The Future Of Energy Isn't Fossil Fuels Or Renewables, It's Nuclear Fusion (Synopsis)

"I would like nuclear fusion to become a practical power source. It would provide an inexhaustible supply of energy, without pollution or global warming." -Stephen Hawking

Climate science is a hotly debated area, with many disputing the robustness and ethical motivations of the scientists in the field. But even if you throw everything we know about carbon dioxide, global warming, and climate change away, there’s still an energy crisis coming in the long term. The fact is, fossil fuels will someday, hundreds of years from now, run out if we extract and burn them all.

Wind farms, like many other sources of renewable energy, are dependent on the environment in an inconsistent, uncontrollable way. Image credit: Winchell Joshua, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wind farms, like many other sources of renewable energy, are dependent on the environment in an inconsistent, uncontrollable way. Image credit: Winchell Joshua, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Meanwhile, solar, wind, hydroelectric and other renewables will forever be inconsistent, and the infrastructure needed for using both generates large amounts of pollutants. But there is one power option that could satisfy everybody, while eliminating both pollution and the risks of running out of fuel or power inconsistency: nuclear fusion. While nuclear fission does have substantial downsides, there’s no risk of a meltdown with fusion.

The proton-proton chain responsible for producing the vast majority of the Sun's power is an example of nuclear fusion. Image credit: Borb of Wikimedia Commons. The proton-proton chain responsible for producing the vast majority of the Sun's power is an example of nuclear fusion. Image credit: Borb of Wikimedia Commons.

All we need to do is reach the breakeven point, and we have four different approaches currently in progress. Come get the science today!

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I think there is already a very efficient device that produces nuclear fusion, which is an H-bomb. Here is a crazy idea:
Build a giant spherical structure in the middle of a desert (half of it underground, and inside is vacuum) that can collect the energy. To produce energy each time drop a smallest kind H-bomb from the top of it and ignite it when it reaches the center.

The limit on fossil fuels is now. At the present rate of manmade greenhouse gas production, within 25 years, we will have passed the highest levels of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases since the Jurassic, 500 ppm.

At some point, maybe this summer, the greenhouse gas production will become a runaway, as natural stores of methane and CO2 frozen for millions of years, will be released massively. At that ineluctable point, nature will take over. It will be like a phase transition, suddenly jumping from the coldest climate in hundreds of millions of years, back to the warmest Jurassic, 100 million years ago. However, nature will never have seen a switch so swift. Biology will follow, but only very chaotically.

Already corral cannot adapt to the local sudden rises in temperature, and massive die-offs are happening, compromising the world’s largest reefs.

Confronted to enormous disruptions in nature, it’s not excluded that fossil fuels could be outlawed, and that this would be enforced militarily. Hence the importance of thermonuclear fusion, which, after all, is the ultimate source of all so-called renewables (except for geothermal energy).

Another interest of thermonuclear fusion is that it is the only way to seriously colonize the solar system (renewables and chemistry have way too low energy density). Space colonization is not just an opportunity to expand the economy, the society, and displace heavy industry away from Earth. By allowing us to make space our home, thermonuclear fusion is also the best way to realize how fragile Earth is, for all to see, feel, and comprehend.

By Patrice Ayme (not verified) on 12 Apr 2017 #permalink

I am exceeding skeptical about the economic practicality of fusion. Highly costly and hard to maintain systems are also
not likely to be reliable. Numerous studies have been published about the feasibility of dealing with variable sources like wind plus solar plus hydro. Whether we can perfect fusion to the point where it can be used in some sites -or as a space power system remains to be seen. But, I think it should be regarded as a long shot.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 12 Apr 2017 #permalink

Fusion is not a source of terrestrial energy today, but is the best realistic hope for the future.

Fission IS a source of terrestrial energy today. It could solve our CO2 emissions problem now. It produces a small amount of dangerous waste, which could easily be handled on a national level (e.g. Yucca mountain) if we had the will to do it. It is ready now. Highly publicized failures (3-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima) are easily avoided by modern designs and good industrial procedures (all of which exist now).

France is a good model for fission power.

The fact that fission is not promoted to fight climate change tells me that world governments do not really fear global warming.

really? You think an ad for a car supports your position? Chalk another thing denier doesn't understand.

As I see it, the points you raise are good and valid, but unfortunately they answer the wrong questions: As I see it, when it comes to fusion it's pointless to argue that it comes with basically zero fuel cost and that the fuel supply is essentially unlimited -- properties shared with renewables, by the way --, and even the question of whether the technological challenges can be overcome -- I think they can -- is very relevant; the big question about fusion is if it can ever be made economical. In particular, doubts whether it can ever compete with renewables are appropriate. I have severe doubts whether this can be achieved within the next 100 years.

(Also note that the intermittent nature of renewables can already be overcome using relatively low-tech measures like pumped hydro, power to gas or even utility scale batteries. I bet that even with these costs factored in, renewables will still be much cheaper than fusion for the next couple of centuries.)

"The fact that fission is not promoted to fight climate change tells me that world governments do not really fear global warming."

Many folks promote fission as one component of a GW fix.

And even if you discount that, various governments may fear multiple things. If they fear both voter revolt over fission power and global warming, they have a dilemma.

By MobiusKlein (not verified) on 12 Apr 2017 #permalink

I share an enthusiasm for nuclear powered electricity generation, both fission now and possibly fusion sometime in the future.

That said, I’m less sanguine about the purported pollution free nature of controlled fusion power.

Both Deuterium/Tritium and Deuterium/Deuterium fuels (the fuels most easily “ignited”) produce quantities of neutrons sufficient to contaminate the reactor materials via neutron activation.
http://www.euro-fusionscipub.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/JETP99028.p…

I consider this radioactive residue is preferable to and more manageable than the waste products from burning fossil fuels, particularly coal. It is however, not a trifling detail.

"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. "

Cute... Real Cute..
How about let's pretend that METHANE HYDRATES don't exist. Unfortunately and perhaps "fortunately" They do.. .
. https://energy.gov/fe/science-innovation/oil-gas-research/methane-hydra…

By Ragtag Media (not verified) on 12 Apr 2017 #permalink

Carl: "Fission IS a source of terrestrial energy today. It could solve our CO2 emissions problem now. It produces a small amount of dangerous waste, which could easily be handled on a national level (e.g. Yucca mountain) if we had the will to do it. It is ready now. Highly publicized failures (3-Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima) are easily avoided by modern designs and good industrial procedures (all of which exist now)."

The "small amount" of waste is extremely toxic and extremely long-lived. The proposed Yucca Mountain facility is grossly inadequate for safe storage over the 10,000 year time frame required. Transporting high-level waste creates risk of accidents or terror attacks. Regarding failures, entusiasts have been touting the astonishing safety of nuclear plants since before 3-Mile Island; they weren't credible then and aren't credible now. You didn't list the accidents at Windscale, SL-1, or the Enrico Fermi reactor in Michigan. The Union of Concerned Scientists has a list of other catastrophes (search "brief history of nuclear accidents"). Wikipedia has a longer list; the causes listed should be convincing that these are complex devices and fail for a variety of non-preventable causes, including corrosion, hydrogen explosions, valves sticking, and inevitable human operator error.

You also ignore some other crucial points: Nuclear plants turn out to be short-lived devices (operating lifespans seem limited to around 50 years due to metal fatigue from neutron exposure), but the reactor containments have to be kept intact for many centuries. Nuclear facilities, waste repositories, and fuel processing stations are potential terror targets, with disastrous consequences.

The true cost of operating a plant is unknown, because uranium mining and processing, and waste disposal, are heavily subsidized. The nuclear industry is exempt from the cost of insuring against credible and foreseeable catastrophes by the Price–Anderson act. If these were added into the cost of fission generation, it would be seen as clearly non-viable.

'The “small amount” of waste is extremely toxic and extremely long-lived.'

This isn't quite right. The long-lived radioactive components are relatively safe, so long as you don't ingest them. And the dangerous radioactive compounds burn themselves up rather quickly.

The "hotter" the radioactive compound, the faster it burns itself up. Danger and lifespan are inversely correlated.

Nuclear power is one of the safest energy sources we have available to us. Fears of terrorist attacks and meltdowns are far overblown -- the human brain isn't always so good at assessing risks from rare events like these. Look to the numbers, instead.

By Windchaser (not verified) on 13 Apr 2017 #permalink

@David wrote:

The true cost of operating a plant is unknown, because uranium mining and processing, and waste disposal, are heavily subsidized.

'Unknown by you' is not the same thing as 'unknown'. Most plants are owned by publicly traded companies and the numbers, including the subsidies, are fully disclosed in compliance with Sarbanes–Oxley. If you wanted to know rather than claiming your own ignorance equates to global ignorance, the information is available.

As far as safety goes, fission is magnitudes more safe than the automobile. Want to compare statistics on automobile accidents versus nuclear power accidents? Deaths caused by automobiles versus deaths caused by nuclear power? If you were truly worried about the safety of society I think you're priorities could use a reshuffle.

@Denier.
> ‘Unknown by you’ is not the same thing as ‘unknown’.

You're, probably correct : There's not much point in denying (well, I suppose for you there is ;)) that fission is known to be not competitive without subsidies. You may look up the up the Flamanville 3, Olkiluoto 3 or Hinkleypoint 2 projects. Also, if you say that this just incompetence of the French, why did the Westinghouse company declare bankruptcy again?

These about $10bn for the EPRs do not even include any operating, waste disposal and plant decomissioning costs, not is the implicit insurance of the country which runs them factored in.

Andreas wrote:

why did the Westinghouse company declare bankruptcy again?

James Bernhard Jr. combined with entirely unrelated incompetence that Toshiba was too embarrassed to admit.

The quick and dirty version is that James Bernhard Jr via his company Shaw Group Inc bought the name of prestigious nuclear plant engineering firm Stone & Webster in bankruptcy court for pennies. Berhard then used the credibility of Stone & Webster to bid on the plants the Toshiba owned Westinghouse was building in the South Eastern US. To close the deal Bernhard offered to help hide some of the losses Toshiba was seeing in their other units. Toshiba-Westinghouse gave them the contract but it turns out Bernhard / Shaw Group didn't really know how to build nuclear power plants. They found all sorts of shoddy work that had to be completely redone. There were big delays and boatloads of cost over runs, and cherry on top of the sundae is that the accounting scandal at Toshiba became public anyway. That is why Westinghouse declared bankruptcy.

I don't really know about the issues in the European reactors.

Fusion should be funded fully, but it is still several decades away at best. We can't go to all green sources without creating a little additional storage. In the US, we probably need 8 weeks of storage, but currently have less than 1 hour; and most of that is pumped hydro. Like it or not, we absolutely must increase fission in the near term, in order to address climate change. Yes, it is dirty, dangerous, and more expensive. But, that is the deal and denying it isn't terribly different than denying anthropogenic climate change.

By Rick Whitten (not verified) on 13 Apr 2017 #permalink

Bacteria research is where it's at. You have to go back to the basics. Bacteria, Small microbes they generate energy, learn from them.
Heck, look at Dark Matter the bacteria of the universe. It holds galaxies in it's grip.
The small "unseen" stuff controls the "seen" stuff.
Bacteria research is where it's at. IMHO..

By Ragtag Media (not verified) on 13 Apr 2017 #permalink

John: That said, I’m less sanguine about the purported pollution free nature of controlled fusion power.

There will definitely be a waste stream, the same way there is an O&M waste stream from even things like solar power. However, some waste streams are easier to deal with than others. Neutron activation tends to produce short-lived radioisotopes, and those are much easier to deal with than long-lived isotopes.

Having said that, I think a better fission-based energy economy is a necessary step to a fusion-based energy economy, because fusion will have many similarities. It will probably produce about the same amount of power per square footage used (see below). It will be a radioactive facility. And economy of scale will likely mean magawatt-sized plants. So I think the best way to prepare ourselves for a 'fusion era' would be to do what we've stepped back from lately, which is a fission era.

Fusion should be funded fully, but it is still several decades away at best.

There is an old joke about that. Fusion is a few decades away. But in the '90s, it was a few decades away. In the '70s, it was a few decades away. In the '50s, it was a few decades away. :) Eventually the prediction of 'a few decades' will be right, but given past predictions, we really have no idea how long it will take.

(On power: IIRC the expected power output per reaction from fusion is something like 4x the output per fission reaction. Which sounds like a lot, until you consider that the fission power output per reaction is a million times that of a chemical reaction. IOW, the power gain moving from fission to fusion is peanuts compared to the gain we already got for going from coal and gas to fission. The lesson: do not expect remarkable gains per square foot of power plant. We already got the biggest "leap" in energy/reaction anyone is ever going to see, when we moved from chemical reactions to fission. The difference between fusion and fission in terms of power output is practically negligible )

@eric wrote:

There is an old joke about that. Fusion is a few decades away. But in the ’90s...

::Facepalm:: If you're telling old jokes at least get the punchline right. Fusion is the power of the future.....and always will be.

Windchaser: "The long-lived radioactive components are relatively safe, so long as you don’t ingest them. "

Or, so long as they don't get into the groundwater, taken up by plants, eaten by grazing cattle, and processed into hamburger. This may not happen tomorrow, but the wastes will be around, and hot, for thousands and thousands of years.

@ #12, Windchaser,

The radionuclides produced in fusion power plants will be principally the result of engineering decisions selecting the materials used in the plasma-facing walls. Those decisions will incorporate several variables other than the half-life of the materials used.

For example, the ability of boron carbide to absorb neutrons without forming long-lived radionuclides makes it attractive, but its hardness makes it expensive to machine. The carbon of graphite is a good neutron moderator, but Carbon-14 has a half-life of about 5,730 years. Etcetera. As the electricity from any future fusion powered generating will need to be economically attractive, reactor designs will be sensitive to material costs.

Some of the radioactive waste products from any future fusion-powered electricity generating plants will have a relatively short half-life, but will likely remain interred with the intermixed radioactive waste with long half-lives due to the cost.

Oops! The last part of the first paragraph should be ... "other than the half-life of the radioactive residue produced from the materials used."

Attempts to design economically competitive fusion reactors have repeatedly failed over the years. The US had a project, ARIES, to flesh out economical designs for tokamak powerplants. Even optimized the designs were never competitive, and this was before the prices of natural gas and renewables crashed,

ITER illustrates just how far from competitive fusion is. It is a research reactor that lacks many of the things a commercial reactor would need. It does not breed its own tritium, it lacks turbines to turn the heat it generates into electricty, and it's made of materials that can only withstand a few weeks of neutron bombardment at full power. Even with all that, it is costing the equivalent of more than $100 per watt of electric power output (assuming the heat it does generate is converted to electrical power at 40% overall efficiency.) This is uncompetitive by nearly two orders of magnitude.

If ITER were a small thing we might pretend this two orders of magnitude difference could be solved by economies of scale and experience. But ITER is already a monster, and a commercial scale reactor will be larger still. Like fission reactors, there will be limited room to run down experience curves. Renewables, on the other hand, still have room to go in their cost improvements. By the time DEMO could be done they will be below $0.01/kWh. Batteries are also declining rapidly in cost, which (by the time fusion could be available) obviates the main remaining argument against renewables.

The practical engineering problems with fusion (all fusion reactors, not just tokamaks) are not new. They've been known for decades,at least since Lidsky's famous 1983 article in MIT's Technology Review. So why haven't they been accepted by the fusion community? It's because fusion researchers have committed their careers to fusion, and are not going to readily accept that it's all a useless dead end. What this shows, I think, is that you should not ask people whose paychecks depend on X, if X is a good idea. You will likely not get an unbiased answer.

If fusion is really such an obvious dead end then why there are lots of private startup companies working on it?
Also all solar and wind power actually comes from fusion isn't it?

Not just all solar and wind, but also coal, oil, gas energy all come from fusion.
I think saying we should not even try fusion is like saying we should get water only from natural sources like lakes, rivers, rain; we should never try desalinization of sea water!

Unless you think everyone with money understand everything they invest in, you can't use the existence of startups as evidence a technology will work. It's just evidence that suckers can be found.

Observing that solar energy comes from fusion is not a justification for trying to make fusion reactors. The sun is just a wee bit bigger than a reactor can be, you know (and it uses different fusion reactions).

It is easy to call countless real scientists working on fusion fools and it is easy to say it is impossible to replicate fusion in stars. People like you always tried to stop progress of science and lost again and again. Just learn a little bit about history of science.