Any company that is a heavy user of power, a category that includes the vast majority of manufacturing companies as well as transport and logistics firms, seems to be facing a future where the cost of energy just keeps rising. Even the large scale offshore wind and marine renewable energy projects now in the planning stage do not look as if they are going to drive current prices down, rather the reverse, since alternative energy will need price support for a good few years yet.
There is, however, an end point in sight for the inexorable rise in the price of energy, though it is still decades away. Fusion power is in the process of moving out of the laboratory and into a first generation demonstration field trial, scheduled for somewhere around 2018. In a recent interview with Credit Suisse’s journal, the physicist and futurist Michio Kaku predicted the commercialization of fusion power around 2030 to 2040.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, which includes China, the European Union, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States, with Kazakhstan about to join, is building the first multi-billion dollar demonstrator fusion reactor at Cadarache near Marseilles which is expected to be operational by 2018.
Fusion is the power that fuels stars. Its fuel is two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium. While it takes fantastically elaborate technology to force the two to “fuse” into a plasma at temperatures in excess of 150 million degrees Celsius (ten times hotter than the sun’s core), laboratory tests using a variety of techniques have proved that it is doable. Despite the huge energy input required to power the lasers which generate this fusion reaction, the beauty of fusion is that it generates anything from 10 to 30 times the amount of energy it takes to initiate and sustain the reaction. Moreover, there is little or no radioactive waste left from the reaction and the materials required are abundant and can be found everywhere around the globe.
ITER is pursuing a particular approach that is rather different from the approach being taken by certain US laboratories. The ITER solution involves holding the super-heated plasma in a doughnut-shaped steel chamber called a tokamak. Huge superconducting magnets create a powerful magnetic field that keeps the super-hot plasma from touching (and melting) the steel walls of the 5,500 tonne tokamak. The ITER facility will use enough fibres bound into the superconducting cable to circle the Earth five times. As a piece of science it is a fantastic undertaking.
There is no “Chernobyl-like” potential downside to a fusion reactor. It can’t “blow” and scatter radioactive dust across three continents and it doesn’t create a mountain of lethally radioactive spent fuel rods over the course of its operating life. But the technology does not come cheap. ITER’s demonstration reactor was initially priced at 10 billion euros, five billion for the construction and five billion for the operational phase. In the time honoured way of major projects those initial estimates are already looking like doubling, and will in all likelihood at least triple before the project goes live.
ITER is not flying a lonely kite here, however. Several world class laboratories are already well down the road in testing fusion generation using lasers. Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory has used Coaxial Helicity Injection (CHI) to generate plasma current and couple it to a conventional current generation method at the National Spherical Torus Experiment. The relevance of the Princeton experiment for the ITER design is that it suggests an improvement, namely replacing the central solenoid of the tokamak, which is a hugely expensive component, making the device simpler and cheaper to manufacture.
The US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), working jointly on a project involving the world’s largest and highest-energy laser system, called the National Ignition Facility, has completed tests with a 192 beam laser system. This fires laser energy into a tiny gold containment vehicle that holds a peppercorn sized “target” nugget of deuterium and tritium, triggering a fusion reaction. This is a completely different approach to ITER’s tokomak and is called inertial confinement fusion. The NNSA was able to demonstrate a power output 30 times greater than the input. Other laboratories have come up with a successful way of “firing” a stream of deuterium and tritium “targets” into a reactor space where they will each be hit by high energy lasers, creating a steady stream of short lived energy bursts. The heat would then in turn be used to generate steam, much as in a nuclear power station, which would then drive turbines to create electricity.
What all this adds up to is a tremendous amount of very serious and very well-funded research that is moving fusion from being a fantasy lab technology into the real world. It may be decades away from boiling the water for your morning tea or coffee, but it is definitely “on its way” and should get here before we run out of fossil fuel. The one stumbling block I can see is that by the time fusion is commercially viable, renewable energy will be absolutely massive. Will we still need fusion in that scenario? Probably, since a highly technological society simply cannot get too much cheap energy. We'll always find a way to use it...
Further reading on energy, nuclear energy and environmental impacts:
- Why the World Needs a Green New Deal, by Achim Steiner and Pavan Sukhdev
- Shining a Light on Global Solar Growth, Morningstar guest blog
- China’s green energy drive starts to roar, by Anthony Harrington (blog)
Tags: China , energy costs , EU , fusion , green energy , India , ITER , laser , South Korea , tokomak