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Skeptics doubting fusion - and the impact on oil and gas
KEI NETWORK webinar
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Foresight public discussion about emerging technologies and their impact
Join us 4:00PM MST Thursday 29-DEC-22
Nuclear Fusion - anticipating the aftershocks
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Skeptics doubting nuclear fusion
Given all the excitement and significant implications of achieving fusion for energy, we thought it wise to investigate the skeptics. It turns out they are citing nothing new and ignoring the solutions that are sure to come. The challenges of achieving fusion for energy are real - but they are not being ignored. There are grounds for optimism in the research underway including growing increase in both public and private support. Before discussing the skeptics, here is a summary of recent views we have received about fusion for energy. The summary in italics was generated by ChatGPT that by the way appears to be creating the tipping point for Artificial Intelligence - visit HERE
Recent “breakthrough” announcements are citing nuclear fusion as the ultimate in the global energy transition. Fusion would provide abundant, clean and safe energy with minimal waste and no possibility of a meltdown. Current developments in fusion research and recent investments suggest that fusion energy could become commercially viable in the near future. Fusion would be a game-changer, providing a reliable and safe source of electricity, enabling a net-zero GHG emission energy system. It would also reduce reliance on fossil fuels, reducing their costs and the risks associated with them.
Skeptics of the announced “breakthrough” view the announcement as riddled with half-truths and counter any continued usage of oil and gas for energy. They cite for example the lack of specific minerals essential for fusion: tritium as an essential fusion fuel and lithium as essential in heat conversion. They also question the imminence of fusion and whether the Lawrence Livermore National Ignition Fusion (NIF) Laboratory demonstration truly achieved an energy gain. We asked Robert Fedosejevs for his views. Robert is a scientist and engineer at the University of Alberta and well versed in the Livermore research and global developments in fusion for energy. Here is Robert's reply followed by Eric Newell's views on the implications for the oil and gas industry.
Note. Only a small fraction of the total fuel was burned in the result reported and the expectation is that with higher precision targets coming early next year that this burn fraction will be increased and yields could increase, perhaps by factors of 2 to 4 times.
The breakeven result is the first critical step towards controlled fusion energy demonstrating indeed that the process of net energy production is feasible in the laboratory but what is the path forward?
Firstly, with modern laser technology the 400 MJ electrical energy per pulse required for the driver laser could be reduced to 20 to 40 MJ electrical energy to produce 2MJ of laser output energy per pulse.
Secondly, the Livermore demonstration uses indirect drive converting the laser light into x-rays which in turn are used to heat the fuel pellet. This is an inefficient but fairly robust process. The actual energy which reaches and heats the inner fuel capsule itself is on the order of 200 to 300 kJ. Instead of this indirect drive technique, one can irradiate and heat the fuel capsule directly with the laser beams to deliver the energy directly to the fuel capsule. When developed, this direct drive approach would then only require lasers on the order of 500 kJ in size (allowing for 50% losses in coupling to the fuel capsule) to achieve the same result. With potential outputs of over 5 MJ from more precision targets than that shot on December 5 and 10% efficient laser system. This would achieve Engineering Breakeven.
Thirdly, the output yield scales much more than linearly with energy deposited in heating the fuel capsule and the net gain increases significantly with laser size. Higher gains could simply be obtained by scaling the laser system energy up. Thus net energy production could be achieved simply by increasing the size of the laser system, i.e. there is a clear path to net energy production. Clearly the goal would be to increase the process efficiency to minimize the size of the laser system required.
Fourthly, more advanced techniques of ignition using a separate or modified laser pulse are under investigation right now, which hold the promise of increasing the gain by a significant factor of the order of five times. If successful, these could reduce the size of laser required for high gain and significant net energy production to the order of 1 to 2 MJ.
Clearly, there are many hurdles still to overcome but one should not use this fact to discount the historic milestone which now has been achieved, scientific energy breakeven, the first major step forward to our quest to harness the power of the stars, fusion energy.
Fusion to impact the oil and gas industry
Given the extraordinary implications of fusion for energy on current sources of energy, we also approach a well-known leader in the oil and gas industry – Eric Newell. Eric was a major contributor to the KEI Network’s series on Decarbonization . Here is what Eric had to share.
Practically speaking, it is not realistic or reasonable to demand that countries heavily dependent on coal-fired power generation to move directly to renewable energy sources for power generation. Renewables, CCS, nuclear fission (e.g. SMR’s) can make further emissions reductions following natural gas substitutions for coal. And, ultimately, as challenges are overcome in commercializing nuclear fusion energy over the next several decades, presumably an orderly transition to full power generation from fusion energy would occur driven by economic and environmental drivers.
Similarly, hydrogen (e.g. for hydrogen powered fuel cells) could follow a similar pattern. Initially, “blue hydrogen” produced from natural gas with CCS could enable the transition, particularly to fuel larger, long haul vehicles (e.g. buses, larger trucks, rail, marine). Such developments are ready to proceed now so we should not wait for commercial nuclear fusion energy which could be several decades away. Depending on economics, nuclear fusion may produce “green hydrogen” (e.g. electrolysis of water) to displace “blue hydrogen”. Today “green hydrogen” production is much more expensive than “blue hydrogen”.
While this would reduce the demand for fossil fuel energy, it would drive “repurposing the hydrocarbon molecule” towards non-energy, petroleum-based products (e.g. from petrochemicals). Another example of such “repurposing” is embodied in the initiative titled Bitumen Beyond Combustion. In this case, the heavy portion of crude oil (the “bottoms”) is not burned for energy, but rather goes directly to high value Carbon products (e.g. Carbon black, graphene, carbon anodes, etc.) and paving asphalt.
Such displacement could be planned albeit with some disruption but no more than with other past energy system transitions. Critical to this, though, is ensuring new energy supply sources are available and operating reliably before shutting down the existing energy supply sources. That is why the current plan to accelerate the premature shutdown of fossil fuels is so wrong-headed. Fossil fuels should be viewed as critical components of an orderly transition as well as a large contributor to financing such a transition.
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