The Idaho National Lab studies the safety of fusion, the tritium supply chain

This is a close-up view of an X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy system used at the Idaho National Lab that measures surface chemistry on a potential candidate material to be used for melting.

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

The field has changed a lot.

Early in his career, fusion was often the subject of jokes, assuming it was talked about: “Fusion is the energy of the future and it always will be” was the crack Shimada felt all the time.

But this is changing. Dozens of start-ups they raised nearly $ 4 billion in private funding, according to the Association of the Melting Industrya commercial group in the sector.

Investors and Secretary of the Department of Energy Jennifer Granholm they called fusion energy the “holy grail” of clean energywith the potential to provide nearly unlimited energy without releasing any greenhouse gases and without the same kind of long-lived radioactive waste that nuclear fission has.

There is a whole bumper crop of new young scientists who work in fusion and are inspired.

“If you talk to the young people, they believe in the merger. They will make it. They have a very positive and optimistic mindset,” Shimada said.

For its part, Shimada and his team are now conducting research into the management of tritium, a popular fuel that many smelting start-ups are pursuing, in hopes of creating a bold new smelting industry in the United States.

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

Masashi Shimada

Photo courtesy of the Idaho National Lab

Studying the tritium supply chain

Fusion is a nuclear reaction when two lighter atomic nuclei are joined to form a single heavier nucleus, releasing “huge amounts of energy”. This is how the sun feeds itself. But controlling fusion reactions on Earth is a complicated and delicate process.

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

Deuterium is very common and can be found in seawater. If fusion is achieved on a large scale on Earth, a gallon of seawater it would have enough deuterium to produce as much energy as 300 gallons of gasoline, according to the Department of Energy.

Tritium, however, is not common on Earth and must be produced. Shimada and his team of Idaho National Lab researchers have a small tritium laboratory 55 miles west of Idaho Falls, Idaho, where they study how to make the isotope.

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

Currently, most of the tritium used by the United States comes from Canadian National Nuclear LaboratoryShimada said. “But we can’t really rely on those supplies. Because once you use them, if you don’t recycle them, you pretty much run out of all the tritium,” Shimada said. “So we have to create tritium while running a fusion reactor.”

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

That’s why we need to invest right now in tritium fuel cycle technologies “to create and recycle tritium.

Idaho National Lab scientist Chase Taylor measures the surface chemistry of a potential material for use in fusion with X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy.

Photo courtesy of the Idaho National Lab

Security protocols

Tritium is radioactivebut not in the same way that fuel for nuclear fission reactors is.

“The radioactive decay of tritium takes the form of a weak beta emitter. This type of radiation can be blocked by a few inches of water,” Jonathan Cobb, spokesperson for the World Nuclear Associationhe told CNBC.

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

In comparison, the nuclear fission reaction divides uranium into products such as iodine, cesium, strontium, xenon and barium, which are themselves radioactive and have a half-life ranging from days to tens of 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 used to build a machine containing fusion. In many cases, this is a donut-shaped machine called a tokamak.

In order for a fusion reaction to take place, the fuel sources must be heated in a plasma, the fourth state of matter. These reactions occur at exceptionally high temperatures, up to 100 million degrees, which can potentially affect the amount and speed at which tritium can enter the plasma-holding material, Shimada said.

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

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

Here, at the Idaho National Lab, a Sandia National Laboratories collaborator, Rob Kolasinski, is working with a glove box for the Tritium Plasma Experiment.

Photo courtesy of the Idaho National Lab

The team’s research is intended to provide merger companies with a dataset to understand when this might happen, so that they can establish and measure the safety of their programs.

“We can do a fusion reaction for 5 to 10 seconds probably without much concern” for the material that would be used to contain the fusion reaction, Shimada told CNBC. But for commercial-scale power generation, a fusion reaction would have to be maintained at elevated temperatures for years.

“The goal of our research is to help the fusion reactor designer predict when the accumulation of tritium in the materials and the permeation of tritium through the ship reach unacceptable levels,” Shimada told CNBC. “That way we can set up protocols to heat the materials (ie, bake them out) and remove the tritium from the ship to reduce the risks of potential tritium release in the event of an accident.”

While the Idaho National Lab is studying the behavior of tritium to set safety standards for the nascent industry, its waste is far less of a problem than today’s fission-powered nuclear plants. The federal government has been studying how to create a permanent repository for fission-based waste more than 40 yearsand has yet to find a solution.

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