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Anyway, I met a man this morning at the gas pump and he started telling me about fusion reactors. I asked how they achieve the necessary temperature and he started describing the Tokamak device.
When I got home I searched a little to find the linked and many other articles. It looks like at least progress is being made. I had not been aware we were anywhere close to reaching fusion temperatures.
I recall a reasonable amount of media coverage when this stellarator in Greifswald was completed in the fall. I read this from the BBC, and Science has a more detailed piece that seems to be freely available.
I'm more familiar with tokamaks and laser-driven inertial confinement fusion (ICF) than with stellarators, so I'm not sure how seriously to take suggestions that the recent progress in Greifswald "could mark a turning point" and "might save nuclear fusion" (both quotes from the Science article linked above). This new 'Wendelstein 7-X' machine cost ~$1billion and seems much less ambitious than the world's flagship tokamak and ICF facilities. The ~$20billion tokamak (Iter, currently under construction in France) aims to produce ten times more power than it needs to run, while the ICF facility (the National Ignition Facility, NIF, in California) attempted to produce as much power as it needed to run. (In all these cases, the power produced isn't being captured for electricity, just measured to assess the technology.)
Of course, Iter has been an organizational fiasco (here's a small selection of press coverage) and NIF's 2009--2012 National Ignition Campaign failed. (NIF has made some progress since then, but its main focus has shifted to weapons and its successor energy project has been cancelled.) So stellarators may end up the best by default...
That said, I remember reading something a couple of years ago about yet another alternative being explored, which also needs to catch up to the main technologies but might become competitive in the future. Let me see if I can track it down... Ah, it was the Magnetized Liner Inertial Fusion experiment at Sandia, which only costs ~$5million per year but "still falls well short" of producing as much power as it needs to run. I can't find the article that I recall, but this one should suffice for the curious.
I missed the announcements in the fall. But for the guy at the gas station today I would have missed this announcement from Germany.
I think I will go back to the good old days of wishing for cold fusion. : )
"We spent $15 billion dollars studying tokamaks, and what we learned about them is that they are no damn good." --Bussard, Google Talk, 2012.