Nuclear fusion power research started in earnest in the 1950’s. Initially, researchers thought that the work needed to produce a fusion power plant would be comparable to that needed to produce the first fission plants. That turned out to be unrealistic as the physics was not well understood and plasma confinement was much more difficult than expected. Many of the first machines were Stellarators. One of the first was Lyman Spitzer’s Stellarator at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL).
Many machine geometries were tried such as mirrors and pinches. In the 1960’s the Soviets disclosed success with the Tokamak (тороидальная камера с аксиальным магнитным полем). Unlike the Stellarators, Tokamaks have a circulating current that helps confine the plasma. Since then Tokamaks have been the focus of fusion power research. The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory produced 10.7 MW of fusion power in 1994 in the Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor (TFTR). The Joint European Torus (JET) produced 22 MW of fusion power in 1997. In 1998 the Japanese JT-60 produced an equivalent power gain of 1.25, that is 1.25 MW of fusion power for 1 MW of input power. The next step in Tokamaks is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).
ITER is a large-scale scientific experiment to demonstrate that it is possible to produce commercial energy from fusion. Its goal is to produce a fusion power gain of 10 at a power level of 500 MW and to generate this power for 500 seconds. Operation with tritium is scheduled to begin in 2027. The next step after ITER is DEMO which will be a prototype of a practical fusion power plant. Demo will produce between 2 and 4 GW of thermal power and have a power gain of 25. After DEMO the next machine will be PROTO which will be a fully commercial power plant. PROTO is expected to built after 2050.
In parallel with ITER many other magnetic confinement devices are under test. These include the U.S. National Spherical Tokamak (NSTX) and the Princeton Field Reversed Configuration (on which DFD is based) both at PPPL. Many new Stellarators are under test including the Wendelstein 7-X in Germany, the Helically Symmetric eXperiment (HSX) in the U.S. and the Large Helical Device in Japan. These devices may result in more economical fusion machines than Tokamaks. The field of fusion researchis very vibrant and work around the world is serving to improve our knowledge of plasma physics and the help solve the engineering problems. For example, recently a new method for reducing instabilities was developed at JET.
The first commercial reactors will likely use deuterium and lithium as fuels. The reaction (used in TFTR, JET and ITER) is deuterium and tritium but in a commercial plant the tritium would be produced from the neutron bombardment of lithium as the D-T reaction produces most of its energy in energetic neutrons. Advanced fuels like deuterium helium 3 and boron proton that produce fewer neutrons are also under investigation. Deuterium and helium 3 would power the DFD. The boron-proton reaction would power TriAlpha’s reactor.