Nuclear fusion may still be in the lab, but one New Jersey company is continuing a steady march toward commercializing this powerful energy source.
For decades, fusion has been considered a safer way to generate power from nuclear reactions because it doesn’t produce radioactive waste or create dangerous contamination situations, as in the Chernobyl and Fukushima meltdowns.
Lerner's team has accomplished two of the three steps needed for energy-generating nuclear fusion — achieving the ultra-high temperatures necessary to burn the hydrogen-boron fuel his process uses, and successfully transferring that energy to plasma form.
“It’s 150 times hotter than the center of the sun,” he says of the temperature required, about 1.5 billion degrees Kelvin.
This step in his firm’s “hot” fusion technique requires enormous amounts of energy as well, if only for a few nanoseconds.
But that third step to creating net energy out of the process — to have an environment where energy isn’t transferred, or “wasted” when the superheated particles hit cooler surrounding particles — is a tough one.
“It’s certainly doable but it’ll take some engineering,” admits Lerner, who estimates the cost to get there at “around $30-50 million, a drop in the bucket for a government.”
“There are large efforts going on in fusion,” adds Albert Machiels, senior technical executive with the Electric Power Research Institute, an energy research organization. “But I don’t think in the next 10 years you’ll see fusion projects leave the lab. There’s a lot that must happen.”
Instead, he says, the next generation of nuclear power plants that could be built will likely be updated versions of today’s uranium-powered nuclear fission systems.