МОСКВА, 08 декабря 2021, Институт РУССТРАТ.

The impossible dream of physicists all over the world, controlled thermonuclear fusion, may be close to realisation. At least, these are the expectations of investors of several private companies at once, who suddenly joined in the pursuit of the «energy Grail» of humanity.

«Tamed» nuclear fusion, which would repeat the processes occurring inside the Sun, is able to give the planet an almost inexhaustible source of energy. At the same time, it would be absolutely safe, unlike the decay reaction in nuclear power plants, and completely clean, with zero greenhouse gas emissions. There is only one problem: «thermonuclear fusion» until recently remained the object of not very successful experiments of scientists.

For a number of reasons, such experiments — not to mention the teams of people who conduct them — require enormous investments, which only the leading states of the world are able to assume them, and even only together. Private business, always profit-oriented in one way or another, has been bypassing thermonuclear fusion for decades: it’s long, expensive and unpromising.

It is all the more curious that recently at least three American private companies — Helion Energy, Commonwealth Fusion Systems and TAE Technologies — announced the attraction of billions of dollars in investments in their own thermonuclear projects. And moreover, they announced commercial returns from them already in 2024, 2025 and 2030, respectively.

What is this, another bait of cunning merchants who decided to «monetise» the faith of millions of simpletons in scientific progress? Or is this really a sign that in just a few years the world energy industry, and with it the whole of humanity, will change beyond recognition?

 

To light a star

 

Let’s figure it out in a simple way, without going into physics formulas, what controlled thermonuclear fusion is really and why it is still unattainable.

From the very word «synthesis» it can be understood that we are talking about fusion — namely, the unification of two light atomic nuclei into one heavier nucleus. In this process, a significant amount of heat is released, which can be adapted to boil water with it, rotate the turbine and give current.

The fuel for such a reaction can be the most common chemical in the universe — hydrogen. The main difficulty is that in order to merge nuclei (for example, isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, which turn into helium), they need to be brought together by a sufficient distance, overcoming the force of repulsion. This can be done only by properly driving the nuclei — warming them up to a plasma state. And then keeping this plasma in a stable state.

In fact, we are talking about lighting a small star on Earth. So far, the best attempt is 101 seconds at 120 million degrees Celsius: this result was achieved by the Chinese a few months ago. This temperature is more than sufficient for the synthesis to become self-sustaining (in the core of the Sun, for comparison, it is -15 million degrees). But less than three minutes of plasma life is, of course, not enough.

Firstly Soviet scientists, and then their colleagues around the world came to the conclusion that it is most promising to hold plasma with the help of a magnetic field. To do this, they began to build tokamaks — a kind of «magnetic traps» of plasma. The first tokamaks appeared in the USSR, and today there are about 300 of them on the planet.

The most ambitious Tokamak project in the world is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southeastern France, which brought together scientists and designers from the EU, Russia, USA, China, India, Japan and South Korea. The reactor is planned to be built by 2025, so that after a few more years to reach the first «useful result — by transferring 50 MW to plasma, 500 MW will be obtained from it within 400-600 seconds.

This ten-minute pleasure costs at least €20 billion. Such is the approximate price of the efforts of all participating countries that are building ITER «brick by brick», each of which is responsible for its own block. It is not surprising that the project has been dragging on since the mid-1980s, and the commissioning of the reactor has been repeatedly postponed.

 

SpaceX or Rusnano?

 

Against this background, the news from the American state of Washington looks like a bolt from the blue. Helion Energy, a private company based there, was able to attract $500 million in investments and will receive an additional $1.7 billion when the next efficiency threshold is reached.

A few months ago, its Trenta thermonuclear reactor reached the temperature threshold of 100 million degrees — and for the first time this happened with private money. The company’s management says that in just three years it will be able to produce the first clean positive energy — that is, to get more megawatts at the output than will be spent at the input.

Two other private firms from the USA pursue similar goals — TAE Technologies (California) and Commonwealth Fusion Systems (at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The first of them managed to raise almost $1 billion in April under the announcement that by 2030 its reactors will be able to produce stable plasma at 50 million degrees. The second accumulated even more private funds, $1.8 billion, after it was able to demonstrate a new superconducting magnet that creates a magnetic field with a record induction of 20 Tesla. Commonwealth Fusion Systems plans to complete its tokamak SPARC by 2025.

At least two points should be noted here.

All of these projects are not very similar to the «scam» with which the word «startup» has often been associated lately. Behind each of the projects is the work of serious scientists and developers, and most importantly — concrete results. And these are not at all «differently bent corners» of a smartphone, but quite real scientific and technical achievements.

And the second point is connected with money — more precisely, with the names of sponsors. Suffice it to say that Helion Energy was awarded a contract from the US Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) a few years ago, it is funded by NASA, the Pentagon and the US Department of Energy. Among the sponsors of Commonwealth Fusion Systems are Bill Gates and similar «bisons». As for TAE Technologies, its financing was mainly through Goldman Sachs, and in 2012 our Rusnanotech invested in it (and Anatoly Chubais even joined the company’s board of directors).

And although the latter consideration will cause skepticism among many, yet the three named private firms look more like Elon Musk’s SpaceX than a deliberate fraud like Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos project. And this means that they can succeed.

All of this is especially relevant against the background of the tightening of climate rhetoric on the part of the «collective West» and its obvious, albeit unsuccessful attempts to develop alternative energy. It can be said with a high degree of confidence, that first oil and then gas on Earth will eventually run out — it is possible that the can happen in the 21st century. If by that time the «green» technologies are not refined to acceptable efficiency, then the only serious source of light and heat for humanity will remain the «peaceful atom».

And then, in order not to perish in the global Chernobyl, all serious world players, willing it or not, will be obliged to light a small star.

Институт международных политических и экономических стратегий Русстрат

(@russtrat)

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