A Focus Fusion Update About the Lawrenceville Plasma Physics Fusion Effort

Eric Lerner’s Focus Fusion team let go a little information at Focusfusion.org on the progress. While not a milestone, for those watching with interest the posting is welcome news.

The Lawrenceville plan for the current course is made of eight steps: Get the machine to pinch, i.e. achieve a focusing of the input energy – that’s competed, boost power to 25kV and 1MA and learn what the optimal gas pressures would be – the team has reached 30 kV and continues to optimize gas pressures, and third, test the theory of the axial shaped magnetic field which has shown clear evidence an initial axial field increases fusion yield.

Coming up is another power uprate to 45 kV and 2 MA using deuterium gas, then confirm the results Dr. Lerner obtained years back at the university of Texas with today’s better instrumentation.  These two steps are planned to get the tighter operating conditions measured and understood so that the next steps can be set with more precision.

That’s brings the research to step 6, optimizing for heavier gasses with scenarios including the boron-11 gas, the theoretical best fuel to recover electricity as an output.

Bob Steinke writing at the Focus Fusion Society writes an explanation saying, “Deuterium has an atomic weight of 2.  A 50/50 mix of hydrogen and boron-11 has an average atomic weight of 6.  There are some plasma parameters that depend on the atomic weight of the particles in the plasma.  As we shift to heavier atomic weight we will need to adjust the length of the electrodes, the initial fill pressure, shot timing, etc. to maintain optimum plasmoid conditions.  We will do this by mixing in helium (atomic weight 4) and nitrogen (atomic weight 14) to add weight without adding the complexity of nuclear reactions.”

With Steinke’s explanation in mind it seems certain that the 6th step is going to take awhile – actually the longer and more thoroughly the better.

At step 7, the one step that does seem the be milestone of the set of steps – Steinke says, “This is an important step where we switch from the nuclear-inert gasses helium and nitrogen to boron that can fuse with protons.  If we achieve our previous milestones and create plasmoids with high enough temperature and density then fusion should just happen and this milestone won’t require any additional adjustments, but it will still be nice to finally see it happen.”  Nice seems like an astonishing understatement should the boron-11 come flying apart into the desired massively energized helium.

Step 8 could be a history maker – “Achieve positive Net Energy”. One wants to read Mr. Steinke comments closely, “Here’s how we plan to do this.  The capacitor bank in FF1 holds about 100,000 Joules of energy.  When we flip the switch that energy goes in to the electric currents and magnetic fields in the plasma.  The energy isn’t gone, it’s just in a different form.  Then fusion reactions add energy to the plasma.  For this milestone we hope to create 33,000 Joules of fusion energy with each shot.  Then that 133,000 Joules of energy has to be converted back to electricity.  But it can’t be converted with perfect efficiency.  There will be some losses.  If we can get 80% of that 133,000 Joules back into electricity then we will have 106,400 Joules of electricity.  That’s more than we started with.  100,000 Joules can be sent to the capacitors for the next shot, and 6,400 Joules can be siphoned off as power output.  This experiment won’t actually convert the plasma energy back into electricity, but by measuring the plasma energy we can show that we could create a power producing reactor.  That is what we mean by the term “demonstrate scientific feasibility” and that’s the goal of this milestone.”

That would in fact clear the current ‘breakeven’ mountaintop.   It leaves lot of engineering to do, further focus fusion optimization and a vast array of other topics.  Should those helium atoms arrive and be charged up as expected from the boron –11 fuel – then a full rethink across the entire fusion arena will be needed in considering the paths to commercialization of fusion.

Aaron Blake also updated on June 12th with information on the yields by peak power.  The main point Mr. Blake makes is the Lawrenceville effort is quite far along for the power they’re using.  As one looks at the chart the Lawrenceville effort is already quite high, at 100,000 million neutrons at just over 600 kA.  The chart can be a little misleading without realizing the spacing for the units are compressed.

Dense Plasma Fusion Yield Chart. .

Mr. Blake also covers the progress on yield with a chart, explores the thoughts and progress on the ‘spark plugs’ that emit the energy that becomes plasma.  The best news is the innovations have produced excellent plugs for use and to have on hand.

Perhaps the very best news is that two physics graduate students from Kansas State University have arrived for a month of work at LPP’s lab. The two students, Mohamed Ismail and Amgad Mohamed, have worked for six months at the small dense plasma fusion facility run by Professor Ali Abdou, a former classmate of Dr. Subramanian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  While the students are doing useful work they are acquiring very important experience.  This news is the best of the week – the participation of young minds and the potential to involve more add greatly to the chances for success and further development.

For all nuclear physics students the note is out, dense plasma physics is one developing field to keep an eye on.


Post written by: New Energy and Fuel

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    A Better Way to Store Hydrogen

    Javad Rafiee, a doctoral student in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has developed a new method for storing hydrogen at room temperature. Rafiee seems determined to play a key role in solving global dependency on fossil fuels.  The young man is one winner of the 2010 $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Student Prize, of the four 2010 winners announced March 3, 2010.

    Rafiee is the fourth recipient of the Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Student Prize. The prize, first given in 2007, is awarded annually to a Rensselaer senior or graduate student who has created or improved a product or process, applied a technology in a new way, redesigned a system, or demonstrated remarkable inventiveness in other ways.

    Hydrogen storage is well known to be a significant problem for the advancement and proliferation of fuel cell and hydrogen technologies in cars, trucks, and other applications. Rafiee has created a novel form of engineered graphene that exhibits hydrogen storing capacity far exceeding any other known material.

    Graphene Latticework Graphic. This graphic represents an atom-thin sheet of graphene, a form of carbon. Click image for the largest view. Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

    The hydrogen storage idea is a development of new method for manufacturing and using graphene, an atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged like a nanoscale chain-link fence, to store hydrogen. The proposed solution is said to be inexpensive and easy to produce.

    With adviser and Rensselaer Professor Nikhil Koratkar, Rafiee uses a combination of mechanical grinding, plasma treatment, and annealing to engineer the atomic structure of graphene to maximize its hydrogen storage capacity. The new graphene material exhibits a hydrogen storage capacity of 14 percent by weight at room temperature – far exceeding any other known material.

    How big a deal is this?  The 14-percent capacity surpasses the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 target of realizing a material with hydrogen storage capacity of 9 percent by weight at room temperature. Rafiee said his graphene is also one of the first known materials to surpass the Department of Energy’s 2010 target of 6 percent.  This is a big deal indeed.

    Rafiee’s graphene exhibits three critical attributes that result in its unique hydrogen storage capacity:

    The first is high surface area. Graphene’s unique structure, only one atom thick, means that each of its carbon atoms is exposed to the environment and, in turn, to the hydrogen gas.

    The second attribute is low density. Graphene has one of the highest surface area-per-unit masses in nature, far superior to even carbon nanotubes and fullerenes.

    The third attribute is favorable surface chemistry. After oxidizing graphite powder and mechanically grinding the resulting graphite oxide, Rafiee synthesized the graphene by thermal shock followed by annealing and exposure to argon plasma. These treatments play an important role in increasing the binding energy of hydrogen to the graphene surface at room temperature, as hydrogen tends to cluster and layer around carbon atoms.

    Meanwhile . . . Victor Aristov and colleagues indicate that graphene has the potential to replace silicon in high-speed computer processors and other devices. Standing in the way, however, are today’s cumbersome, expensive production methods, which result in poor-quality graphene and are not practical for industrial scale applications.

    Aristov and colleagues report that they have developed “a very simple procedure for making graphene on the cheap.” They describe growing high-quality graphene on the surface of commercially available silicon carbide wafers to produce material with excellent electronic properties. It “represents a huge step toward technological application of this material as the synthesis is compatible with industrial mass production.”  Their report is published in Nano Letters.

    Aristov is leading an impressive list of researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Solid State and Materials Research in Dresden, Germany, the Institute of Solid State Physics, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow District, Russia, the Institute of Solid State Physics, Dresden University of Technology, Dresden, Germany, the MAX-lab, Lund University, Lund, Sweden, and the TASC National Laboratory, INFM-CNR, Trieste, Italy.

    Could these two breakthroughs merge or would a technology merger make sense?  That’s an unknown for today, but graphene’s raw material, carbon, isn’t exotic, rare or any kind of wildly expensive material.  Lots of unanswered question come with the news.  The raw material will be a cost, the formation and process techniques will be costs.  If the material will cycle hydrogen in and out without limit that’s one thing, but if there are cycling limits the value would be quite different. Then what is involved to get the hydrogen in and back out again?

    There’s not enough in the releases to make conclusions, but the new path is clearer. There is a long way to go, but the prospects are intuitively very promising.  Hydrogen storage is a major problem and if the young man and the European team both have valid starting points for effective, low cost, long life and energy dense hydrogen storage with hopefully simple and cheap loading and unloading – one’s view on hydrogen fuel production might brighten up dramatically.

    Source: New Energy and Fuel