16 Dec 2021
Can Nuclear Fusion provide a baseload power supply
In his pioneering 1896 study, Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius, pointed out that with an increase in the blocking of heat radiation, our summers and winters, tropics and poles, were soon to become not all too dissimilar, for the temperature differences between the contraries would begin to decrease.
And now, a century after, mankind finds itself traipsing through the actualisation of what was once merely a prognostication. Thus today, the dream for scientists is not to correctly predict, but to create the ultimate, carbon-free energy source from water.
Bluntly, energy captured by the wind and the sun are not to be labelled as ‘ultimate’ forms of carbon-free power. With windfarms across Europe reporting a drop in energy output of 20% due to wind pattern changes, it seems that climate change has somewhat mutated in reaction to our solutions. Moreover, the ineptitude of these methods is further exacerbated by the lack of technology concerning battery storage.
The answer – nuclear fusion - is to be a baseload power source, a non-intermittent form of energy, and it is to protect us on those windless nights, and cloudy days.
The issue with nuclear fusion is that we essentially must try to consistently replicate a reaction which takes place in the sun. That is, when hydrogen atoms are compressed, they fuse together to create helium, releasing colossal amounts of energy. Chief of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, Ian Chapman, understands nuclear fusion to be a ‘really, really difficult’ process, for without the sun’s massive gravitational force, reactor fuel has to be heated to 150 million degrees Celsius to overcome repulsion between charged particles. For reference, the sun’s core is 15 million degrees Celsius, ten times less.
To power the entirety of the US electricity grid, Chief Executive of Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), Bob Mumgaard, estimates that 3,000 commercial fusion reactors would be required, totalling a cost of more than $1tn. Mobilising sufficient capital is imperative, for it is not the belief that such technology could ever work, as much as it is the ability to construct and scale reactors worldwide that is the issue.
CFS, a Boston based start-up working on behalf of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has raised $250 million. In September, demonstrations of its high temperature superconducting electromagnet had successfully inspired investment. Resultantly, the company now plans to complete its experimental reactor by 2025, and to build a commercial
Lev Artsimovich, a Soviet physicist who helped invent the Tokamak reactor, once famously declared that ‘fusion will be ready when society needs it.’ Whilst it is difficult to argue that society is not in current need, his thought acutely illustrates the cornucopian approach to climate change humans continue to be enthralled with, fighting problems created by technological developments, with further technological developments.
With all the questions surrounding the sources of our energy, is it time to shift focus upon the matter of learning to live with less? Whilst humankind sits eagerly, waiting for the commercial introduction of its emancipating fusion reactors, is it time for a controlled phasing out of certain products we can live without? We don’t need plastic containers for shampoo, aerosol cans for shaving foam, an obnoxious selection of fireworks, or anything else that requires tremendous amounts of energy in manufacturing all to sit in a landfill at the end of its product life cycle. To truly reduce our energy needs, legislation limiting the output of harmful products is critical in achieving green recovery.
Advancements in technology will no doubt make a staggering difference to the climates of our Earth, but surely we are to miss out on even greater differences if we continue to neglect the necessity of fundamental societal change.