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Urgency needed as fusion energy moves closer to reality

Researchers say commercial production ‘realistic’ by mid-century

The pursuit of fusion energy, long the holy grail of the energy industry with its promise of virtually unlimited clean fuel, is progressing but needs to take on a greater sense of urgency if it is to play a role in meeting the world’s energy needs before the middle of the decade, delegates at WEC Daegu 2013 heard.

“This is the most ambitious scientific undertaking since putting a man on the moon, both in terms of complexity and technology,” said Oskar Sigvaldason, president of SCMS Global, a consultancy.

That undertaking is now focused largely on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, which is being built in the French countryside. The project, which is backed by China, the United Arab Emirates, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US, aims to prove the viability of fusion energy on a large scale.

As may be expected with experimental new technologies, the project has been beset by cost overruns and delays. But progress is being made and the fusion reactor is on course to start producing 500 megwatts of power in 2027, said Osamu Motojima, the director general of ITER.

The start-up of the ITER reactor would mark a major step forward for fusion energy. Humans have long known how to produce uncontrolled fusion reactions, and the process is what makes hydrogen bombs so destructive.

But harnessing that reaction to reliably produce electricity has proven exceptionally difficult. The process requires extremely high temperatures – the ITER core will be heated to more that 150 million degrees Celsius – that are difficult to control.

Billions of dollars, though, have been invested in fusion energy research because of the enormous promise it holds. It is clean, emitting no carbon dioxide or other particulates that contribute to air pollution, fuel for the process is very cheap and abundant and unlike the fission process that powers today’s nuclear plants, there is almost no nuclear waste that needs to be stored. Moreover, as the panelists noted, in a post-Fukishima world, it is important that fusion energy does not pose a serious risk of meltdown. 

“Fusion will bring a disruption in the way we view energy,” said Minh Quang Tran, the head of the Centre for Plasma Physics, at EPFL in Switzerland.

The technology is especially attractive to resource-poor countries that have to rely on imports to fuel their economies such as South Korea. “Fusion is knowledge-based energy, not resource based,” said Lee Gyung-su, esearch fellow at South Korea’s National Fusion Research Institute (NFRI).

The panellists generally agreed that the middle of this century was a realistic timeline for commercial-scale fusion energy, though some thought it could happen faster.

But the challenges to making fusion energy a part of the global energy network are myriad. “The fusion challenge is much bigger than Apollo... it’s like a mission to Mars, or like jumping from the Wright brothers airplane to the jet engine,” said Nebojsa Nakicenovic, deputy director of the International Institute for Applied System Analysis (IIASA) in Austria. He likened fusion to “taming the stars”.

On top of the technical challenges involved, fusion will have to transition from pure science and research to a commercial venture. That, says Lee, will require a major change in mindset. “We have to change our thinking from just science and research and development to a different metric of success. It will be very different from what we used to have. It will be efficiency, safety reliability availability, we have to deliver in a timely manner.”

The sector, panelists said, also needs more political support. Fusion energy has received financial backing, but it will need more robust regulatory and legislative support, similar to that received by the renewables industry in recent years.

More competition in the sector could also help push fusion forward at a faster pace. “ITER is the only game in town right now… everybody is not very urgent, we will need competition eventually to commercialise [fusion],” said Lee.

That message was reiterated by Jacques Benainou, who is on the board of General Fusion, a privately funded company with the mission to develop “the fastest, most practical and lowest cost path to commercial fusion power”.

“We are the Wright Brothers of fusion,” said Benainou. “We are doing a lot of experiments.”

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