Who owns all the oranges? by Oran Burke
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-
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-
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-
The second, currently based at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) in Oxfordshire,
uses a slightly different method. A doughnut-
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-
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-
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-
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.”
© Oran Burke 2014. All rights reserved.