Face it, we are never going to get the full Buck Rogers “let me just pop over there on my jetpack” sci-fi future experience if we keep relying on fossil fuels. The best we can hope for is an extension of our current cyberpunk dystopia, or maybe a gloomy 1970s planetary disaster novel.
A staple of every “flying car and robot maid” sci-fi future is that they’ve moved on to more exotic forms of energy, like nuclear fusion. Unfortunately, in real life fusion is much more difficult and expensive to use as an energy source than fossil fuels. But that might change soon.
University of Washington Engineers have designed a fusion reactor concept they say could actually be slightly cheaper to build than a coal-fired plant.
The design is called the dynomak, which is a suitable Buck Rogersy word. It started as UW class project to design a reactor, but Thomas Jarboe, a UW professor of aeronautics and astronautics and an adjunct professor in physics and doctoral student Derek Sutherland continued to refine it over two years. Their research is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
The design improves upon current fusion reactor models in its approach to creating the magnetic field needed to hold plasma in place so the fusion reaction can occur. Some designs rely on superconducting coils surrounding the reactor to generate the field, requiring a huge and costly plant to be built.
The dynomak, however, would drive current from the plant back into the plasma to create the majority of the magnetic fields. It would allow for a smaller plant the provides five times the energy of other designs at 1/10th the cost.
And it could even slightly edge out fossil fuels. The researchers used a formula to determine that factoring in all costs including startup and infrastructure fees shows a gigawatt (a billion watts) plant with their fusion design would cost $2.7 billion to build compared to $2.8 billion for a gigawatt coal plant.
“Right now, this design has the greatest potential of producing economical fusion power of any current concept,” said Jarboe.
Sutherland said the prospects for such a plant are “very exciting.”
“If we do invest in this type of fusion, we could be rewarded because the commercial reactor unit already looks economical,” Sutherland said.
Of course, a full scaled dynomak is years away. The researchers have currently built a 1/10th size prototype and have successfully tested its ability to sustain a plasma field. They hope to ramp up the size of their experiments and do further tests.
[Source: University of Washington]