Researchers at the University of Washington are developing a new type of fusion reactor that could generate eco-friendly power for less money than fossil fuels. Ben Gruber reports.
This is a Dynomak, a fusion reactor its makers say could one day efficiently produce massive amounts of clean energy at a fraction of the cost of any other reactor currently being developed. Fusion is how stars produce energy. It occurs when the nuclei of light atoms, such as hydrogen, are fused together under extreme pressure and heat. Thomas Jarboe, a professor of physics, says fusion power is the holy grail of energy sources, which is why he's spent the past four decades attempting to harness it. SOUNDBITE (English) THOMAS JARBOE, PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON, SAYING: "It's essentially an infinite source of energy. It is clean energy. It doesn't have any footprint on the Earth, no footprint, no radioactive waste, no greenhouse gases. It's basically the ideal energy source." While fusion may someday provide an infinite source of energy, researchers still need to overcome plenty of hurdles to get there. For a start, building reactors that basically mimic and sustain the extreme forces that take place in the sun is very expensive. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, is the most ambitious fusion reactor project currently underway. The massive structure, being built in France, is a Tokamak reactor design.. which relies on superconducting coils to create a magnetic field to hold hot plasma in place for fusion to occur. Jarboe and researcher Derek Sutherland's Dynomak design creates a magnetic field by driving electrical currents directly into the plasma. SOUNDBITE (English) THOMAS JARBOE, PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON, SAYING: "That allows the reactor to be a lot cheaper because there are less walls to deal with and less coils to shield." SOUNDBITE (English) DEREK SUNDERLAND, RESEARCHER, UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON, SAYING: "What we have discovered here in a way to sustain the current much much more efficiently, orders of magnitude more efficiently than conventional current drive methods they use on tokamaks." This small model has proven that their concept works. The next step is to scale it up so they can achieve the temperatures needed to start and sustain a fusion reaction. If successful, Sutherland says this design could rival oil and gas in affordability, although admits there's much work still to do. But he says progress being made on his reactor and others will ensure that fusion power becomes a reality within our lifetime.