Electricity from nuclear fusion is supposed to revolutionize the energy world

While nuclear fission is ostracized, even Germany is researching electricity from nuclear fusion. In North America, start-ups want to generate electricity in just a few years.

Greifswald The white, windowless hall on the edge of Greifswald is inconspicuous from the outside. But even the connected office complex with a futuristic curved roof gives an idea that this is not a simple warehouse.
In the building, only four kilometers from the Baltic Sea coast, 1000 tons of steel pile up: An annular metal construction is equipped with loud measuring devices and a total of 500 hatches, which open the way to the interior. A permanent noise in the hall sounds like an oversized vacuum cleaner.
Thomas Klinger is the master of this structure. He said he was "so completely stumbled upon in research", says the physicist at the Max Planck Institute as he paves his way around the steel complex. Pathos is out of place with him: For 19 years, he has worked on "the system" , as Klinger calls the construct sober.

We are talking about the Wendelstein 7-X, a nuclear fusion research machine. It took ten years to plan the Wendelstein. Ten more to build the 16 by 16 feet tall monster. Since 2015, the experiments are running. Klinger is a little bit pathetic after all. "The nuclear fusion could be an important contribution to stopping climate change," says the tall 53-year-old, without forgetting.
Earth's fusion reactors are intended to mimic this approach to generate electricity. While Germany is at nuclear fission before the nuclear phase-out, worldwide research is being carried out on the next form of power generation using radioactive material. But the meaning and nonsense of nuclear fusion is hardly less controversial than nuclear fission.

A little bit of radioactivity

The special feature of nuclear fusion: As with today's nuclear power plants, electricity could be produced without any CO2 emissions without any fluctuations. Unlike conventional nuclear power, which uses hundreds of tons of radioactive material, only a few kilograms of fusion would be needed. "And the process in the plant only needs a single gram," says Klinger.
"It is a globally unique experiment that can bring us a decisive step closer to the energy source of the future," Chancellor Angela Merkel said in 2015 during the visit to Wendelstein. There, however, only the optimal conditions for nuclear fusion are explored. Klinger and his team are doing the preliminary work for the Iter project.
In Cadarache in the south of France, the European Union, China, India, Japan, Korea, the USA and Russia have been building the "Iter" for well over a decade. In 2035, this is the first experimental reactor to generate more energy than is needed for the fusion. "We need a way to produce uncontrolled energy to replace dirty fossil fuels," said Iter general director Bernard Bigot in an interview with the Handelsblatt .
The EU will cost the Iter in today's prices probably 20 billion euros by 2035. Germany is involved only through the EU budget. In addition, the Federal Government is providing 137 million euros a year to support domestic fusion research. In addition to the Wendelstein in Greifswald, there are three other facilities in Germany.
This tax-financed subsidy sometimes causes incomprehension. "In view of the really urgent problems we face, I consider the promotion of nuclear fusion disproportionately exaggerated," criticized Matthias Bartelmann, professor at the University of Heidelberg.
At € 418 million in 2017, the renewable energy research subsidy was only three times higher than nuclear fusion. The former contribute 40 percent to power generation this year. Fusion electricity will be "available only after 2050," according to the Federal Ministry of Research. The Group of the Greens in the Bundestag had already made several applications to stop the merger promotion.
The Max Planck Institute in Greifswald receives 53 million euros in taxpayers' money each year from the federal and state governments. "It does not help," says project manager Klinger, "Fusion is only possible with large systems. And they are expensive. "
"Even if it were feasible through the research funds, I do not consider a nuclear fusion energy supply desirable," contradicts Bartelmann. Although the amount of radioactive material would be low, fusion power plants left radioactive contaminated scrap.
However, the search for repositories for thousands of years, such as nuclear fission, is not needed. The only radioactive material that could be used in future fusion power plants loses its radiation about 70 million times faster than the uranium commonly used today.
"For 100 years you would have to shut down an obsolete fusion power plant, then you could even recycle the materials," says Klinger. And even in a terrorist attack threatens because of the small amount of radioactive material no danger, Iter boss Bigot adds: "The residents of the power plant would not have to be evacuated."
Still, these are just mind games. At the earliest 2055, the power plant prototype demo, which will follow on Iter, actually feed electricity into the grid. According to Greenpeace , the world's electricity generation could be switched to renewable energies by then. "In an extreme scenario, we may not need fusion energy," Klinger admits.

Start-up wants to build the first fusion power plant by 2024

Christofer Mowry, an engineer who has worked for General Electric for years , wants to anticipate that. As usual, the CEO of the Canadian startup General Fusion is currently traveling in Malaysia. In Asia, deciding whether the world will fail due to climate change, he says, "It's not sunny or windy enough here to ever be fully fueled by renewable energy."
Three-quarters of the power in Malaysia is generated from fossil fuels. The Malaysian sovereign wealth fund is one of the investors of General Fusion.
Mowry is in a hurry to build the world's first fusion power plant by 2024. "We have all the technology to commercialize Fusion," he says.
He does not want to know about tons of reactors in which state research has exclusively invested for decades. Instead, he relies on raw mechanical power: On the outside of General Fusion's reactor, there are hundreds of compressed air pistons hammering the surface. The resulting shockwave inside the sphere compresses and heats the plasma so strongly that nuclear fusion is possible.
Mowry and his team have been working on this reactor for 15 years. Well over 100 million dollars capital have flowed according to own data already into the enterprise. And it will cost another hundreds of millions of dollars to commercialize the technology, he says. Financial investors have General Fusion. More than 25 percent of the investments come from the Canadian state. "They know fusion is the ultimate clean energy technology," says Mowry.
The richest person in the world, Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos, has also invested in General Fusion. He is part of an illustrious round of funders supporting fusion start-ups. German-born star investor Peter Thiel has joined Helion Energy. The company Commonwealth Fusion Systems received $ 50 million from energy company Eni this year The Italian energy supplier wants to bring in 2033 a fusion reactor to the network.
Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder, and the Rockefeller family rely on Tri Alpha Energy (TAE). The Californian start-up is run since the summer by the Austrian Michl Binderbauer. "Our children could live as the first generation without pollution," says the astrophysicist.
In the mid-2020s, TAE wants to produce a first experimental reactor that could be located in Kuwait. The sovereign wealth fund from the Arabian country sees its investment in TAE as a step to prepare for a future without crude oil.

X-rays instead of steam and turbines

Eric Lerner could also contribute to that. The founder and CEO of LPP Fusion, New Jersey, has dedicated his life to fusion reactors, fiddling with power generation from fusion for more than 30 years. "This will enable us to change the power supply worldwide," says Lerner confidently.
"We do not need steam and turbines, we rely on X-rays," says the researcher. Lerner is experimenting on a reactor that is supposed to be a power generator at the same time. As big as a garage, the generators of LPP Fusion should be once, they should bring five megawatts of power. Transformers scattered around the cities today to reconnect electricity could simply be exchanged for the LPP generators, Lerner believes.
In 2022, a first prototype is expected to produce electricity. Seven million dollars have been collected by LPP Fusion. "The consequences of the success of our project will have a revolutionary impact on life on our planet," Lerner is convinced.
Iter boss Bigot considers the plans of the start-ups to be out of touch with reality. If it works, "that would be wonderful and solve all our problems," says Bigot. "The start-ups have to say yes in order to get private money," says Klinger from the Max Planck Institute. But it would take "a few miracles".

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