Who owns all the oranges? by Oran Burke

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Who owns all the oranges?

Photograph © Timitrius 2009

Model of a fusion reactor

January 5, 2013

The end of fossil fuels?

Following more than 70 years of research and experimentation the dream of nuclear fusion may be edging closer to reality. There are a number of scientists around the world attempting to recreate the power of the sun in a laboratory and, if successful, this clean, safe energy source could theoretically bring an end to some of our planet’s reliance on fossil fuels. However, everything is relative and large scale electricity production is not expected for at least another 30 years though as advances are made that time could be reduced.

Nuclear fusion, as opposed to fission, which is used in what we currently call nuclear power stations, involves forcing two hydrogen atoms that naturally repel each other together. This reaction produces helium and waste energy which can be harnessed to heat water and produce electricity using the traditional steam-turbine method. Effectively the reaction is the same one taking place in the sun but on a far smaller scale with major advantages being an abundance of raw materials, no pollution and stability of the reaction.

The fuels that have been found to be most efficient in fusion reactions are deuterium and tritium. Deuterium, a form of hydrogen, can be distilled from seawater, but expensively. It is however already used in some nuclear fission reactors to slow down the reaction so the production facilities already exist. Tritium only exists in small quantities in nature but it can be produced as a by-product of the fusion reaction if combined with lithium, meaning once the fusion reaction is underway it can be self-fuelling.

To put the scale of resources needed in perspective, a 1,000MW coal fired power station requires approximately 2.7 million tons of coal per year whereas a fusion reactor with a similar output is estimated to need about 250kg of fuel, half of it deuterium and the other half tritium. There are some concerns though as lithium is another finite resource which needs to be mined and is already used for laptops, phones and batteries.

There are a few methods of producing the reaction, two of which are now actively being investigated as viable for large-scale energy production. The first, originally investigated at the Lawrence Liver National Laboratory, a US defence research institute in California, is Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (LIFE). Their experiment uses a large array of lasers to heat frozen hydrogen atoms so quickly they don’t have a chance to separate before fusion takes place. The early successes of this project and advances in laser technology have spawned a European project called HiPER (High Power laser for Energy Research) that will expand on LIFE’s work.

The second, currently based at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) in Oxfordshire, uses a slightly different method. A doughnut-shaped structure referred to as a ‘tokamak’, based on a Russian design, uses powerful magnets to push the hydrogen atoms together. The current project, called the Joint European Torus (JET), has been running its reactor since 1983 and has allowed scientists from around the world to investigate the best methods for efficiently producing energy from a fusion reactor.

However, to date no electrical power has been produced and both the LIFE and JET programmes use more energy than is generated. This is set to change with new reactors being built specifically to investigate whether this aspect of the technology is commercially viable. While JET has enabled testing of the principles involved there is still a lot of work to be done before this alternative to conventional fuels can provide electricity for our homes.

The next logical step is now being taken with a new facility designed to produce 10 times the energy supplied to it, currently being built at Saint-Paul-lez-Durance in southern France. ITER is a €13 billion site funded by the European Union, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the USA. That all of these countries have decided to work together, and fund a possible alternative to fossil fuel use in electricity production, is unprecedented though originally the USA objected to it being situated on French soil after their criticism of the war in Iraq.

Perhaps the only surprising element of this new complex is that Britain did not bid to host it. The Oxfordshire tokamak holds the record for the most efficient fusion energy production and has been at the forefront of research and development for ITER.

Peter Skinner, a Labour MEP for the South East of England and a member of the European Union’s Industry, Research and Trade committee which administers the EU’s involvement in the project, said he wished the UK had tendered for it: “It would have put the UK in the middle of world discussions on this and would have demonstrated that they wanted to be a greater part of this energy debate within the EU.”

He believed the reason for not bidding was cost-related but it did not necessarily mean the closure of CCFE’s research centre. While many of the scientists working there may move to France, this will not happen earlier than 2022 when the transition to the new site has happened. Even then there might still be a need for supplementary work in a smaller facility to support the ITER project.

The differences between the two are that JET was designed to investigate the science of fusion and ITER will take the results of those experiments and try to implement them in a way that will prove fusion has a commercial future in power generation.

The one issue that is not currently being discussed is whether the energy firms that currently lobby the government will accept a new method of generating energy. The controversies surrounding the progression towards more renewable energy sources may still have years of NIMBY arguments ahead of it but there is one crucial difference with fusion power. If a significant amount of non-polluting energy can be produced in the same amount of land as a traditional coal power station then it could nullify the arguments about unsightly windmills that have taken place over the last ten years.

The spirit in which the project is being financed, with each country involved not necessarily providing funds but building elements of the system, appears to show a willingness try and find an alternative energy source for the production of electricity. The countries taking part are some of the leading producers of carbon emissions and fusion could also increase energy security given the fuel is abundant, so there are many reasons to participate.

This attitude was summed up by Mr. Skinner: “I don’t think that we should be without the prospect or hope of an energy source at some time, say 2050, which could be something as dramatic as replacing oil on this planet.”

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