Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Saving the planet is a nice thing to do"

Further to this post the Guardian writes no matter how much research is done and money is spent attempting to commercialise fusion technology, it always appears to be stuck at least a generation away. "Advocates of fusion research predict that the first commercial fusion electricity might be delivered in 50-80 years from now," said Jan Vande Putte, Greenpeace International's nuclear campaigner. "But most likely, it will lead to a dead end, as the technical barriers to be overcome are enormous."

Fusion doesn't produce greenhouse gases, it is intrinsically safe and it leaves no burden on future generations. The primary reaction does not produce nuclear material, only helium. There's a limited problem in that you produce neutrons, but this only makes the reactor chamber itself radioactive. Within 100 years, you could recycle the chamber so there's no need for geological-timescale storage as there is with the waste from fission energy. And the fuel is virtually unlimited. All you need is lithium and hydrogen. Sea water alone could fuel current human consumption levels for 30 million years. Reactors would be so safe that they could be located amid urban centres where the power is most needed. A tsunami, earthquake or bomb could hit a fusion reactor and the problems caused would only ever be structural. With fission, you have to release the energy if there's a problem, whereas fusion shuts down instantly if disrupted.

So, what are the barriers preventing a great leap forward?

"We could produce net electricity right now, but the costs would be huge," says Cowley. "The barrier is finding a material than can withstand the neutron bombardment inside the tokamak (doughnut-shaped chambers where the fusion reaction takes place). We could also just say damn to the cost of the electricity required to demonstrate this. But we don't want to do something that cannot be shown to be commercially viable. What's the point?"

It's hard not to look at the potential of fusion and scream: "We need this right now!" If the motivation was there, the global community could find the money to fund 10 rival fusion projects to fast-track the process of finding the optimum design. So, why haven't we seen a Manhattan Project-style push for fusion. As long as fusion research remains underfunded then it will never save humanity from climate change, oil wars and the poverty and underdevelopment caused by ever-higher energy costs.

Who will stand to benefit financially from its commercialisation? The global energy market is worth $5-6 trillion a year: somebody will make a lot of money out of this. If fusion (the star in the jar) ever becomes proved, Mailstrom can absolutely rely on one thing - our electricity bills won't go down. New technology tends to deliver wealth upwards, to the rich who own and control it, not downwards to the rest of us. An orgy of free energy would still have to wait for socialist society to be realised.

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