When Will Nuclear Fusion Put Oil And Gas Out Of Business?
The Christmas season is a time to give thanks and celebrate the fantastic advances in science being made.
In 2022, Prince William, the founder of Earth shots Prize, announced awards for Boston. Revive our Oceans was one category. One group, Indigenous Women of the Great Barrier Reef, was the winner. The Reef has been threatened, and the winners have pledged to defend it. They protect beaches and turtles and preserve seagrass, which captures ten times more CO2 than Amazon forests. They use ancient aboriginal knowledge to preserve coral reefs and modern tools such as drones to monitor inland bushfires and monitoring changes in coral.
Second, the US Department of Energy funded for 20 years the development and concept of the Small Modular Nuclear Reactor SMR (NuScale Power Module). These advantages are safer, more affordable, scalable, and less carbon-intensive. The only SMR to have received design approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The module measures less than 100 feet tall and is 15 feet wide. It sits in a water bath below ground level. It produces 77 MegaWatts, which can power up to 60,000 homes. It is expected to be operational in Idaho by 2029.
The medical community made the third breakthrough in treating certain types of cancer. This method uses T-cells (part of the immune system fighting cancer) to take them out of the body and genetically modify them using CRISPR. Then, they are reintroduced back into the body as “living drugs.” CRISPR allows T-cells to be more effective in attacking specific cancer cells.
CRISPR allows these “off-the-shelf” T-cells to be made quickly and easily. This is a significant improvement over the time it took to make them. On December 12, 2022, Dr. McGuirk, University of Kansas, reported surprising trial results and opened up a new avenue for cancer treatment. Tumors had shrunk in 67% of 32 lymphoma patients. 40% of patients experienced complete remission. This technique has the potential to cure many other types of cancers. There is a lot of enthusiasm.
The breakthrough in nuclear Fusion
One of the most important discoveries in physics was made during the last century. A plutonium-heavy atom breaks down, and a small mass is lost. This is because E = mc2, in which c is the speed of light and a large number.
The threat from Germany of developing a chain-reaction bomb using this reaction led the US government to invest vast amounts of money in building a fission weapon in Los Alamos (New Mexico), near my home. It was successfully tested in Albuquerque’s White Sands desert and was eventually used to end the war against Japan.
Grid-sized nuclear reactors were quickly developed in various countries through commercial applications. Some were successful: France receives 70% of its electricity from 56 nuclear reactors, while the US draws about 20% from 93 nuclear reactors.
However, success can be hampered by terrible accidents such as Chornobyl in Russia in 1986 or Fukushima in Japan in 2011. There is also the ever-present concern about nuclear waste disposal in America.
Sister nuclear reactions are when two hydrogen nuclei are forced into merging into helium by overcoming the repelling forces. Once again, an immense amount of energy is released. This was the basis for US hydrogen bomb testing in the South Pacific (Bikini atoll) in the 1950s, before the 1963 test ban treaty.
Over the years, commercial applications of nuclear Fusion have been sought. One example is Sandia National Laboratories, Albuquerque. Here, hot-charged plasma is kept in check by electric fields. The idea was to heat, compress, and confine the plasma until hydrogen nuclei fuse (energy-out). However, energy-in was always more than energy-out.
Lawrence Livermore Laboratory was another commercial application in the San Francisco Bay region of California. The plasma was compressed, heated, and condensed using 192 lasers. A $1 million pellet of mixed hydrogen was blasted. They were the same results until now. Energy-out (3.1 MegaJoules), announced in the week ending December 16, 2022, was more than energy–in (2.1 MegaJoules) for the first. It is an incredible breakthrough. It reached 3 million degrees Celsius.
This is how you can put it in perspective.
First, energy-in and energy-out should be more complex. To power up lasers, you need far more energy than that: 400 MegaJoules. Refer to 1.
Second, the success story revolved around one event, namely a fusion ignition. A thousands of times more powerful laser would be required to achieve anything close to practical fusion events. The cost would be one-millionth of the original (Ref. This one success is inspiring but needs to be more helpful.
It’s expensive and not practical so that it won’t be cheap. However, it will produce high-intensity electricity and will not emit carbon dioxide.
The power of nuclear fission energy is one million times greater than any other energy source on the planet. This is why many atomic power plants have been built in countries such as France and the USA.
The energy created by nuclear Fusion is 3-4 times greater than that of nuclear fission. This is just one aspect of the dream. The fusion dream also includes the fact that there is no need to dispose of nuclear waste products – these can take hundreds of thousands of years to degrade. The third aspect is that Fusion is not a chain reaction, so there is no risk of nuclear explosions or runaway nuclear reactions.
Because electricity generation is responsible for about three-quarters of all global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, the last part of the dream involves nuclear fusion plants scattered across a country to produce high-intensity, carbon-free electric energy.
It’s a pipe dream, but it’s possible. Despite its benefits, carbon-free nuclear Fusion won’t make the oil and gas industry obsolete by 2050. Maybe not even 2100.
Mankind has recreated the sun’s light and heat source. Under immense pressure, the sun’s gaseous interior is compressed at 15 million degrees C. A teaspoon weighs approximately 750gm (1.65 lb). It is remarkable to replicate the sun’s interior conditions in a lab environment and achieve breakeven (energy out more than energy in).
However, nuclear Fusion is far from being a commercially viable option.
Why, then, are we spending so much money on it? Because advanced countries do this. They create telescopes such as the James Webb and then mount them on satellites to study our universe. Rockets are built to send people and women to the moon. They make magnetic racetracks to accelerate protons to light speed before they crash and reveal subatomic particles such as the Higgs boson in fragments of the crashed protons.
Politics play a significant role in the distribution of science funding and government support. As we have seen, there are many examples of countries using science to solve pressing problems that directly benefit humanity.