By Ricardo M. Salas
Of late there has been a continuous debate how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without sacrificing development, especially for countries on the path to industrialisation. But while a green economy looks feasible on paper, full decarbonisation proves much more complex in reality due to the wide availability of fossil fuels, low costs, and the introduction of new key players in the energy sector like the U.S. after the shale gas revolution. Last year’s COP21 marked a milestone in environmental policy, but current emissions of greenhouse gases are still worrisome with more than 32.1 billion tonnes of CO2 (IEA, March 2016) being released into the atmosphere each year.
Clean energy is taking a huge leap nonetheless, last year the global investment in renewables reached an all time record of US$286 billion and accounted for more than 53.6% of the new power generating capacity installed in 2015 according to a report by the Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre. It seems however that the world–especially heavy industries and transport–will have to keep relying on fossil fuels for years to come before renewables can compete with fossil fuels and solve the problems that their intermittent nature entails. Interestingly enough there are a few persistent voices who believe that the answer to the global future energy demand lies in an infamous but promising technology, nuclear fusion. Which in fact has been supported by many hopeful researchers who claim it to be a perfect complement to renewable energy, a bold statement considering that fusion technology is still experimental and won’t be available, if at all, for years to come.
Before going any further, one should note that nuclear fusion and fission are two different concepts that shouldn’t be interchanged. Fission occurs when highly radioactive particles like those of uranium or plutonium are split into smaller ones, causing chain reactions and releasing high amounts of energy. This is the reaction found inside nuclear power plants, some ships and submarines and also behind early nuclear weapons deployments and nuclear tests, particularly during the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII. Fission has become highly controversial because of the dangers that its radioactive byproducts pose to humans and the environment since nuclear waste is highly toxic and remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years before decaying into less harmful elements.
Nuclear sources are also generally opposed by the public in the west because of major meltdowns like the ones in Three-Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi in 2011. So much so that nations like Germany are to shut down all nuclear reactors, in its case by 2022 for total nuclear power phase out. This is a major game changer for the european country since up until march of 2011 Germany obtained about one-quarter of its electricity from nuclear energy using 17 reactors (World Nuclear Association 2016). Today nuclear still provides around 10.7% of the world’s total electricity (BP Statistical Review of Energy 2015) with 447 commercial nuclear power reactors installed and 58 more under construction around the globe.
Fusion as a counterpart promises to be the better face of this kind of fuel. It yields even more energy than fission and shows clear advantages in producing stable power if the technology develops soon enough and scientists can in fact replicate the very same forces that power the stars. Fusion happens when two atom nuclei (usually deuterium and tritium, two hydrogen isotopes) bond together to form a single particle (helium), releasing enormous quantities of energy. Smashing these two atoms however is extremely hard since the two initial particles will be positively charged and thus repel each other, the reason for which these reactions happen only under extreme environments of temperature and pressure such as the sun’s core at 15 million degrees celsius.
Fusion activists claim it to be potentially powerful enough to meet modern society’s energetic needs and also cleaner than current energy sources (until now only 10.3% of the world’s energy supply is provided by renewables) since large amounts of power can be produced from relatively small amounts of fuel in this reaction. Earth’s vast supply of seawater would provide hydrogen for fusion energy for millennia without releasing any greenhouse gases and its radioactive products would decay in between 50–100 years compared to waste from a fission power plant which is by far more hazardous in time. And since no chain reactions are involved in fusion there can be no explosions or meltdowns; the only problem with this is that putting the sun’s energy in a bottle is no easy task, science is simply not there yet, but major efforts are being carried out right now.
Fusion has been, in fact, achieved on earth by heating fuel incredibly high temperatures and containing it tightly enough inside powerful magnetic fields so the particles can crash, fuse and release energy in the process. This idea has actually been around for decades, so much so that it is often said ironically that fusion will always be “30 years away from now”. But contrary to what sceptics would believe, research in fusion has done amazing breakthroughs during the past few years. One should also consider that, unlike fusion, traditional nuclear plants proliferated after receiving major support and funding during the early 70’s and 80’s when the western world was striving for energy independence, especially due to major changes in the supply of middle-eastern oil.
Fusion is actually already being replicated in many research centres (although for fractions of a second), the greater challenge now is to produce more energy than the one it takes to reach the conditions for atoms to fuse and to maintain the reaction in a stable manner for longer periods of time. Take for instance the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, England, which claims to be the hottest place in our solar system when it’s reaction (The JET: Joint European Torus) reaches more than 150 million degrees celsius, a temperature 10 times that of the sun’s core to make fusion possible without the strong gravitational fields that are found inside our closest star. Many governments are also taking an interest in fusion and would surely like a slice of the cake once it finally manages to light up our homes at competitive prices.
Last year Germany unveiled the Wendelstein 7-X, the largest experimental stellarator (a type of nuclear fusion reactor) inside the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald with major funding from the federal government and the EU. It’s mission is to keep plasma discharges for 30 minutes to demonstrate that a future power plant could operate continuously. Even companies like Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s main defense contractor, are investing heavily in it; the firm claims that it could have a functional prototype reactor within the next 5 years. There are also other smaller private ventures like Dr. Michel Laberge’s General Fusion who are working on this as we speak in a smaller scale.
And then there’s ITER, a joint project led by the European Union, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States which will be the largest and first fusion reactor to produce a ten-fold return of net energy of 500 MW once it is completed by 2019 in southern France. Recently this year The Royal Institution published a conference by physicist Ian Chapman where he explains how ITER could pave the way for larger and more efficient nuclear reactors in the following decades if the model receives the proper attention and funding. And although it is true that nuclear fusion will still produce shorter-lived radioactive byproducts, we should think whether releasing CO2 continuously is a better option until renewables power our grids. Chapman points out that a person’s lifelong energy requirements could be covered by fusing the equivalent of one bathtub of water and two laptop lithium batteries; not too bad when producing the same amount of energy with coal would require more than 1600 wheelbarrows of the fossil fuel.
I believe that nuclear fusion will be a reality during our lifespans. Hopefully humans will crack it rapidly enough to meet our increasing energy demand without polluting the environment nor compromising development. Achieving a carbon-free economy might as well be the greatest challenge of the century, both for policy makers and for the general public. In response the world should step up its investment in R+D for every possible alternative to fossil fuels. Science’s current understanding of fusion suggests that this type of reaction could be key to making a full transition to a green economy in a planet where there are still 1.2 billion people without any access to electricity. Should developed countries deny them of this right until renewables become affordable? The public would do well to consider the scientific advances in fusion that scientists have achieved during the last decades, it might as well be the next ace under our sleeves to make the transition to a carbon-free world a reality for future generations.
- Author: Marion Brünglinghaus, ENS, European Nuclear Society. “Nuclear Power Plants, World-wide.” Nuclear Power Plants, World-wide. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2016. <http://bit.ly/1Hk3OA9>.
- “Fusion: How to Put the Sun in a Magnetic Bottle — with Ian Chapman.” YouTube. The Royal Institution, 08 June 2016. Web. 31 Oct. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zn1SJOPgewo>.
- “Global Trends In Renewable Energy Investment 2016.” Web. <http://bit.ly/1RAJA8w>.
- “How to Reach 200 Million Degrees.” Science in the Spotlight. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2016. <http://www.ccfe.ac.uk/howtoreach.aspx>.
- “Nuclear Fusion Power.” Nuclear Fusion. World Nuclear Association, Oct. 2016. Web. 29 Oct. 2016. <http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/nuclear-fusion-power.aspx>.
- “What Is ITER?” What Is ITER? ITER, n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2016. <https://www.iter.org/proj/inafewlines>.
- “World Nuclear Industry Status Report.” World Nuclear Industry Status Report, 27 July 2016. Web. 31 Oct. 2016. <http://bit.ly/2fauag0>.
Originally published at www.segunricardo.com on November 2, 2016.