2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Point out news stories, on the net or in mainstream media, related to polywell fusion.

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Ivy Matt
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2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Post by Ivy Matt »

The year is 2021. ITER assembly is 70-75% complete. This year begins assembly of the vacuum vessel, with first plasma expected within five years. So far all ITER member nations appear committed to the project, and funding seems secure. Still time for a dark horse to suddenly steal ITER's thunder, but not a lot of time. (Caveats: deuterium-tritium operation is not scheduled till 2035, and the ITER project has not yet presented an assessment of any pandemic-related delays.) I'm not very skeptical (despite my signature) that ITER can achieve scientifically what it set out to accomplish, although of course economics is another question altogether.

Anyway, to me it seems that as far as public relations are concerned, there's a qualitative difference between beating ITER to the punch before the project is operating, and attempting to achieve Q>1 (or whatever metric you prefer to represent scientific feasibility) after ITER is already up and running. With that in mind, what alternative fusion projects are likely to show movement this year, or could show up ITER before first plasma?

I've already reported on LPPFusion recently. They're planning to start a new set of experiments as early as May, with p+11B experiments (finally, hopefully) in the late summer. I like the Focus Fusion concept, but it has inarguably been plagued by various mechanical difficulties when implemented in an actual physical device. Whether LPPFusion has managed to solve the remaining difficulties remains to be seen.

I haven't really kept up with fusion news in the past year or two, but I've seen promising things from Tokamak Energy, Heinrich Hora's group, and others. Other projects (Lockheed-Martin, Tri-Alpha, and of course EMC2) appear to be stalled, a long way from success, or have gone dark. What milestones are planned for this year?
Temperature, density, confinement time: pick any two.

Skipjack
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Re: 2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Post by Skipjack »

Hey there!
My personal front runners:
1. Helion: Unfortunately, they have gone completely dark in recent years. They have plenty of funding and are hiring like there is no tomorrow, if that is any indication of what they are up to. Their last prototype was reaching the 10^20 keV *s/m3 range. Their new one should be significantly higher than that. How high is your own guess.

2. ZAP: They are everywhere right now. Cooperation with several national labs on diagnostics for their device. Seems like they got stalled by COVID since their FuZE rebuild at the new facility outside of UW is not happening until May, something that was supposed to happen last year already. Still, they seem to be making good progress and I hear that FuZE is supposed to get an upgrade. We might see Q>1 from them as early as next year (though likely it will be delayed until 2023).

3. MIFTI: The guys haven't really been on my radar until about a couple of years or so ago. Last published numbers are also putting them in the 10^20 keV *s/m3 range like Helion's last numbers.
Thing is, I am not sure how well their device would work for an economic reactor. Their predicted gain is between 10 and 100 which is quite a range. With 10 they would be at the lower end of what is economically feasible for energy production and they need massive input currents (10s of Mega Amps) for that. They have decent funding, though from what I understand.
I hear they are (have been) building a new machine (10 MA) that is supposed to achieve break even. Q>1 maybe(!) as early as next year.

4. Tokamak Energy. They too got stalled by COVID, but seem to be on track for 100 million degrees this year. On the positive side, their high temperature super conductor technology seems to have matured enough that they are spinning that off as a side business. Q>1 not until 2025 at the earliest.

5. Commonwealth Fusion systems. They just bought land for their SPARC build. I don't expect Q>1 before 2025.

6. TAE: Their new reactor build Copernicus will be ready some time in 2023. It will once again be hydrogen only. Sort of disappointing. Don't expect Q>1 before 2027.

7. HB11 had a successful early funding round and they are trying to get time at the Texas Petawatt Laser Facility. That too was supposed to happen last year, but I again assume was delayed due to COVID as with the others. I am not holding my breath about their approach until they have had more external validation (something they have had trouble with in the past).

8. LPP: as you mentioned lots of engineering problems. They hope to do Q>1 this year, but we have heard that every year for the past what? 10 years?
They still got funding problems too.

9. Lockheed: No publications as of late (2018). They did appear in the FUSION Diagnostics First Annual Review Meeting on a page. So they are still active. Progress? No idea.

10. General Fusion: Got a lot more funding last year. They are looking for a new site for their demo plant, then at least two years until they start building the plant. So I would say, not until 2025.

All the others are either completely silent or are not planning Q>1 until way past 2025 at the earliest.

Ivy Matt
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Re: 2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Post by Ivy Matt »

So, near term:

LPPFusion (dense plasma focus) - Experiments planned this year, hopefully starting in May. Possibly hydrogen-boron experiments by late summer. Scientific feasibility possibly demonstrated this year...or not. LPPFusion's small team is slightly larger than when they started experiments over a decade ago. They have two physicists instead of one, and a couple of people who work on simulations. Also, they have a mechanical engineer (and probably could use more). I will note that they have reached their initial crowdfunding goal, so presumably funding is not a show-stopper.

HB11 (non-thermal laser fusion) - If this page is to be believed, they have already started experiments at the Texas Petawatt Laser Facility at the University of Texas in Austin sometime in 2020. I'm not sure exactly what expectations they have, but they modestly describe the campaign as "one small step towards our first major mission, to demonstrate ‘Net Energy Gain’ during a non-thermal HB11 reaction, using lasers." I'm not sure how much they're downplaying their prospects. At any rate, I suppose we'll see a paper with results, whatever they may be, sometime late this year, or perhaps more likely, next year.

Helion Energy (magnetized target fusion with field reversed configuration plasmoids) - It's difficult to say how close they are. The fact that they've gone dark could be a good sign, or simply a prudent policy irrespective of actual results. Of course, one could say the same about Lockheed-Martin. Although I don't think LM is hiring more fusion scientists & engineers.

MIFTI (staged Z-pinch) - I know the least about them. US Nuclear Corporation has a substantial interest in MIFTI and MIFTEC, and has been promoting them heavily in press releases. The most recent press release appears to be this one, which makes numerous bold claims, most relevantly:
Plans are now underway for mid-2021 to scale-up experiments on the L3 Harris 4 million ampere device. The most advanced super-computer modelling predictive platforms such as MACH1 and HYDRA both predict that the long sought-after goal of Energy Breakeven will be achieved for the time in history this year when US Nuclear partners MIFTI and MIFTEC run their Stage Z-Pinch Fusion Generator on the L3 Harris 4 MA machine.
So, a similar timeframe to LPPFusion. Given the overall tenor of the press releases, I have a somewhat lower expectation of success.

ZAP Energy (sheared flow stabilized Z-pinch) - They received an investment from Chevron last August, so yet again funding seems not to be a problem. Of course, upgrading your device always takes time, no matter how much funding you have.

I'm looking forward to what results LPPFusion and MIFTI obtain beginning mid-year, and what results other groups obtain perhaps a little later. I'm not holding my breath, of course. I've been following this off and on for over a decade now.
Temperature, density, confinement time: pick any two.

Skipjack
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Re: 2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Post by Skipjack »

Ivy Matt wrote:
Fri Mar 19, 2021 6:37 am
LPPFusion (dense plasma focus) - Experiments planned this year, hopefully starting in May. Possibly hydrogen-boron experiments by late summer. Scientific feasibility possibly demonstrated this year...or not. LPPFusion's small team is slightly larger than when they started experiments over a decade ago. They have two physicists instead of one, and a couple of people who work on simulations. Also, they have a mechanical engineer (and probably could use more). I will note that they have reached their initial crowdfunding goal, so presumably funding is not a show-stopper.
We will see whether they achieve their goals this year. Past achievements in this regard do not exactly fill me with a lot of confidence.
Ivy Matt wrote:
Fri Mar 19, 2021 6:37 am
HB11 (non-thermal laser fusion) - If this page is to be believed, they have already started experiments at the Texas Petawatt Laser Facility at the University of Texas in Austin sometime in 2020. I'm not sure exactly what expectations they have, but they modestly describe the campaign as "one small step towards our first major mission, to demonstrate ‘Net Energy Gain’ during a non-thermal HB11 reaction, using lasers." I'm not sure how much they're downplaying their prospects. At any rate, I suppose we'll see a paper with results, whatever they may be, sometime late this year, or perhaps more likely, next year.
I saw that claim on their website but they do not show up on the experiment calendar on the TPLF website. It could be that they got delayed by COVID. Who knows?

Ivy Matt wrote:
Fri Mar 19, 2021 6:37 am
Helion Energy (magnetized target fusion with field reversed configuration plasmoids) - It's difficult to say how close they are. The fact that they've gone dark could be a good sign, or simply a prudent policy irrespective of actual results.
David Kirtley does not release any information about their progress as of late. Other than job postings (and some teasers related to that), there is a nearly complete blackout.
Two reasons:
1. The press tends to sensationalize things. That caused Helion to get burned in the past because the press took forward looking statements that assumed perfect funding (among other things) and presented them as "will happen within this time frame". That got Helion some (undeserved) critique from various other fusion researchers and it hurt relations with potential investors.
2. They are not in "funding mode" as they have plenty of funding from various investors. So they do not have to publish any information.
The biggest clue we have that they are on to something is the fact that they have been (and still are) hiring dozens of people for their team.
Ivy Matt wrote:
Fri Mar 19, 2021 6:37 am
MIFTI (staged Z-pinch) - I know the least about them. US Nuclear Corporation has a substantial interest in MIFTI and MIFTEC, and has been promoting them heavily in press releases. The most recent press release appears to be this one, which makes numerous bold claims, most relevantly:
Plans are now underway for mid-2021 to scale-up experiments on the L3 Harris 4 million ampere device. The most advanced super-computer modelling predictive platforms such as MACH1 and HYDRA both predict that the long sought-after goal of Energy Breakeven will be achieved for the time in history this year when US Nuclear partners MIFTI and MIFTEC run their Stage Z-Pinch Fusion Generator on the L3 Harris 4 MA machine.
So, a similar timeframe to LPPFusion. Given the overall tenor of the press releases, I have a somewhat lower expectation of success.
Yeah, they have only recently gotten on my radar too. Had not seen the info about them trying Q>1 this year already! That is really interesting, indeed.
Personally, I give them a higher chance of achieving Q>1 than I would give LPPF. MIFTI have shown a good amount of neutrons and have decent validation by national labs and all that. My biggest concern is that the currents they have to work with sound rather daunting. The material science must be rather interesting. I know that even the comparably moderate currents ZAP have been dealing with, cause enough electrode erosion for them to invest a good amount of research into this and LPPF have been plagued by their own problems in this regard.

mvanwink5
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Re: 2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Post by mvanwink5 »

As far as I know there are only 2 companies that have publicly announced fully funded demonstration plants and are actually staffing up to design and build them. They are GF and TAE. Further, what is important in real terms is not the claim of 'first', but who can actually sell and build commercial utility sized power plants. GF and TAE have the management and reach in place to do that. We are at the stage now where rubber meets the road.

Any one else actually have the chops to make those claims?

BTW, demonstration plants are not commercial plants. Because of the advancement of computer power and fusion sim code companies can save money and build to validate models to give the information needed to design the commercial machines. What has been done in the past is that the first commercial machines will be few, there will be a partner customer who will get a discount on the machine(s). Roll out will accelerate from there depending on $/kwh and regulatory, investor sentiment.

This is no longer a horse race, this is not the story of 'there can be only one'. Instead, utilities like at least 2 bidding competitors and at this point, I see only 2 realistically (based on public news of project announcements, committed money, and in progress hiring).

PS ITER target size is too massive for grid stability. No utility will seriously put it on their grid.
Near term, cheap, dark horse fusion hits the air waves, GF - TED, LM - Announcement. The race is on.

crowberry
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Re: 2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Post by crowberry »

Tokamak Energy and CFS have the advantage that they are working on tokamaks. It seems that they have been getting funding faster than their competitors with alternative concepts. The progress on HTS-magnets at TE is impressing and CFS is planning their magnet demonstration for this year. The radiation tolerance of the HTS-magnets is not really known and that can create problems that need a lot of time to solve.

I agree that TAE Technologies and General Fusion are well funded and have a lot of staff and plans to grow so it looks promising, but still a lot of progress is needed to break the tokamak performance achievements.

mvanwink5
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Re: 2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Post by mvanwink5 »

I am sure that deep pocket investors in TAE and GF are convinced that their projects are as near a sure thing as can be had. It no longer takes full scale hardware with neutrons as computers and simulations have advanced significantly and convincingly so to investors. Why else has the money leaked out of investor funds into these companies? These investment monies are not Gruberment, ownerless taxpayer monies, doled out by paid off political hacks.

Also, as said before, if others can make a commercial machine, the machine must be small enough to meet grid requirements, and most utilities are not the size of China. In fact, if fission plants were smaller, there would be far more of them in service despite their waste and safety issues. This is not a science issue, but a practical engineering and commercial issue.

And back to the last point, if there are more machines to pick from, the more the better, then let the best $/installed kwh attract the most contract wins, which is where this is headed, not who is first. Commercial fusion is not a matter of 'if' anymore, nor is it how many decades in the unknown future.

Best regards...
Near term, cheap, dark horse fusion hits the air waves, GF - TED, LM - Announcement. The race is on.

crowberry
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Re: 2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Post by crowberry »

Picture from: https://arpa-e.energy.gov/sites/default/files/2021-03/430_Holland.pdf
Picture from: https://arpa-e.energy.gov/sites/default/files/2021-03/430_Holland.pdf
nTtauE.png (227.83 KiB) Viewed 1343 times
The risk involved with the most advanced fusion projects has obviously decreased, but success is far from certain at this moment. The gain is so large that it is attractive to persons with deep pockets even if the risk of failure is still significant. This plot of the fusion triple product shows clearly that there is still a lot of ground to cover to reach Q=1 and to go further to an economically feasible Q-value. Only a few of the dark horses can be seen on this plot, but the message is clear.

Note the position of MagLIF on this plot. Unfortunately the target is basically destroyed in each shot. Commercial fusion based on MagLIF would of course need a new setup where the hardware survives the pulses.

quixote
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Re: 2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Post by quixote »

I don't have anything to add to this discussion, but I wanted to thank you guys for posting updates of all of these projects you're tracking. It's really helpful to me in keeping track of which project is where. Some of them are even new to me.

Skipjack
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Re: 2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Post by Skipjack »

mvanwink5 wrote:
Sun Mar 21, 2021 9:52 pm
As far as I know there are only 2 companies that have publicly announced fully funded demonstration plants and are actually staffing up to design and build them. They are GF and TAE.
I am not sure what "announced a demonstration power plant" means in your book. Is it full scale? Is it Q>1? Running on the actual fuel they plan to use?

TAE's next prototype Copernicus is sub scale and only running on hydrogen, no PB11, not even Deuterium.
GF's next prototype is also sub scale.

To the best of my knowledge, Helion has a full scale prototype in operation. That is at least according to an older article in the Seattle Business times (that I posted a while back). It is not certain whether all the components are fully developed, though. They are certainly still working on some aspects like divertors.

Technically, LPPF also has a full scale prototype (though not all components are to full spec yet).

If we are going solely by roadmaps, then we have Tokamak Energy, who have ST-E1 on their roadmap for 2030 as an actual demonstration plant with every aspect of a full power plant (full scale with all components including fuel handling, electricity generation, etc).

Commonwealth Fusion Systems has ARC on their roadmap for 2025. I suppose that means work starting on the project. I mean they have SPARC listed for starting this year and we all know that it won't be completed until at least 2025.

Skipjack
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Re: 2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Post by Skipjack »

crowberry wrote:
Mon Mar 22, 2021 9:21 pm
nTtauE.png

The risk involved with the most advanced fusion projects has obviously decreased, but success is far from certain at this moment. The gain is so large that it is attractive to persons with deep pockets even if the risk of failure is still significant. This plot of the fusion triple product shows clearly that there is still a lot of ground to cover to reach Q=1 and to go further to an economically feasible Q-value. Only a few of the dark horses can be seen on this plot, but the message is clear.

Note the position of MagLIF on this plot. Unfortunately the target is basically destroyed in each shot. Commercial fusion based on MagLIF would of course need a new setup where the hardware survives the pulses.
Mixed feelings about that plot:

From what I gather, Helion demonstrated around or just under 10^20 keV *s/m3 with VENTI (their previous smaller prototype that they had built for ARPA-E Alpha).
MIFTI/MIFTEC is in the same region with their Staged Z- Pinch, though their design is at an disadvantage compared to Helion because recouping (a useful amount of) the input energy is not possible.
NIF's numbers were IMHO exaggerated. They were nowhere near Q>1 unless you do some strange kind of numerology. Practically, they are off by a few orders of magnitude.
LPPF claims 2x10^20 keV *s/m3. Though AFAIK, that has never been peer reviewed.

mvanwink5
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Re: 2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Post by mvanwink5 »

" I am not sure what "announced a demonstration power plant" means in your book. Is it full scale? "

You are not understanding the difference between science and engineering. When a company makes a demonstration plant they are gathering engineering data. TAE and GF are investing in devices to get the necessary engineering data. No one has a need to prove anything to you or me, only to their investors and users who will buy machines.

There are loose ends to both TAE and GF. TAE wants to fuse boron and hydrogen, it would seem they need more data to prove that. GF needs more modeling for their compression of their molten lithium sphere, but that is apparently not an if but a matter of tuning.

You are stuck in the thinking that these companies are still trying to prove their science.

From an engineering view, getting power out is as important as fusion, but you make this point yourself. Perhaps Helion is also gathering the necessary engineering data for commercial already. Fine. The more the better.

I will try to make one more try at stating the key part of building a machine in today's reality, the purpose is to get data to validate computer sim code for their computer modeling. In the old days, these models and computer power required building full scale machines to get the engineering data. Not any more... Park with EMC2 made this clear years ago and advancements from there are not slow.

Keep up, stop looking in the rear view mirror.
Near term, cheap, dark horse fusion hits the air waves, GF - TED, LM - Announcement. The race is on.

Skipjack
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Re: 2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Post by Skipjack »

mvanwink5 wrote:
Tue Mar 23, 2021 3:21 pm
" I am not sure what "announced a demonstration power plant" means in your book. Is it full scale? "

You are not understanding the difference between science and engineering. When a company makes a demonstration plant they are gathering engineering data. TAE and GF are investing in devices to get the necessary engineering data. No one has a need to prove anything to you or me, only to their investors and users who will buy machines.

There are loose ends to both TAE and GF. TAE wants to fuse boron and hydrogen, it would seem they need more data to prove that. GF needs more modeling for their compression of their molten lithium sphere, but that is apparently not an if but a matter of tuning.

You are stuck in the thinking that these companies are still trying to prove their science.

From an engineering view, getting power out is as important as fusion, but you make this point yourself. Perhaps Helion is also gathering the necessary engineering data for commercial already. Fine. The more the better.

I will try to make one more try at stating the key part of building a machine in today's reality, the purpose is to get data to validate computer sim code for their computer modeling. In the old days, these models and computer power required building full scale machines to get the engineering data. Not any more... Park with EMC2 made this clear years ago and advancements from there are not slow.

Keep up, stop looking in the rear view mirror.
Oh I agree that engineering is important. I very much do. Helion took a very much engineering centric approach. They assumed from their simulations that the could solve the physics and centered their design around engineering problems that plague other reactor designs (like materials and power conversion). Heck Helion has probably built more prototypes than anyone else ( I believe they are now at 5 or 6?). They ran them with Deuterium (at least most of them if not all) and got neutrons as measurable results.
As for simulations. I own a software company. I do all sorts of stuff, including simulations and AI. AI is great and I believe it will help greatly with optimizing reactor designs. Already is for some. Simulations are great, if the data they are based on is correct. If you feed them with the wrong assumptions, the result will also be wrong.
Eventually I do want to see some neutrons and some power in the (capacitor-) bank and not just in simulations. You would be surprised by the things you learn that way.
NIF should have worked great according their simulations. It didn't. Still isn't.

Giorgio
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Re: 2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Post by Giorgio »

Skipjack wrote:
Tue Mar 23, 2021 9:13 pm
Simulations are great, if the data they are based on is correct. If you feed them with the wrong assumptions, the result will also be wrong.
Perfectly correct, and that's all there is to say on the actual state of fusion research. Too much dependence on "simulation grants" and not enough engineers getting their hands dirty on the factory floor.

Simulations will work great to improve the design but only once we will have a working model of fusion reactor to model into the simulation itself.
A society of dogmas is a dead society.

Ivy Matt
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Re: 2021 state of the horse race: ITER vs. dark horses

Post by Ivy Matt »

mvanwink5 wrote:
Tue Mar 23, 2021 3:21 pm
You are stuck in the thinking that these companies are still trying to prove their science.
I'm not sure I understand what you're implying. I see perhaps three possibilities:

1) These companies don't have to prove their science to the general public.

No doubt this is true for now and until they have working demonstration reactors, but eventually they will want paying customers. Unless they're just investment scams.

2) These companies don't have to prove their science because they already have.

Do you know something we don't know? As far as I know, no fusion research group has proven the scientific feasibility of their reactor concept, at least in public. (Otherwise, see option #1.) If the argument is that extrapolated results are sufficient, then we should stop talking about "break-even", "net energy", and "Q>1" in the future tense and offer our congratulations to the JT-60U team for their achievement of Q=1.25 back in 1998.

3) These companies don't have to prove their science because engineering results are the only thing that matters.

Yes, well, fusion researchers were engineering fusion reactors back in the 1950s. Then they realized they didn't know enough about fusion science to engineer proper reactors and decided to focus on that for a while. Then, in the 1970s, Hirsch and Bussard tried to steer back to focusing on engineering, and the number of active fusion research projects was reduced. Then more research was needed, and so on. There have been various studies on fusion power generators, energy capture, reactor materials, etc. Of course those areas need to be researched, but they're still ultimately pointless without a working fusion power plant. And, unless I am deficient in my understanding of the current state of fusion research, of the many hours of fusion experiments that have been run, precious little of that has actually been under the actual conditions that would hold in an operating fusion power plant.

The history of fusion research is littered with the carcasses of great ideas that should have worked, but didn't when tested under real experimental conditions, or that worked wonderfully under one regime, but not so well when conditions were scaled up. I'm not sure how things are any different now. As much as we all like to criticize ITER, there's a good reason they continually emphasize that the primary purpose of the experiment is to study a "burning plasma". It's because there is probably still much we don't know about how a burning plasma behaves, and can't know until we can consistently achieve those conditions experimentally. I don't see why other fusion projects would be in a much different position. Engineering is the ultimate goal, of course, but science is still the path to that goal. Both ends might possibly be achieved in a single device, but a working demonstration reactor is, as far as I know, still a science experiment at this stage of fusion research. Is there a company/concept for which this is not true?
Temperature, density, confinement time: pick any two.

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