The National Ignition Lab expects to fuse a compound form of hydrogen made of tritium and deuterium later this year releasing high energy neutrons that should, for the first time, produce more power than the laser itself has put in..  It’s the first large scale and credible attempt after 5 decades of effort and investment.

The problem would come if it works.  The fuel supply would partly be the radioactive form of tritium.  That in itself isn’t terrible, or dangerous if handled properly.  One could make a hydrogen bomb if enough tritium could be located, configured and set up inside of a fission bomb.  But the volumes, the complexity and the sophistication are very high – proliferation is a credible matter of some interest.

Tritium Structure. Click image for the largest view.

The basic issue would be coming up with enough tritium at all.  If it were only deuterium that was needed – the oceans are said to hold 60 billion years worth for generating power at today’s levels.  But tritium is far more rare.  Reports have it that only 20 kilograms of tritium remain here on earth.  The U.S. had only produced 225 kilograms of tritium from 1955 to 1996.  The National Ignition Lab hasn’t said what part of a fuel load is tritium and deuterium.

Currently supplies come principally from nuclear reactors, specifically Canada’s heavy water reactors. They can produce enough tritium to supply current experimental fusion plants but not enough, nowhere near enough, for commercial production.  Today’s prices are about $30 million per kilogram.  Factor that into the equation and capitalize new reactors to make tritium and a whole new set of issues come in view.  Today’s price is likely low and if tritium is needed in any volume, sure to go up.

Professor Steve Cowley, director of the fusion program at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority expects fusion reactors to become self-sustaining, ‘breeding’ their own fuel supply.  The professor points out that tritium production can and is done with fission reactors so making the jump over to fusion should work just as predicted.  “The principles are right, but there’s a lot of difference between principles and practice and that’s where we have to do our work,” he says.

This is a field fraught with inputs from folks with bias.  Jan Beranek of Greenpeace claims that, “to sustain a reaction for a year for just one reactor it would need to burn 50 kilograms of tritium.  How he knows this is a mystery, but even so, if he’s only 40% correct, a single reactor would consume the world’s supply on hand in year one.  Then what?  Right wrong or biased, the question remains.

The flip side has its detractors in Europe too.  Dr Michael Dittmar, a physicist at CERN working for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology thinks fusion fuel breeding is a comforting folly, a process fraught with problems in physics, mathematics and engineering.  “You put 20 kilograms of this tritium in and then you start to operate a kind of chain reaction. Even to come to the chain reaction, there are so many fundamental problems that cannot be addressed at a single place in the world.”  Dittmar believes the vast expenditure on experimental reactors should be halted until the basic fueling problem is resolved.

Dittmar, when overlooking the National Ignition Lab’s laser program, the UK’s Jet effort and the international ITER project says on the fuel breeding matter, “If this (fuel breeding) doesn’t work we can forget the entire rest of the project(s).”  He may well be right.

There is cause for confidence though; heavy water fusion reactors make tritium – undeniable.  Whether the fusion theory can be made to work on a fuel breeding program is yet to be seen.  For certain, a pause would be worthwhile once the National Ignition Lab’s laser is working to ascertain just how to come up with fuel.  Perhaps the National Ignition Lab needs to consider in the face of the impending success how to fuel more units before getting too much further into development.  Can the fuel breeding theory be applied to laser fusion?

Deuterium seems to be a fuel of good and obtainable sources even if the need to go through incredible amounts of seawater is required to get concentrated amounts. Tritium remains a matter of concern.  Breeding in dedicated heavy water reactors might be the only way – and if so, the costs will be high and political fights are going to be very time consuming.

Tritium also has a ‘shelf life’ as it decays relatively quickly. Its not like you can make up a century’s batch and put it away, some form of steady production will have to match the consumption.

All this makes a stronger case for fission both in uranium and thorium and the boron class of fusion reactors.

2010 looks to be a very exciting year.  Both Bussard fusion run by Richard Nebel and Eric Lerner’s Lerner fusion efforts are gathering positive data and progressing directly to boron based fuels.  The boron fuel of choice is similar to products on sale now at specialty gas and welding suppliers.

This writer wishes all the efforts the best of results in short order.  We may be, finally faced with the downline issues this year.  Foremost is “where will we get the fuels?”

It’s a question worth some thought – now is a good time to start looking into the matter.


8 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on March 11, 2010 9:00 AM

    Reminds me of the old joke –

    “They finally developed a car that gets 100 miles per gallon.”

    “The only problem is – it runs on Starbuck coffee.”

  2. russ on March 14, 2010 12:34 AM

    Kind of cute actually – the crisis of the week program.

    1. Some time back it was lithium – the Morales problem
    2. Next it was rare earths – China controls them
    3. Now lack of fuel for fusion
    4. Next?

    A problem comes up – everyone panics – someone finds a solution – normal İ guess

  3. Education North Dakota on March 14, 2010 3:51 PM

    […] Will There Be Enough Fuel For Fusion? | New Energy and Fuel […]

  4. Air Rift on July 29, 2010 6:50 PM

    Your post is definitely scary! How I desire they could have some actions to solve this. Got to go,superior article! Thank for the material!

  5. tchibo gutschein on August 3, 2010 9:23 PM

    wow! nice!!!

  6. MZ on August 19, 2010 9:19 AM

    This article is pretty lame.
    Tritium comes from neutron irradiation of lithium. Neutrons from D-T fusion will produce tritium if the reactor chamber is shielded with Li-Be alloy, for example. Some neutrons, however, will be lost, but large part of the tritium will be produced on-site.
    I think, that by the time we have reached a danger of lithium depletion, we will enjoy a D-D fusion plant in every big city on the planet.

  7. M.A. Padmanabha Rao, PhD on October 7, 2010 11:47 PM

    I provide here the latest research findings on tritium from paper published in a peer reviewed journal. From within the same
    excited atoms of radioisotopes and X-ray sources well known as ionizing radiation sources, two non-ionizing radiations were
    discovered: (1) Bharat radiation emission (predicted) with the energy higher than that of UV at eV level, and (2) UV dominant optical emission that successively follow gamma, X-ray, and beta emissions. Therefore, traditional radioactive decay needed modification, by including Bharat radiation emission (predicted), and then UV dominant optical emission following the gamma, X-ray, and beta emissions. Tritium is essentially known as a weak beta emitter. But now the latest research findings show that tritium is an exception among all other radioisotopes and XRF sources tested, since it emits Bharat radiation (predicted) and not UV dominant optical radiation. In clear words, illustration on tritium beta decay should include Bharat radiation emission, after beta emission.

    A brief phenomenological explanation comprising of two postulates is described in the following, so that a detailed mathematical explanation can follow later. (1) Ionizing radiation, particularly ?-, X-, or ß radiation energy at keV or MeV level loses energy at eV level while passing through a core-Coulomb field. The loss of energy is reproduced as electromagnetic radiation with the same energy at
    eV level but higher than that of UV or EUV that the source emits. (2) The energy causes valence excitation resulting into UV dominant
    atomic spectrum.

    The author was able to verify the validity of this phenomenon when 3H (tritium) did not show any optical emission on keeping a 3H ampoule directly on the quartz window of the bare PMT (9635QB Thorn EMI). The reason being 3H has only one electron, which is in K-shell. Passage of ß-emission through K-shell Coulomb field generates a Bharat photon. However, in the absence of an electron in L-shell, the Bharat photon simply escapes from 3H atom without producing any light photon by valence excitation. Hopefully, this insight might prompt others to verify the author’s experimental finding on 3H. Likewise, Bharat radiation emission alone takes place from highly ionized radionuclides left with a singly filled K shell that can happen in a situation like nuclear fission. Confirmation of this newly predicted Bharat energies higher than that of UV or EUV needs development of a PMT or some other detector sensitive enough in this energy region. While radiation dose to the person exposed to tritirm is expected to be due to beta radiation, now the Bharat radiation emission may raise the dose particularly to skin and outer layers of the body.

    M.A. Padmanabha Rao,
    UV dominant optical emission newly detected from radioisotopes and XRF sources,
    Brazilian Journal of Physics, Vol.40, no.1, March 2010.

  8. Fashion on October 28, 2010 8:38 AM

    Actually informative entry to read on.. I’m genuinely amazed with this content. Searching forward for more information.

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