This government lab in Idaho is researching fusion, the ‘holy grail’ of clean energy, as billions pour into the space

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  • Masashi Shimada, a lead fusion scientist at the government’s Idaho National Laboratory, has been working in the industry for more than two decades, and he says the way scientists talk about fusion has changed significantly in recent years because Billions of dollars have been invested from private investors. Went into a start-up working to commercialize Fusion.
  • Shimada’s team researching the production of tritium, one of the primary fuels, is pursuing fusion start-ups working to commercialize fusion.
  • Also, Shimada’s team works on security protocols for working with Tritium.

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Masashi Shimada Has been researching nuclear fusion since 2000, when he joined the graduate program at the University of California San Diego. He is currently the lead scientist at the Safety and Tritium Applied Research (STAR) facility at the Idaho National Laboratory, one of the federal government’s premier scientific research laboratories.

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The field has changed a lot.

Early in his career, Fusion was often the part of jokes, if it was to be discussed at all. “Fusion is the energy of the future and always will be” Shimada had heard all the time.

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But it’s changing. dozens of start-ups has raised nearly $4 billion in private funding as of Fusion Industry AssociationAn industry trade group.

Jennifer Granholm, investor and secretary of the Department of Energy Fusion energy has been called the “holy grail” of clean energy.With the potential to provide virtually unlimited energy without nuclear fission, without releasing any greenhouse gases and without the same long-lasting radioactive waste.

There’s a whole bumper crop of new, young scientists working in Fusion, and they’re inspired.

“If you talk to young people, they believe in Fusion. They’re going to make it. They have a very positive, optimistic mindset,” Shimada said.

For their part, Shimada and his team are now conducting research into the management of tritium, a popular fuel that many fusion start-ups are adopting in hopes of setting America up for a bold new fusion industry.

“As part of the government’s new ‘bold vision’ for fusion commercialization, tritium handling and production will be an important part of their scientific research,” said Andrew Holland, CEO Fusion Industry Association told CNBC.

Tritium Supply Chain Study

Fusion is a nuclear reaction when two lighter atomic nuclei are pushed together to form a heavier nucleus, Releasing “massive amounts of energy”. This is how the sun operates. But controlling fusion reactions on Earth is a complex and delicate process.

In many cases, the fuels for the fusion reaction are deuterium and tritium, which are both forms of hydrogen, most abundant element in the universe,

Deuterium is very common and can be found in sea water. If mass fusion is achieved on Earth, a gallon of sea water According to the Department of Energy, that would be enough deuterium to make as much energy as 300 gallons of gasoline.

However, tritium is not common on Earth and has to be produced. Shimada and his team of researchers at the Idaho National Lab have a small tritium lab 55 miles west of Idaho Falls, Idaho, where they study how to produce the isotope.

“Since tritium is not available in nature, we have to make it up,” Shimada told CNBC.

Currently, most of the tritium used by the United States comes from National Nuclear Laboratory of Canada, said Shimda. “But we can’t really rely on those supplies. Because once you use it up, if you don’t recycle, you basically use up all the tritium,” Shimada said. “So when we’re running a fusion reactor we have to make tritium.”

Shimada said there is enough tritium to support pilot fusion projects and research, but its commercialization would require hundreds of reactors.

,That’s why we have to invest in tritium fuel cycle technologies right now” to make and recycle tritium.

security protocol

tritium is radioactiveBut not in the same way as the fuel for nuclear fission reactors.

“The radioactive decay of tritium takes the form of a weak beta emitter. This type of radiation can be blocked by a few centimeters of water,” said Jonathan Cobb, spokesman for world nuclear uniontold CNBC.

The half-life, or the time it takes for half a radioactive material to decay, is about 12 years for tritum, and when it does decay, the product released is helium, which is not radioactive, Cobb explained.

By comparison, the nuclear fission reaction splits uranium into products such as iodine, cesium, strontium, xenon and barium, which are themselves radioactive and have half-lives that range from days to thousands of years.

That said, it is still necessary to study the behavior of tritium because it is radioactive. Specifically, the Idaho National Lab studies how tritium interacts with the material that is used to make fusion-containing machines. In many cases, it is a donut-shaped machine called a tokamak.

For a fusion reaction to occur, the fuel sources have to be heated a plasma, the fourth state of matter. These reactions occur at exceptionally high temperatures, up to 100 million degrees, Shimada said, which could potentially affect how much and how fast the tritium can get into the material that holds the plasma.

Most fusion reaction containers are made of a special stainless steel with a thin layer of tungsten inside. “Tungsten is chosen because it has the lowest tritium solubility of all the elements in the periodic table,” Shimada said.

But the high-energy neutrons produced by the fusion reaction can also cause radiation damage in tungsten.

The team’s research aims to give Fusion companies a dataset to determine when this might happen, so that they can establish and measure the security of their programs.

“We can do the fusion reaction for 5, 10 seconds without worry,” Shimada told CNBC. But for energy production on a commercial scale, a fusion reaction would need to be sustained at high temperatures for years at a time.

“The goal of our research is to help the designer of fusion reactors predict when the accumulation of tritium in the material and the entry of tritium through the vessel reaches unacceptable levels,” Shimada told CNBC. “This way we can set up protocols to heat the material (ie, bake-out) and remove the tritium from the vessel to reduce the risk of potential tritium release in case of an accident.”

While the Idaho National Lab is investigating the behavior of tritium to set safety standards for the growing industry, its waste is far less problematic than today’s fission-powered nuclear facilities. The federal government has been studying creating a sustainable repository for fission-based waste for more than 40 years, and has yet to come up with a solution.

“Fusion does not create any long-lived radioactive nuclear waste. This is one of the advantages of fusion reactors over fission reactors,” Shimada told CNBC.

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