14 March 2019

Is nuclear fusion finally moving beyond the realm of science fiction?

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In Ayn Rand’s epic novel Atlas Shrugged, protagonist Dagny Taggart becomes enthralled by a motor capable of harnessing static electricity and turning it into a profusion of useful energy, able to power the world. While that physics may have depended on a generous dollop of creative licence, real-world scientists are moving closer to developing something which could deliver similar results.

Unless he has borrowed the Home Secretary’s well-worn copy, I doubt that Philip Hammond has been brushing up on the intricacies of Ms Rand’s thousand-plus page thriller lately. Yet one funding pledge made by the Chancellor yesterday piqued my curiosity – guaranteeing continued funding of the Joint European Torus nuclear fusion research facility.

Perhaps in recognition of the increasing public clamour for environmental action, the Spring Statement contained a number of small steps to better protect the natural world. But it is Hammond’s pledge on nuclear fusion which could do more for the health of the Earth than practically any other imaginable.

Successful nuclear fusion would in theory allow such an abundance of energy to be produced that it would effectively be free, given just how much power it generates (it would become, as nuclear physicists say, “too cheap to meter”).

Fusion power once existed only as an abstract idea in the minds of the most optimistic futurists. But companies researching and developing the technology now believe they are within touching distance of producing net energy gains, and could be feeding it into the grid by 2030. Indeed, this is very much the belief of Tokamak Energy, based in Oxfordshire, which has pioneered more efficient, spherical reactors – allowing it to produce plasma which was hotter than the centre of the sun for a brief moment in 2018.

Of course, it is unlikely that the Chancellor’s funding promise of up to £60 million will be what tips the balance in the long battle to crack nuclear fusion, but it could well bring us a step closer. And, while innovation is rarely just the product of the government writing a cheque, it’s worth considering just how nuclear fusion could help solve perhaps the single biggest public problem currently facing humanity: climate change.

Let’s start by getting the obvious out of the way. Homes could be decarbonised massively as appliances and heating are electrified – the latter of which has so far proven particularly challenging due to prohibitive costs.

There would be much more scope to decarbonise transport through electrification. Hydrogen fuel, too, which has certain advantages over electricity, could be produced in a climate friendly way via electrolysis rather than reforming methane (as is often the case now), meaning we needn’t rely on an entirely electric fleet.

Industries with high energy inputs would equally all benefit from electrification, and carbon emissions would fall accordingly here, too.

Agriculture would be revolutionised. Indoor farming could take off as the cost of keeping on the lights necessary for permitting photosynthesis plummets. Synthetic meat – which produces far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than animal husbandry, but still makes use of some energy – could also be decarbonised.

Fresh water would become plentiful by cheaply desalinating seawater, which could then be used to counter desertification. We might even turn hitherto barren parts of the world into verdant greenery through irrigation, providing habitats for wildlife, and absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.

Speaking of which, technologies which literally draw carbon dioxide from the air could become much more commercially viable. At the moment, those which do exist tend to be small scale, and typically only make sense if the extracted carbon can be sold on for another use. Their proliferation, powered by near costless energy, would effectively allow society to buy ‘climate indulgences’, meaning that we needn’t worry about necessarily decarbonising every aspect of the economy. Of course, as well as keeping atmospheric carbon concentrations back, we could use such technologies to reverse historic emissions, potentially returning concentration levels to pre-industrial times.

But why limit our thinking to just our planet? Though perhaps jumping the gun slightly, nuclear fusion has been touted as a means to permit interstellar exploration, where relying on solar power is not feasible due to the absence of solar energy.

Somewhat closer to home, but still in the realm of outer space, fusion power could also play a vital role in interplanetary travel, or even terraforming Mars. What could be better for the terrestrial ecosystem than spreading civilisation out over two planets rather than one?

Nuclear fusion has the beating of nuclear fission in many other respects – reactors cannot melt down, it produces no long-lived nuclear waste, and as it doesn’t make use of fissile material, it cannot be used for developing nuclear warheads. It could produce a baseload of clean and sustainable energy to power the most productive economies, generating and spreading wealth among the masses. Moreover, at its crux, the reduction in energy prices which fusion power could facilitate would ripple throughout the economy, reducing the cost of just about everything.

Admittedly, all of this represents the best-case scenario. We may still be decades off refining nuclear fusion to the point where the purported benefits it bestows can be realised. However, recent developments give reason for hope – industry experts now genuinely believe the joke that nuclear fusion is always thirty years away is a thing of the past. Hammond’s promise to keep investing in fusion power research may have escaped the headlines, but that is not to downplay its possible significance.

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Eamonn Ives is a Researcher at the Centre for Policy Studies.