    Oil, gas and coal are also stored fusion energy. Saudi Arabia and OPEC have you covered as well ;)

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