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Posts Tagged ‘energy solutions

movements in nuclear fusion: ITER

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the world’s biggest clean energy project? ITER in southern France

Geographical, the magazine of the UK’s Royal Geographical Society, had an article in its April 2021 edition entitled ‘Caging a Star’, all about the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project in Provence, France. Thermonuclear fusion has of course been talked up as an ultimate solution to our energy needs for decades, to the extent that it’s become something of a joke, but in the meantime, practical movements are underway. In fact, they’ve been under way for a long time. An international contract was signed in 1986 to implement research on fusion, though it took another twenty years to agree on the site for ITER. The project now involves 35 countries – largely WEIRD ones (Western Educated Industrial Rich Democracies), producing 85% of global GDP. It’s a long-term project, certainly, but it’s being taken seriously, and construction is happening, big-time.

With the IPCC having recently come out with its 2021 report, nations are looking to their targets and feeling concerned – some more than others (wake up Australia). Boštjan Videmšek, the author of the Geographical article, assesses the current situation in stark terms:

70% of all CO2 emissions pumped into the atmosphere are created through energy consumption; 80% of all the energy we consume is derived from fossil fuels. The EU has formally pledged to start producing half of its electric energy from renewable resources by 2030. By 2050, the bloc’s members are planning to hoist themselves into a fully carbon-neutral society. But, given current trends, this seems like wishful thinking. Renewable energy resources simply won’t be enough for the task.

The ITER project came out of the closet, so to speak, in late July 2020, when the heart of the project, the tokamak, began to be assembled onsite – though construction of various elements of the program have been going on for years. A tokamak is a toroidal or doughnut-shaped chamber, controlled by huge, powerful magnets, in which hydrogen plasma is manipulated to produce energy according to Einstein’s mass-energy equation. We all know, I hope, that fusion is constantly happening in the sun, and in all suns throughout the universe, and that its energy is essential to our existence, but ITER’s scientists are hoping to improve on the sun’s processes. Hydrogen collisions inside the sun don’t always result in fusion – the fusion process is quite slow. Recognising this, researchers looked to isotopes of hydrogen to speed up the process. Hydrogen’s most common form, consisting simply of a proton and an electron, is called protium. However, there are two other isotopes, deuterium and tritium, containing an additional one and two neutrons respectively. The best form of fusion reaction for producing energy is DT fusion, using deuterium and tritium. This produces more energy, at a lower temperature. The problem is with the tritium, a highly radioactive and unstable isotope, which is both rare and expensive, at about US$30,000 per gram. The rarity, though, is related to low demand, and there is potential for ITER to produce its own supply of the isotope.

Of course, none of this is expected to be ready in the near future. ITER is essentially a proof-of-concept project for future power plants, and is expected to spend a decade in testing, finalising in around 2035. Those future power plants are already ready and waiting, at least in terms of design. The key to achieving fusion is a sufficiently high temperature (150,000,000 degrees celsius!) and high particle density, for an optimum fusion rate. Containment of the volatile plasma will also, of course, be an issue. ITER’s experiments will also be about capturing and utilising the energy produced. As Videmšek describes it:

The idea is that heat will build up along the sides of the tokamak, where it will be captured by the cooling water circling the reactor. As in a normal power station, the heat will be used to produce steam and – by way of turbines and alternators – electricity. The water will eventually be released with the help of vast cooling towers. These have already been put in place…

The science itself, as researchers told Videmšek, is straightforward enough, but the infrastructure, the international nature of the project, the politics and the funding can all provide obstacles. The siting in Provence has helped, as France has successfully embraced nuclear fission technology for decades, and the project is a boon for the Provençal economy. And of course there’s the global warming issue. The IPCC has just released its 6th Assessment Report and, among other findings, has confirmed what we here in Australia have experienced regarding extreme weather events:

Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5).

The report argues that, ‘unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades’, this scenario of extreme weather events will continue into the foreseeable future. These deep reductions, it seems, are a matter of political will, not to mention recognition of the crisis, which is clearly not universal. The way that many nations, including some of the most powerful and impactful on climate, have dealt with the clear and present threat of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, doesn’t provide much cause for optimism. If the ITER project, mostly funded by EU nations, goes off without a hitch over the next few decades, it may just put another nail in the coffin of our self-destructive exploitation of fossil fuels. Better late than never I suppose…

References

Boštjan Videmšek, ‘Caging a star’, in Geographical, April 2021

https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/#SPM

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 15, 2021 at 7:19 pm

all renewable energy by 2050? Hang on a tick

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Sir David McKay, who died in 2016 of stomach cancer, aged 49. A great loss.

The late Sir David McKay, physicist, engineer, sustainable energy expert, Cambridge professor and Royal Society Fellow, has just become known to me through his 2012 TED talk and a lengthier exposition of the same ideas presented at Harvard. These talks were designed, to ‘cut through some of the greenwash’ and provide a realistic account of what can be done, on both the supply and the demand side, to reduce fossil fuel consumption and transform our energy economy.

As I need to keep saying, I’m far from an expert on this stuff, and I’m always impressed by the ingenious developments in the field and the promise of new technology, in batteries and other storage systems – like the compressed air underwater energy storage system being trialled in Lake Ontario, Toronto. But McKay’s contributions are helping me to think more realistically about the enormity of the problem of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels as well as to think more practically about my own domestic usage and the demand side more generally.

While McKay was no renewable energy sceptic or climate change denier, his ‘arithmetical’ view of the future poured a lot of cold hydro on the rosy idea that we’d be living in an all-renewables-powered biosphere within x decades. So I want to take a closer look at some aspects of what he was saying (he also wrote a highly-regarded book, Sustainable energy – without the hot air, available free online).

I particularly want to look at two forms of renewable energy that he talked about; wind and solar. He also talked at some length about two other energy sources, biofuels and nuclear, but I’ve never been much keen on biofuels, which in any case seem to have been largely taken off the menu in recent years, and nuclear, as McKay admits, has a popularity problem – a massive one here in Australia, unfortunately. What I say here about wind and solar will be gleaned largely fromMackay’s Harvard talk, but I’ve downloaded and plan to read his book in the near future.

Mackay has calculated that the current energy production of wind turbines in windy Britain is about 2.5 watts per square metre, and by multiplying per capita energy consumption by population density, you get power consumed per unit area, which for Britain is about 1.25 watts per square metre. This suggests that to cover the consumption of Britain solely by wind, you’d need an area, on land or sea, half the area of Britain. This is clearly not feasible, though of course nobody in Britain, I hope, was ever expecting to have all their energy needs provided by wind. The situation is vastly different for South Australia, two thirds of which is currently powered by wind. SA has vastly more land than Britain and vastly less people.

Though I’m sure it’s possible to quibble with Mckay’s figures and calculations, what he brings to the issues, I think, is a global, as well as a particular perspective that can be lost when you focus, as I have, on local success. For example, South Australia has been very successful in its deployment of wind power over a short period of time, and it’s easy to get carried away and think, if we can do it, why not state x or country y? But SA is a state with a small population and a very large area, and plenty of wind to capture. This just can’t be replicated in, say, Massachussetts, with more than three times the population, a thirtieth of the area, and little wind.

So McKay wasn’t offering global solutions, nor was he dismissing local ones. He was simply pointing out the complexity of the problem in physical and arithmetical terms of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels, as well as getting us thinking about our personal responsibilities on the demand side. Solar isn’t much of a national solution in Britain, though it could be in Australia, which could be a net exporter of renewables, as Elon Musk has suggested, but to which countries, and how exactly do you export solar energy? You’d need conversion and transmission and bilateral agreements. All of this while fighting entrenched interests and upsetting long-standing arrangements. Having said this, more people are hopping on the renewables bus and it’s almost becoming unfashionable, in most western countries outside of Australia, to be dismissive of them, a noticeable change in the last decade.

So what’s the point of this post? It’s to heed McKay’s advice that we need to recognise the complexity of the problem, to keep all possible reasonable solutions on the table, to become more aware, as individuals, communities and states, of our energy consumption, and to recognise that there’s never going to be a one-type-fits-all fix. Environments and needs vary widely, so we need to find particular solutions and we also need to find ways of joining and mixing those solutions together in effective networks. It all sounds pretty daunting, but the fact is, we’re already moving in the right direction, and there’s much to be positive about. Technology and engineering are international, and those in the business are hunting out solutions across the globe and thinking of harnessing and adapting them to their own region, in the process building communication, sharing information and expertise and raising consciousness about energy supply and consumption. And another positive is the endless innovation that comes with thinking about energy solutions in new ways, like small, cheap solar panels to provide energy in developing regions, backyard or small-scale wind-turbines in suitable locations, processing waste to fuel, new developments in batteries and EVs, and so on. So, while there aren’t major, mind-blowing solutions to our fossil-fuel dependence in the offing, we are making progress, incrementally, and the effects of climate change, as they become more impactful, will no doubt accelerate our progress and innovation. We have no option but to think and act positively.

portable solar panels can be surprisingly useful, and cheap

In a future post I’ll look at the demand side, following McKay and many others. Having just moved house, and sadly leaving solar panels behind, it’s time to find out where my meter is, and check our consumption.

 

On Trump’s downfall: Fire and Fury, the overly-discussed tell-all book about Trump and the White House, is unlikely to affect Trump’s base though it will hopefully toughen the opposition. Trump’s rating remains below 40% and nothing much has happened so far this year. There’s talk of Oprah Winfrey standing for the Presidency in 2020 – please no! – but Trump will be in jail by then and Americans will have lost their appetite for ‘celebrity’ candidates. I’m looking out for Elizabeth Warren.

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2018 at 9:03 am