By Anjan Roy
Energy shortage could become a thing of the past and so could be the concerns about global warming if what the US scientists have achieved could really be rolled out commercially.
US department of energy has announced that its scientists have at last achieved a breakthrough in “fusion technology” for generating electricity. The efforts at achieving this is not new, of course.
For close to one hundred years, since the days of the brightest discoveries in nuclear physics in the 1930s, scientists have been trying to produce electricity from “fusion” as opposed to “fission”.
Currently, nuclear power plants generate electricity through fission, which is splitting an atom to generate heat and thus boil water to generate power. Although present-day nuclear plants are cleaner than those based on burning fossil fuels, these are not very safe.
Fission based plants have huge by-product of radio-active materials which have exceedingly long life span. These have to be stored in extremely safe ways so that their radio-activity does not spread into the neighbouring areas of the plant or the storage areas. This makes the present nuclear plants difficult to handle and confined to only a few developed countries. These are not really effective alternatives for use of fossil fuels.
Fission is the opposite route. It is joining up two atoms to generate heat. This is the process through which the sun and other stars are known to produce energy and heat. Doing fusion on earth would be to reproduce what is happening constantly at the core the sun.
America’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory has achieved just this, as the US energy secretary has announced.
Once again, this is not a new achievement. Two other laboratories are trying to achieve this for many, many years now. One, in a village in England and the other is on a hillside in France. The latter is a joint effort by scientists from thirty five other countries, of which nine are most active, including India.
The English laboratory earlier this year had reported some breakthrough and produced some 59 megajules of electricity for a brief period. However, that was far too short and far too little to give any authentic hope of a breakthrough.
The critical factor is that the energy produced must be more than energy consumed in the effort and that should be stable for a longer period.
While the basic science has been by and large known and established, the issue is one of solving some related matters and that of implementation through engineering. Going by the statement of the US energy department, these related issues of implementing a stable fusion reaction appears to have been resolved.
But even then, the actual availability of electricity from fusion is not any near just now. To do this on a commercial scale, it will call for efforts on a prolonged basis and could be expected to be available only sometime in the future. However, as the US energy department says, some hopes of a near future solution is at hand.
There are underlying tensions in this scientific effort as well. The foundation block of the fusion process, that is, extremely powerful magnets to start and hold the process, were first discovered and engineered by Soviet scientists. Called tokamaks, these were structured by the Russians years back.
Russians are part of the international co-operative effort to develop the fusion technology laboratory at ITER in France. In fact, the decision to set up the laboratory where it is currently was taken at a meeting in Moscow in 2005. Since then, the Russians are an integral part of the ITER researches in fusion technology.
Since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, there were some questions about Russian involvement. Although sanctions on Russia excluded Russian participation in ITER in France, there are now questions of continuing Russian participation. EU has sensibly excluded the fusion technology co-operations outside of any geo-political hostilities.
The excitement about he fusion technology as a solution for mankind’s energy problems is that it is clean. It uses an atom which is available in plenty in nature — it is from water. That is, just one glass of water could give enough material to produce electricity for a year for a city.
Once this stabilizes, fossil fuels will no longer be needed for energy. Coal and oil and gas will become tings of the past. It will change the structure of the global economy as well as the entire global industrial economy. This will also stop the process of global warming for use of fossil fuels.
How critical this achievement is could be gauged from the fact that 80% of all energy used is fossil fuel based. This is barrelling the world towards a existential crisis, only waiting to happen. The world is seeing a dangerous jump in temperatures and changing the overall climate.
Climate change is being witnessed now., storms of massive magnitudes, floods devastating vast areas, sea levels rising, permafrost giving way, artic shelfs crashing down in the polar regions, droughts and destruction of farming — all these have already started happening. If unchecked, these will take over the earth and result in mass extinction.
Fusion for electricity is thus the life line.
It is a new future that the discovery would usher in. (IPA Service)