The Future Of Energy Isn’t Fossil Fuels Or Renewables, It’s Nuclear Fusion (Really?)


 

Co State Nuc Fussion 2Colorado State University scientists, using a compact but powerful laser to heat arrays of ordered nanowires, have demonstrated micro-scale nuclear fusion in the lab.

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that the climate doesn’t matter. That we’re completely ignoring the connection between carbon dioxide, the Earth’s atmosphere, the greenhouse effect, global temperatures, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise. From a long-term point of view, we’d still need to plan for our energy future. Fossil fuels, which make up by far the majority of world-wide power today, are an abundant but fundamentally limited resource. Renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric power have different limitations: they’re inconsistent. There is a long-term solution, though, that overcomes all of these problems: nuclear fusion.

Even the most advanced chemical reactions, like combusting thermite, shown here, generate about a million times less energy per unit mass compared to a nuclear reaction.

Even the most advanced chemical reactions, like combusting thermite, shown here, generate about a million times less energy per unit mass compared to a nuclear reaction.NIKTHESTUNNED OF WIKIPEDIA

It might seem that the fossil fuel problem is obvious: we cannot simply generate more coal, oil, or natural gas when our present supplies run out. We’ve been burning pretty much every drop we can get our hands on for going on three centuries now, and this problem is going to get worse. Even though we have hundreds of years more before we’re all out, the amount isn’t limitless. There are legitimate, non-warming-related environmental concerns, too.

Even if we ignored the CO2-global climate change problem, fossil fuels are limited in the amount Earth contains, and also extracting, transporting, refining and burning them causes large amounts of pollution.

Even if we ignored the CO2-global climate change problem, fossil fuels are limited in the amount Earth contains, and also extracting, transporting, refining and burning them causes large amounts of pollution.GREG GOEBEL

The burning of fossil fuels generates pollution, since these carbon-based fuel sources contain a lot more than just carbon and hydrogen in their chemical makeup, and burning them (to generate energy) also burns all the impurities, releasing them into the air. In addition, the refining and/or extraction process is dirty, dangerous and can pollute the water table and entire bodies of water, like rivers and lakes.

Wind farms, like many other sources of renewable energy, are dependent on the environment in an inconsistent, uncontrollable way.

Wind farms, like many other sources of renewable energy, are dependent on the environment in an inconsistent, uncontrollable way.WINCHELL JOSHUA, U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE

On the other hand, renewable energy sources are inconsistent, even at their best. Try powering your grid during dry, overcast (or overnight), and drought-riddled times, and you’re doomed to failure. The sheer magnitude of the battery storage capabilities required to power even a single city during insufficient energy-generation conditions is daunting. Simultaneously, the pollution effects associated with creating solar panels, manufacturing wind or hydroelectric turbines, and (especially) with creating the materials needed to store large amounts of energy are tremendous as well. Even what’s touted as “green energy” isn’t devoid of drawbacks.

Reactor nuclear experimental RA-6 (Republica Argentina 6), en marcha. The blue glow is known as Cherenkov radiation, from the faster-than-light-in-water particles emitted.

Reactor nuclear experimental RA-6 (Republica Argentina 6), en marcha. The blue glow is known as Cherenkov radiation, from the faster-than-light-in-water particles emitted.CENTRO ATOMICO BARILOCHE, VIA PIECK DARÍO

But there is always the nuclear option. That word itself is enough to elicit strong reactions from many people: nuclear. The idea of nuclear bombs, of radioactive fallout, of meltdowns, and of disasters like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima — not to mention residual fear from the Cold War — make “NIMBY” the default position for a large number of people. And that’s a fear that’s not wholly without foundation, when it comes to nuclear fission. But fission isn’t the only game in town.

Watch the Video: Nuclear Bomb – The First H Bomb Test

 

In 1952, the United States detonated Ivy Mike, the first demonstrated nuclear fusion reaction to occur on Earth. Whereas nuclear fission involves taking heavy, unstable (and already radioactive) elements like Thorium, Uranium or Plutonium, initiating a reaction that causes them to split apart into smaller, also radioactive components that release energy, nothing involved in fusion is radioactive at all. The reactants are light, stable elements like isotopes of hydrogen, helium or lithium; the products are also light and stable, like helium, lithium, beryllium or boron.

 

The proton-proton chain responsible for producing the vast majority of the Sun's power is an example of nuclear fusion.

The proton-proton chain responsible for producing the vast majority of the Sun’s power is an example of nuclear fusion.BORB / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

So far, fission has taken place in either a runaway or controlled environment, rushing past the breakeven point (where the energy output is greater than the input) with ease, while fusion has never reached the breakeven point in a controlled setting. But four main possibilities have emerged. img_0787

  1. Inertial Confinement Fusion. We take a pellet of hydrogen — the fuel for this fusion reaction — and compress it using many lasers that surround the pellet. The compression causes the hydrogen nuclei to fuse into heavier elements like helium, and releases a burst of energy.
  2. Magnetic Confinement Fusion. Instead of using mechanical compression, why not let the electromagnetic force do the confining work? Magnetic fields confine a superheated plasma of fusible material, and nuclear fusion reactions occur inside a Tokamak-style reactor.
  3. Magnetized Target Fusion. In MTF, a superheated plasma is created and confined magnetically, but pistons surrounding it compress the fuel inside, creating a burst of nuclear fusion in the interior.
  4. Subcritical Fusion. Instead of trying to trigger fusion with heat or inertia, subcritical fusion uses a subcritical fission reaction — with zero chance of a meltdown — to power a fusion reaction.

The first two have been researched for decades now, and are the closest to the coveted breakeven point. But the latter two are new, with the last one gaining many new investors and start-ups this decade.

The preamplifiers of the National Ignition Facility are the first step in increasing the energy of laser beams as they make their way toward the target chamber. NIF recently achieved a 500 terawatt shot - 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time.

The preamplifiers of the National Ignition Facility are the first step in increasing the energy of laser beams as they make their way toward the target chamber. NIF recently achieved a 500 terawatt shot – 1,000 times more power than the United States uses at any instant in time.DAMIEN JEMISON/LLNL

Even if you reject climate science, the problem of powering the world, and doing so in a sustainable, pollution-free way, is one of the most daunting long-term ones facing humanity. Nuclear fusion as a power source has never been given the necessary funding to develop it to fruition, but it’s the one physically possible solution to our energy needs with no obvious downsides. If we can get the idea that “nuclear” means “potential for disaster” out of our heads, people from all across the political spectrum just might be able to come together and solve our energy and environmental needs in one single blow. If you think the government should be investing in science with national and global payoffs, you can’t do better than the ROI that would come from successful fusion research. The physics works out beautifully; we now just need the investment and the engineering breakthroughs.

Special Contribution to Forbes by: Ethan Siegel 

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Forbes on Energy: We Don’t Need Solar And Wind To Save The Climate — And It’s A Good Thing, Too


France and Sweden show solar and wind are not needed to [+] Special Contributor, M. Shellenberger

For 30 years, experts have claimed that humankind needs to switch to solar and wind energy to address climate change. But do we really?

Consider the fact that, while no nation has created a near-zero carbon electricity supply out of solar and wind, the only successful efforts to create near-zero carbon electricity supplies didn’t require solar or wind whatsoever.

As such solar and wind aren’t just insufficient, they are also unnecessary for solving climate change.

That turns out to be a good thing.

Sunlight and wind are inherently unreliable and energy-dilute. As such, adding solar panels and wind turbines to the grid in large quantities increases the cost of generating electricity, locks in fossil fuels, and increases the environmental footprint of energy production.

There is a better way. But to understand what it is, we first must understand the modern history of renewable energies.

Renewables Revolution: Always Just Around the Corner

Most people think of solar and wind as new energy sources. In fact, they are two of our oldest.

The predecessor to Stanford University Professor Mark Jacobson, who advocates “100 percent renewables,” is A man named John Etzler.

In 1833, Etzler proposed to build massive solar power plants that used mirrors to concentrate sunlight on boilers, mile-long wind farms, and new dams to store power.

Even electricity-generating solar panels and wind turbines are old. Both date back to the late 1800s.

Throughout the 20th Century, scientists claimed — and the media credulously reported — that solar, wind, and batteries were close to a breakthrough that would allow them to power all of civilization.

Consider these headlines from The New York Times and other major newspapers:

• 1891: “Solar Energy: What the Sun’s Rays Can Do and May Yet Be Able to Do“ — The author notes that while solar energy was not yet economical “…the day is not unlikely to arrive before long…”

• 1923: “World Awaits Big Invention to Meet Needs of Masses “…solar energy may be developed… or tidal energy… or solar energy through the production of fuel.”

• 1931: “Use of Solar Energy Near a Solution.” “Improved Device Held to Rival Hydroelectric Production”

• 1934: “After Coal, The Sun” “…surfaces of copper oxide already available”

• 1935: “New Solar Engine Gives Cheap Power”

• 1939. “M.I.T. Will ‘Store’ Heat of the Sun”

• 1948: “Changing Solar Energy into Fuel “Blocked Out” in GM Laboratory”  “…the most difficult part of the problem is over…”

• 1949: “U.S. Seeks to Harness Sun, May Ask Big Fund, Krug Says”

Reporters were as enthusiastic about renewables in 1930s as they are today.

“It is just possible the world is standing at a turning point,” a New York Times reporter gushed in 1931, “in the evolution of civilization similar to that which followed the invention by James Watt of the steam engine.”

Decade after decade, scientists and journalists re-discovered how much solar energy fell upon the earth.

“Even on such an area as small as Manhattan Island the noontime heat is enough, could it be utilized, to drive all the steam engines in the world,” The Washington Star reported in 1891.

Progress in chemistry and materials sciences was hyped. “Silver Selenide is Key Substance,” The New York Times assured readers.

In 1948, Interior Secretary Krug called for a clean energy moonshot consisting of “hundreds of millions” for solar energy, pointing to its “tremendous potential.”

R&D subsidies for solar began shortly after and solar and wind production subsidies began in earnest in the 1970s.

Solar and wind subsidies increased substantially, and were increased in 2005 and again in 2009 on the basis of a breakthrough being just around the corner.

By 2016, renewables were receiving 94 times more in U.S. subsidies than nuclear and 46 times more than fossil fuels per unit of energy generated.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), public and private actors spent $1.1 trillion on solar and over $900 billion on wind between 2007 and 2016.

Global investment in solar and wind hovered at around $300 billion per year between 2010 and 2016.

Did the solar and wind energy revolution arrive?

Judge for yourself: in 2016, solar and wind constituted 1.3 and 3.9 percent of the planet’s electricity, respectively.

Real World Renewables

Are there places in the world where wind and solar have become a significant share of electricity supplies?

The best real-world evidence for wind’s role in decarbonization comes from the nation of Denmark. By 2017, wind and solar had grown to become 48 and 3 percent of Denmark’s electricity.

Does that make Denmark a model?

Not exactly. Denmark has fewer people than Wisconsin, a land area smaller than West Virginia, and an economy smaller than the state of Washington.

Moreover, the reason Denmark was able to deploy so much wind was because it could easily export excess wind electricity to neighboring countries — albeit at a high cost: Denmark today has the most expensive electricity in Europe.

And as one of the world’s largest manufacturers of turbines, Denmark could justify expensive electricity as part of its export strategy.

As for solar, those U.S. states that have deployed the most of it have seen sharp rises in their electricity costs and prices compared to the national average.

As recently as two years ago, some renewable energy advocates held up Germany as a model for the world.

No more. While Germany has deployed some of the most solar and wind in the world, its emissions have been flat for a decade while its electricity has become the second most expensive in Europe.

More recently, Germany has permitted the demolition of old forests, churches, and villages in order to mine and burn coal.

Meanwhile, the two nations whose electricity sectors produce some of the least amount of carbon emissions per capita of any developed nation did so with very little solar and wind: France and Sweden.

Sweden last year generated a whopping 95 percent of its total electricity from zero-carbon sources, with 42 and 41 coming from nuclear and hydroelectric power.

France generated 88 percent of its total electricity from zero-carbon sources, with 72 and 10 coming from nuclear and hydroelectric power.

Other nations like Norway, Brazil, and Costa Rica have almost entirely decarbonized their electricity supplies with the use of hydroelectricity alone.

That being said, hydroelectricity is far less reliable and scalable than nuclear.

Brazil is A case in point. Hydro has fallen from over 90 percent of its electricity 20 years ago to about two-thirds in 2016. Because Brazil failed to grow its nuclear program in the 1990s, it made up for new electricity growth with fossil fuels.

And both Brazil and hydro-heavy California stand as warnings against relying on hydro-electricity in a period of climate change. Both had to use fossil fuels to make up for hydro during recent drought years.

That leaves us with nuclear power as the only truly scalable, reliable, low-carbon energy source proven capable of eliminating carbon emissions from the power sector.

Why This is Good News

The fact that we don’t need renewables to solve climate change is good news for humans and the natural environment.

The dilute nature of water, sunlight, and wind means that up to 5,000 times more land and 10 – 15 times more concrete, cement, steel, and glass, are required than for nuclear plants.

All of that material throughput results in renewables creating large quantities of waste, much of it toxic.

For example, solar panels create 200 – 300 times more hazardous waste than nuclear, with none of it required to be recycled or safely contained outside of the European Union.

Meanwhile, the huge amounts of land required for solar and wind production has had a devastating impact on rare and threatened desert tortoises, bats, and eagles — even when solar and wind are at just a small percentage of electricity supplies.

Does this mean renewables are never desirable?

Not necessarily. Hydroelectric dams remain the way many poor countries gain access to reliable electricity, and both solar and wind might be worthwhile in some circumstances.

But there is nothing in either their history or their physical attributes that suggests solar and wind in particular could or should be the centerpiece of efforts to deal with climate change.

In fact, France demonstrates the costs and consequences of adding solar and wind to an electricity system where decarbonization is nearly complete.

France is already seeing its electricity prices rise as a result of deploying more solar and wind.

Because France lacks Sweden’s hydroelectric potential, it would need to burn far more natural gas (and/or petroleum) in order to integrate significantly more solar and wind.

If France were to reduce the share of its electricity from nuclear from 75 percent to 50 percent — as had been planned — carbon emissions and the cost of electricity would rise.

It is partly for this reason that France’s president recently declared he would not reduce the amount of electricity from nuclear.

Some experts recently pointed out that nuclear plants, like hydroelectric dams, can ramp up and down. France currently does so to balance demand.

But ramping nuclear plants to accommodate intermittent electricity from solar and wind simply adds to the cost of making electricity without delivering fewer emissions or much in the way of cost-savings. That’s because only very small amounts of nuclear fuel and no labor is saved when nuclear plants are ramped down.

Do We Need Solar and Wind to Save Nuclear?

While solar and wind are largely unnecessary at best and counterproductive at worst when it comes to combating climate change, might we need to them in support of a political compromise to prevent nuclear plants from closing?

At least in some circumstances, the answer is yes. Recently in New Jersey, for example, nuclear energy advocates had to accept a subsidy rate 18 to 28 times higher for solar than for nuclear.

The extremely disproportionate subsidy for solar was a compromise in exchange for saving the state’s nuclear plants.

While nuclear enjoys the support of just half of the American people, for example, solar and wind are supported by 70 to 80 percent of them. Thus, in some cases, it might make sense to package nuclear and renewables together.

But we should be honest that such subsidies for solar and wind are policy sweeteners needed to win over powerful financial interests and not good climate policy.

What matters most is that we accept that there are real world physical obstacles to scaling solar and wind.

Consider that the problem of the unreliability of solar has been discussed for as long as there have existed solar panels. During all of that time, solar advocates have waved their hands about potential future solutions.

“Serious problems will, of course, be raised by the fact that sun-power will not be continuous,” wrote a New York Times reporter in 1931. “Whether these will be solved by some sort of storage arrangement or by the operating of photogenerators in conjuction with some other generator cannot be said at present.”

We now know that, in the real world, electricity grid managers cope with the unreliability of solar by firing up petroleum and natural gas generators.

As such —  while there might be good reasons to continue to subsidize the production of solar and wind — their role in locking in fossil fuel generators means that climate change should not be one of them.

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