Scientists race to replicate 'the power source of stars' in climate fight

Scientists race to replicate 'the power source of stars' in climate fight
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The net-zero energy mix of the future will rely not only on renewable resources such as solar and wind but also on technology that allows scientists to “recreate and control the power source of stars,” according to economist and plasma physicist Arthur Turrell.

Scientists and investors are now exploring the possibility of nuclear fusion working its way into the mix of power sources such as wind and solar that are seen as crucial in the long-term fight against climate change.

While lawmakers in Congress are aiming to provide new funding for traditional nuclear reactors that use nuclear fission, experts such as Turrell say the U.S. needs to be thinking bigger by pursuing nuclear fusion.

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“Climate change is so important that we are going to need to throw the kitchen sink at it,” he told The Hill on Monday.

Nuclear fusion could provide a reliable and clean baseload power source that would neither generate radioactive waste nor increase risks of nuclear proliferation, he added.

Fusion research, which has garnered some $2 billion in private investments over the past five years, could be a critical component of government plans to curb carbon emissions, Turrell argues in his new book, “The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet,” released on Tuesday. 

Fusion is different from fission, the process used by nuclear reactors that generates a byproduct of radioactive material that can linger for up to 10,000 years. In addition, fission reactors risk the kinds of meltdowns that devastated Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Turrell said that while he remains in favor of fission, arguing it’s still the safest by some metrics, the key ingredient in his ideal energy mix would be fusion, which, he acknowledged, is much easier said than done.

About 100 experimental fusion projects — including around 20 private ventures — are underway globally, but scientists recognize that making fusion commercially viable is a herculean task. Fusion demands so much energy that Turrell described its upkeep as “a leaky bathtub.” 

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“If your power source needs more energy than you get out of it, that’s a big problem,” he said. “That’s not an energy source, that’s an energy sink.”

But research teams around the world are competing to transform that sink into a source, mainly because, as Turrell pointed out, fusion releases 10 million times more energy than the same amount of coal per kilogram of fuel and four times more than fission.

For now, the Senate’s newly introduced bipartisan infrastructure bill would aim to keep nuclear fission reactors in operation, allocating $6 billion to do so between 2022 and 2026 and providing financial assistance to identify sites for potential microreactors.

“This is money worth spending,” Stephen Wagner, a physics professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, told The Hill. “It’s often easier to keep an existing plant running than it is to get a new one approved and built.”

Wagner likewise emphasized the advantages of maintaining nuclear “in the mix” in a baseload capacity, as renewables provide “peak power” — meaning they provide a surge of power at specific, peak times.

A key ingredient for fusion is derived from lithium. While Turrell noted the relative abundance of lithium, Wagner countered that mining the metal, a component of electric vehicle batteries, means pushing environmental degradation elsewhere.

“Fusion is the universe’s most ubiquitous energy source,” Turrell said. “It lights days from the sun, and if you go out at night, those thousands of pinpricks you see are stars using fusion.”

Scientists at the California-based National Ignition Facility are exploring a nuclear fusion process that uses lasers to heat a reactor up to 60 million degrees Celsius — four times hotter than the center of the sun. While they have only achieved an energy yield equivalent to 3 percent of what they put in, Turrell stressed that the field is still developing rapidly.

Separately, a multinational research group called ITER is working on developing other methods of fusion energy in southern France, with the goal of creating a huge magnetic fusion device by 2025.

Turrell said he is optimistic about the private sector’s continued investments in such research, adding that the financial interests suggest the “plausibility of it having some kind of breakthrough in the near future.”

Wagner sees a much longer timeline, estimating that fusion reactors wouldn’t begin operating until 2050 and would only come close to making up 100 percent of the energy mix by 2100.

“If in my life I can boil water for my morning coffee from electricity from a fusion reactor, I will die a happy person because I will know the human race will have a future,” he said.

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“It’s going to be a difficult haul unless there is some real sort of breakthrough there,” Wagner continued. “And so it’s important — what both the big experiment in France and all these little experiments are doing.”

Whenever it does occur, Turrell says fusion will be a critical energy source on Earth and beyond. 

“If we ever want to explore the rest of the universe to any great degree, fusion is the only power source that is going to get us there,” he said. “It is the only power source that can take us to the stars.”