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Government Power The Almighty Buck Technology

MIT Inches Closer To ARC Reactor Despite Losing Federal Funding (computerworld.com) 182

Lucas123 writes: Experimenting with a fusion device over the past 20 years has edged MIT researchers to their final goal, creating a small and relatively inexpensive ARC reactor, three of which would produce enough energy to power a city the size of Boston. The lessons already learned from MIT's even current Alcator C-Mod fusion device — with a plasma radius of just 0.68 meters — have enabled researchers to publish a paper on a prototype ARC that would be the world's smallest fusion reactor but with the greatest magnetic force and energy output for its size. The ARC would require 50MW to run while putting out about 200MW of electricity to the grid. Key to MIT's ARC reactor would be the use of a "high-temperature" rare-earth barium copper oxide (REBCO) superconducting tape for its magnetic coils, which only need to be cooled to 100 Kelvin, which enables the use of abundant liquid nitrogen as a cooling agent. Other fusion reactors' superconducting coils must be cooled to 4 degrees Kelvin. While there remain hurdles to overcome, such as sustaining the fusion reaction long enough to achieve a net power return, building the ARC would only take 4 to 5 years and cost about $5 billion, compared to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the world's largest tokamak fusion reactor due to go online and begin producing energy in 2027.
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MIT Inches Closer To ARC Reactor Despite Losing Federal Funding

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  • Really? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Flea of Pain ( 1577213 ) on Wednesday February 03, 2016 @04:02PM (#51433557)

    "building the ARC would only take 4 to 5 years"

    We all know this is at least 10 years out.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 03, 2016 @04:11PM (#51433631)

      With a box of scraps!

    • by msauve ( 701917 )
      Right, and "While there remain hurdles to overcome, such as sustaining the fusion reaction long enough to achieve a net power return..."

      Which is a long way to say it doesn't even work for power generation.
  • "While there remain hurdles to overcome, such as sustaining the fusion reaction long enough to achieve a net power return"

    When anyone accomplishes this it is news. Until then it's a waste of $5 billion dollars.
    • by amRadioHed ( 463061 ) on Wednesday February 03, 2016 @04:17PM (#51433701)

      You realize research isn't free, don't you? If you think fusion is a worthwhile goal, than the 5 billion isn't a waste.

      • Well, $5 billion is a waste...of time...$40 billion is more like actual fusion research, like what the researchers said in the first "fusion is 50 years out" report.

        • Fusion isn't research. We know all about fusion. This is engineering, applied science, the goal now is building a useful machine we've already got the theory.

          It may well cost $40 billion to get the job done but however much it costs it's going to be a lot more if we just build bigger versions of machines that don't work (achieve net positive output) when they clearly ARE big enough to achieve fusion already. Fix the machine, or build a new machine that is actually different with some idea that it resolves w
      • yeah, but that's like 2 months of guarding the heroin supply in Afghanistan, so, like, priorities dude.

        • I'm all for diverting the money we waste 'the war on terror' to universal healthcare or a basic income for Americans. I'm not in favor of spending it to intentionally take a machine that doesn't work and build a bigger but not better one which also will not work.

          This is hyped as a machine that takes 50MW in and outputs 250MW for a net of 200MW to the grid. But the fine print says that is completely false and this actually has no net positive result at all. So, the existing prototype does not work. You need
      • I certainly do. But fusion is not a research goal or academic inquiry. We've already made fusion happen.

        What is happening now is applied science, i.e. engineering. A net positive output is the definition of "works" in this case, not merely achieving fusion. You build a bigger one or otherwise further invest in increasing the efficiency of a design that works and has a high theoretical potential but currently isn't there yet in applied science. You don't just drop $5 billion to build a bigger version of the
    • by Alwin Henseler ( 640539 ) on Wednesday February 03, 2016 @04:40PM (#51433923) Homepage

      Scientific value != social value != economic value.

      We can argue all we want about how interesting, promising, or (potentially) useful a research project may be. Or how much $$ should go to project X, and how much to project Y.

      But whenever there's proper scientific research done, the money invested will yield a return: answers. Answers in terms of facts, measurement data, what works and what doesn't, perhaps even the odd conclusion about what seems best to try next. Some answers come cheap, some answers come only at great expense. Even if you find nothing: if you looked everywhere, properly, that means you now know there's nothing there, when before you could only guess what was there. Read: you still got answer(s).

      Given the enormous size of the energy market, damage to our environment that's currently done as a result of extraction and burning of -mostly- fossil fuels, and huge benefits to mankind if cheap(er) energy sources were developed, imho we (as mankind) aren't spending nearly enough on fusion-related research. But hey that's just me.

      • It sounds like the powers-that-be behind ITER are going to press ahead with it, despite the fact that progress would come better, faster and cheaper by switching to an ARC-like design.

        Just as the powers that be are pressing forward with Space Launch System [wikipedia.org], even though we could put more stuff in orbit, sooner and cheaper, by developing the Falcon XX [nasaspaceflight.com] instead.

        The phrase "shaking my head" is apt here.

      • Scientific value >= social value >= economic value.

        FTFY.

      • "But whenever there's proper scientific research done, the money invested will yield a return: answers."

        Absolutely. But we already understand fusion, the theory is all there. This is an engineering problem now not new science. Researchers make really poor engineers. They are happy with answers. Engineers are all about finding a very specific answer and that is what is needed here. If this was a request for money to make modifications they hypothesized would fix their practical implementation of theoreticall
  • Lets be clear (Score:5, Informative)

    by ganv ( 881057 ) on Wednesday February 03, 2016 @04:10PM (#51433621)
    ARC is a very interesting scientific and engineering development project, but it is not a power generation facility. It is a demonstration experiment to learn how to run a fusion reactor with net energy production. There are still several major steps between ARC and a commercial electric generation facility.
  • by Virtucon ( 127420 ) on Wednesday February 03, 2016 @04:11PM (#51433639)

    Does this mean we'll have a bunch of Ironmen guys running around with halo lights in their chests?

    If so, maybe we should rethink things..

    • Not likely [imdb.com]:

      William Ginter Riva: Mr. Stane. Sir, we've explored what you've asked us and it seems as though there's a little hiccup. Actually, um...
      Obadiah Stane: A hiccup?
      William Ginter Riva: Yes, to power the suit... sir, the technology doesn't actually exist. So it...
      Obadiah Stane: Wait, wait, the technology?
      [puts an arm around him]
      Obadiah Stane: William...
      [points at the giant arc reactor]
      Obadiah Stane: Here is the technology. I've asked you to simply make it smaller.
      William Ginter Riva: All right, sir, t

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Yes, they should have kickstarted the Iron Man suits for everybody project yesterday!

      $5 billion, divided by the number of fanboys with actual jobs, it would be funded by the end of the week.

  • It is about the cost of regular nuclear reactor that is by order of magnitude more powerful and is most expensive source of electricity now, that can't compete with natural gas or wind or PV. Maybe it is time to forget it, we already have big source of fusion up in the sky that works just fine.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      The first commercial fission-based nuclear reactor likely cost more than that, in terms of today's money.
      The Apollo program cost *way* more than that in terms of present day money.

      5 Billion is the cost of a couple of fancy airplanes today. It is a nothing blip for a government/economy like the US.

      • by HiThere ( 15173 )

        This isn't a commercial reactor, it's a research project. I'm not sure exactly what the $5 billion includes. The first fission plant was done out of the laboratory's budget in a squash court. That's not practical for fusion. But research is often more expensive than the commercial incarnation. Also, I'm not clear why the amount of deliverable power should be so much less than the amount of produced power, given that it only takes 5MW to start. It *could* be that that is a limitation in the electrical

      • The first practical fission power reactor cost a LOT more than thast in today's money. It was only about 8MW and it powered submarines.

        It SHOULD have stayed small or as an engineering prototype. Instead it got scaled up to drive civil steam plants instead of burning coal. The problem with scaling up pressure vessels is that the engineering requirements trend exponentially with the size.

    • ~cost about $5 billion, compared to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), the world's largest tokamak fusion reactor due to go online and begin producing energy in 2027. Which "is now expected to cost at least $21 billion and won't turn on until 2020 at the earliest."
      Cite: http://www.sciencemag.org/news... [sciencemag.org]

      Also worth noting is that ITER was also originally expected to only cost 5 billion to build.

      • by rch7 ( 4086979 )

        I'm not claiming that ITER will ever be of any use as commercial energy source. Obviously it isn't anywhere close. Both may provide benefit for fundamental plasma research though.

        • by sims 2 ( 994794 )

          I was just trying to fill in the blank as the summary said "compared to" without actually giving anything for comparison. Is ITER cheaper, more expensive or the same? Tfs did not say.

    • by dinfinity ( 2300094 ) on Wednesday February 03, 2016 @04:58PM (#51434137)

      We are going to need portable fusion if we ever want to do serious interstellar travel. Wind power sucks in space, natural gas (combustion) takes up a lot of space and PV produces only a very slight bit of energy once you get a fair bit away from the sun.

      Small fusion reactors can be superuseful even without taking into account space travel. From battleships to trains to large aircraft to small aircraft: they have a use at many scales where high energy density (production) is required or preferred.

      • We are going to need portable fusion if we ever want to do serious interstellar travel.

        Fission (which we've had for decades) is a perfectly workable and acceptable energy source for "serious interstellar travel".

        From battleships to trains to large aircraft to small aircraft: they have a use at many scales where high energy density (production) is required or preferred.

        Fission works nicely for aircraft carriers, already. Trains are better accommodated by electrification via overhead power lines.

        It's complet

        • Fission (which we've had for decades) is a perfectly workable and acceptable energy source for "serious interstellar travel".

          I'd say that 'perfectly workable' is an overstatement. AFAIK, the fuel requirements are non-trivial issues at the scales we're talking about. Much less so for fusion.

          It's completely crazy to claim "small aircraft" would be a suitable use-case for a fusion power plant.

          That only depends on how small we can make them. The point with aircraft is that they need a high energy density power source and rake in lots of money. Leaf blowers don't, which is why your comparison is invalid.

        • by rch7 ( 4086979 )

          Soviets had nuclear powered bomber plane program before rocket technology was advanced enough. Lead covered pilot capsule, first version didn't even have windows for pilots :/

          For interstellar travel you will need to invent hyperspace jumping first ;) Just reaching close to speed of light with thermonuclear reactor is like looking for very fast horse carriage to go to the Moon ;)

    • It's 5 billion to complete the research and engineering to build the first such thing. In other words, it's mostly R&D, not the per-unit manufacturing cost.

      • by rch7 ( 4086979 )

        It is just PR when you desperately need to find financing or you will be shut down. Manufacturing is pie in the sky so far, we don't have a slightest idea how to make this thing to work at all at practical level yet.

        • And if we don't do research like that, we never will know how to make it work, nor what it'll actually cost then.

          $5 billion is chump change. US has been spending ~$100 billion each year for the past ten years in direct costs of war in Iraq and Afghanistan alone - and they might as well have burned all that money given what we got out of it.

          • by rch7 ( 4086979 )

            There are hundreds or thousands of important research project like this, not just fusion, and with more direct and realistic benefits. Even for fusion, there are at least couple of more projects in the US that continue to receive taxpayer money. They may look for private sponsors (and it seems it is what they are repeatedly doing with such publicity) if they can convince them they are in somewhat better research position than other labs burning the money.

          • They would beg to differ. They've been able to use the "war on terror" and the resulting heightened need for "national security" to dramatically federalize power and support illegal programs and actions across the board.
    • Maybe it is time to forget it, we already have big source of fusion up in the sky that works just fine.

      I like your idea! Let's just send a rocket to the Sun, collect a small part of it and bring it back here!

      • And for safety, we'll go at night!
      • by rch7 ( 4086979 )

        No need for the rocket, it already delivers this small part straight to the Earth at speed 300,000 km/s. We only using very tiny fraction of this small part and have plenty of it left.

  • by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Wednesday February 03, 2016 @04:18PM (#51433713)

    Marvel will be suing them for trademark infringement.

  • by Kohath ( 38547 ) on Wednesday February 03, 2016 @04:20PM (#51433743)

    ...have enabled researchers to publish a paper on a prototype ARC that would be the world's smallest fusion reactor but with the greatest magnetic force and energy output for its size.

    The world's smallest or largest [anything] will tend to have the most [any characteristic] and the least [any characteristic] for it's size.

    • How does being the largest or smallest of something tend to make it the most efficient (which is typically what "for its size" equates to)? Some much larger one could very well have much larger output to the point that it's actually the most efficient.
  • by TomGreenhaw ( 929233 ) on Wednesday February 03, 2016 @05:54PM (#51434615)
    Bill, Warren, can you look into funding this? If it works, it could have great ROI for the foundations...
  • Cheap SOB's (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 03, 2016 @05:56PM (#51434627)

    MIT wants me to pay $28 to read this paper at Elsevier.
    Is this how MIT plans to finance construction of the reactor?
    It might be faster to borrow $5 billion from the Harvard endowment.
    Oh wait, almost forgot that MIT has a $12 billion endowment,
    yet they still want to nickel and dime the public.

    Hey, MIT go fuck yourself.

    • This is not the researchers' fault, but rather the academic journals fault. These days, you mainly have two options when publishing a paper in a peer-reviewed journal: either the author has to pay a $1500-3000 processing fee to to publish it under a Creative Commons licence, or you get to publish it for free but all readers have to pay to access the article. Most universities make deals though, i.e. they pay a yearly fee to the journals so that the researchers and students at the institution can access what
  • If he can help MIT pull this off, it could help the world forget about Windows.

    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      Frankly I think his work with Malaria will probably be the thing that people remember him for.

      • His work? Last I checked the man just dumped a big chunk of his ill gotten gains into charity. Is he off doing work on spreading/stopping malaria himself now? This trend of crediting the people who did nothing but spend money with the results of the actual men and women in the trenches needs to stop. That's how the evil Edison somehow came out with a positive reputation.
        • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

          Yea he is just paying all of those people to work on the project. Paying for lab space, equipment, paying for netting in 3rd world nations.
          Making sure that those researchers feed their families and pay for housing....
          And of course he saw a massive problem and put resources in place to try and solve it.
          Next you will be saying MLK, and Gandhi did nothing but set up marches and give speeches.

  • Could someone explain the difference between what MIT accomplished with the ARC reactor, versus what the Wendelstein 7-X demonstrated today; successful hydrogen plasma containment. Sounds like the German project is closer to success... The ARC reactor sounds like it's smaller and less expensive?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendelstein_7-X

    • Re:Wendelstein 7-X (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 03, 2016 @07:14PM (#51435197)

      Completely different class of magnetic fusion device. Completely different experiments.

      Tokamaks are way simpler to build, but harder to operate than stellarators. ARC is an advanced tokamak design, and this one uses brand-new, state of the art superconductors to create a much more powerful containment field for the plasma. This machine, if built, will be used to study 'burning' plasmas, that is, plasmas getting most of their heating from thermonuclear reactions (as opposed to external heating). The research is needed, because we don't yet know what kind of exotic yet-unseen instabilities might be excited in a burning plasma.

      Wendelstein 7-X is a stellarator; easier to operate, but FAR more complex to build. They don't perform as well as tokamaks, although they might be optimized in ways impossible in tokamaks. The Germans have the know-how and precision to build such an insanely complicated machine. This machine has superconducting magnet, and is the biggest stellarator to date. They want to get experience running a large stellarator with fully-superconducting magnets for long periods of time (shots running for many hours). In contrast, tokamak, like electrical transfomers, are inherently pulsed machines, and the shot times on most current machines are measured in seconds.

  • by just another AC ( 2679463 ) on Wednesday February 03, 2016 @08:53PM (#51435817)

    "While there remain hurdles to overcome, such as sustaining the fusion reaction long enough to achieve a net power return, "

    So apparently actually generating power is just a small final detail with building a new power station.

    Next up... the new perpetual motion machine. Designs are done which sustain motion for a while, now we just need to work out how to get around the laws of physics.

    Note: not trying to say fusion power is impossible, but it is a pet hate hearing how something is almost done, when they still have the biggest challenges in front of them.

  • I know this is a summary, and I expect the full figures will be behind one of the links; but honestly, if you aren't going to provide the actual comparison, don't tease us. The ARC reactor (which stands for what, I might ask?) would take 4 or 5 years and around $5 billion to build, compared to the ITER, which is expected to take how long, and cost how much?

    Apples are a mixture of red and green in colour, have a crunchy texture, and provide roughly 52 calories each; compared to oranges, which are also a thin

  • To think that you can create what is essentially a tiny star, and then keep it in a bottle chilled to 100K (it's wrapped around a sun!!) is, by itself, astounding. That you can get three times more energy out of it than you put in is just icing on the cake of awesomnitude.

Real Users are afraid they'll break the machine -- but they're never afraid to break your face.

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