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One Nuclear Fusion Reactor Could Generate Power Cheaper Than Coal-Fired Electricity.

Of the various designs for nuclear fusion reaction, one reactor type has been developed in the US to generate power cheaper than a new coal-fired plant's electricity (see below). However, there are other fusion reactor designs which are interesting as well. aHH

In any case, fusion energy almost sounds too good to be true zero GHG emissions, no long-lived radio-active waste, a nearly un-limited fuel supply. Perhaps the biggest road-block to adopting a fusion energy reactor of any design is that the economics involved have not pencilled out.

Fusion power designs are not cheap enough to out-perform systems using fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas or oil. The University of Washington (UW) in 2014 said its engineers hoped to change that. They had designed a concept for a fusion reactor which, when scaled up to the size of a large electrical power plant, would rival costs for a new coal-fired plant with similar electrical output.

This university's team published its reactor design and cost-analysis findings in the spring of 2014 and presented the results on Oct. 17, 2014, at the 25th IAEA Fusion Energy Conference in St. Petersburg, Russia. Dr Thomas Jarboe, a UW professor of aeronautics and astronautics and an adjunct professor in physics then said: "Right now, this design has the greatest potential of producing economical fusion power of any current concept".

The UW's reactor, called the dynomak, started up as a class project taught by Dr Jarboe in 2012. After the class ended, Jarboe and doctoral student Derek Sutherland - who previously worked on a reactor design at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - continued to develop and refine the concept.

The design was built on existing technology and created a magnetic field within a closed space to hold plasma in place long enough for fusion to occur, allowing the hot plasma to react and burn. The reactor itself would be largely self-sustaining, meaning it would continuously heat the plasma to maintain thermo-nuclear conditions. Heat generated from the reactor would heat up a coolant used to spin a turbine and generate electricity, similar to how a typical power reactor works.

Sutherland said: "This is a much more elegant solution because the medium in which you generate fusion is the medium in which you're also driving all the current required to confine it". (There are several ways to create a magnetic field, which is crucial to keeping a fusion reactor going).

The UW's design is known as a spheromak, meaning it generates the majority of magnetic fields by driving electrical currents into the plasma itself. This reduces the amount of required materials and actually allows researchers to shrink the over-all size of the reactor.

Other designs, such as the experimental fusion reactor project which in 2014 was being built in France - called Iter - have to be much larger than the UW's because they rely on super-conducting coils which circle around the outside of the device to provide a similar magnetic field. When compared with the fusion reactor concept in France, the UW's is much less expensive - roughly one-tenth the cost of Iter - while producing five times the amount of energy.

The UW researchers factored the cost of building a fusion reactor as a power plant using their design and compared that with building a coal power plant. They used a metric called "overnight capital costs", which included all costs, particularly start-up infrastructure fees. A fusion power plant producing 1 gigawatt (1 billion watts) of power would cost $2.7bn, while a coal-fired plant of the same output would cost $2.8bn, according to their analysis.

Sutherland said: "If we do invest in this type of fusion, we could be rewarded because the commercial reactor unit already looks economical. It's very exciting".
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Publication:APS Review Downstream Trends
Date:Dec 14, 2015
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