International Policy Digest

ITER Organization
Science /16 Jul 2020

The U.S. should Cut its $122 Million Contribution to the ITER

The $4 trillion U.S. Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 contains a commitment to spend $122 million for the ITER fusion project that is currently under construction in the south of France, of which the U.S. is a founding member. With recent breakthroughs in the coating of new magnetic superconductors, the ITER has become obsolete before it has been completed.

The $122 million that the U.S. has budgeted for the ITER tokamak should instead be diverted to a U.S. company that is close to fusion technology. Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS) with the combination of its pioneering use of He-3 as an ignition fuel, and the ability to build smaller tokamaks would seem the right company to give this grant to.

The recent discovery that the element YBCO aka REBCO, allows a stronger magnetic field to be generated when it is coated onto the new magnetic superconductors, is a critical breakthrough that will make sustained fusion reactors possible. By using a material that becomes superconducting above the boiling point of liquid nitrogen, 77 kelvin, the new magnets are smaller, more powerful, and cheaper than the previously used superconductors that are used to suspend the liquid plasma in place during the fusion experimental process.

MIT and CFS, and Lockheed Martin both have tokamaks under construction which will use this innovative technology in generating a stronger and smaller magnetic containment device, that is capable of suspending and holding the incredibly hot plasma necessary to generate fusion power. The new superconductors generate a magnetic field so strong, that the size of the superconductors have been dramatically reduced to allow them to be portable.

For example, the proposed ITER tokamak will weigh 23,000 tons and have a diameter of 42 hectares.

The tokamaks being constructed by CFS and Lockheed Martin will be able to fit onto the back of a semi-truck and weigh significantly less than the ITER’s 23,000 tons.

Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS)

CFS is a spin-off company from MIT. Its founders, Martin Greenwald, Dan Brunner, Zach Hartwig, Brandon Sorbom, Robert Mumgaard, and Dennis Whyte all hail from the MIT Plasma Fusion and Science Center. These are the men who will be leading CFS in its race with Lockheed Martin to develop the new type of tokamak.

They are also the members of the team who in 2016 ran the experiments that provided the breakthrough that generated fusion activity with a theoretical experiment that generated 500 MV of power with an input of 50 MV.

Prior to using He-3, earlier experiments in fusion used only two types of ions, deuterium, and hydrogen. Deuterium composed 95% of the fuel used, but still, the output of energy was less than the inputs used to generate the output.

The researchers at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) then used trace amounts of He-3, with deuterium and hydrogen in their breakthrough experiment in the Alcator C-Mod tokamak. Using industrial magnets to suspend and hold the fuel in place, the team at Plasma Fusion and Science Center added trace amounts of helium-3 to the earlier mix, they then used a process called “radio-frequency heating” to ignite the nuclear fuel.

By focusing the frequency heating on the helium-3 trace elements, the team at MIT raised the ions to a “Megaelectronvolt” (MeV) level.

According to Popular Mechanic: “An electronvolt is the amount of energy gained or lost when a single electron jumps from a point of electric potential to a point one volt higher, a common unit of measurement for fusion experiments. The new results with helium-3 fuel, generating ions that reach megaelectronvolt energies, has never been achieved before, and the increase in ion energy is a full order of magnitude higher than previous efforts.”

The MIT data encouraged Joint European Torus (JET) in the United Kingdom to try and replicate the MIT observations. The results of their experiment were an exact match.

Serendipitously, the two facilities were able to measure different properties of the fusion process.

At MIT, fusion scientists used a process known as phase-contrast imaging (PCI) to accurately measure interactions between the fuel particles and the radio waves, while the JET scientists had the capability to more precisely measure the energy of MeV particles. The resulting picture of what happens during the fusion reactions is more complete than either facility could have achieved on its own.

Lockheed Martin’s ‘Compact Fusion Device’

Lockheed Martin was granted a patent for a fusion reactor that they have named the Compact Fusion Reactor. The formal approval for their Compact Fusion Reactor (CFR) can be found here. Lockheed Martin says that their CFR will be small enough to fit on a trailer truck bed and power 100,000 homes with electricity.

Very little is known about their CFR, and despite several inquiries to Lockheed Martin from this author we have received no reply.

Dr. Martin Greenwald, when asked to compare the SPARC fusion reactor his company is building said, and I quote “…Perhaps the best way to compare our project and the one from Lockheed is to consider where to take risks. We are using conservative, proven plasma physics, but with extrapolation in magnet engineering. Lockheed requires quite significant physics advances – and will have to show a significant scale-up…”

It is for this reason that I argue that the $122 million distributed for the ITER be re-allocated, and the Trump administration redistribute these funds for fusion energy projects at home.