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Forging a Role in Low-end Nuclear Fusion

 

Foreword

The below lead op ed column, written with Dr. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, a former dean of the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University, was published in the Bangkok Post on April 18, 2016. It notes that EMC2, a private company historically backed by the US Navy, DARPA, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, has made “one of the most significant advances made in plasma physics and magnetic fusion over the past 50 years", according to a recently declassified independent US Navy technical report from late 2013. The column calls for Thailand, as leader of the G77 and a prospective UN Security Council member, to, well, lead on this issue. These are, after all, Special Circumstances. The relevant Wikipedia page for the EMC2 technology is here. For your information, based on social democrat principles regarding internalising external costs to the environment, Special Circumstances supports the following merit order for prioritising renewables for the period 2016-2036:

 

Priority Ranking

Thai

Govt*

Special Circumstances

Reason for Difference

1

Waste-to-energy

Solar PV (7)

Solar could be ubiquitous in Thailand, with 18,000 MW by 2036. However, at present progress is slow due to regulations. A Solar Roadmap is required.

2

Biomass

Biomass (2)

-

3

Biogas from waste / wastewater

Biogas from energy crops  (5)

We prioritize biogas from energy crops over biogas from waste, which requires further study; additionally, there are insufficient safeguards under a military dictatorship.

4

Micro hydro

Micro-hydro (4)

-

5

Biogas from energy crops

Biogas from waste / waste water (3)

We prioritize biogas from energy crops over biogas from waste, which requires further study.

6

Wind

Waste-to-energy (1)

Waste-to-energy has great potential, as in Sweden. However, under a dictatorship there are insufficient regulatory safeguards. More study is required.

7

Solar PV

Wind (6)

We agree with the government that the potential for wind is limited.

8

Geothermal

Nuclear fusion (-)

We count nuclear fusion as an alternative energy source due to its fundamental differences from fission. From information we have received, we believe fusion is viable c. 2036 and should now enter planning targets.

9

 

Geothermal (8)

We agree that there is a low potential for geothermal.

DEDE (2015a), Alternative Energy Development Plan: AEDP 2015, www.dede.go.th/download/files/AEDP2015_Final_version.pdf.

 

Forging a Role in Low-end Nuclear Fusion

The future of our planet is in the balance. This is becoming more apparent as, in the United States, Our Children's Trust -- a non-governmental organisation representing the voice of youth for healthy environment -- is taking legal action against the federal government and the fossil fuel industry on the grounds that global greenhouse emissions, mainly from coal, are a violation of public trust. And, so far, the children are winning.

In Thailand, global warming is taking a severe toll. Twenty-seven provinces have been declared drought areas. Thailand, as leader of the G77 and prospective UN Security Council member, has a role to play -- in leading investigations into low-end nuclear fusion, a zero greenhouse gas emissions technology.

Nuclear fusion is nuclear fission's big brother and uses the physics that powers our sun instead of potentially dangerous uranium or plutonium. The fuel used is typically isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, the latter being only slightly radioactive, and in any case being consumed in the reaction. Humanity has been able to create a fusion reaction for decades, but the difficulty has always been producing net energy -- more energy than is consumed by the process.

Major world powers are currently pursuing fusion through the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) located in the south of France. ITER uses a tokamak, a giant doughnut with magnetic shielding. However, ITER has been criticised for running three times over its budget, now at US$20 billion. It also requires at least two more updates over the next 25 years, costing approximately the same as ITER for each update, before a commercial net energy reactor is envisioned.

ITER suffers all the problems of a megaproject built by a consortium, but leaner competitors exist in first-world commercial fusion companies. They are attracting significant funding, including from one of Thailand's competitors in leading Asean, Malaysia. Last year, the government of Malaysia, which spends 1.1% of its GDP on research and development, compared to Thailand's 0.4%, invested $27 million in General Fusion (GF).

GF is a Canadian company established in 2002 which has attracted over $100 million for a fusion technology. It is working on a prototype fusion reactor together with McGill University and Hatch, a global engineering company. GF's technology, magnetised target fusion, is relatively simple and dates from a design in the 1950s. Coordinated pneumatic rams pound anvils surrounding a cylinder, into which is injected a deuterium-tritium super-heated gas, or plasma. The impact on the anvils creates shockwaves, which could super-heat the plasma to 100 million degrees Celsius. Within the device is a lead-lithium liquid metal, which serves as shielding. The device then feeds into a normal heat exchanger. General Fusion is aiming for a net energy reaction within a decade.

However, GF is not the world's biggest private fusion company. That honour falls to Tri Alpha Energy (TAE), a US-based company founded in 1998 and backed by significant venture capital. Most of its $150 million has come from Goldman Sachs and venture capitalists such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc, Rockefeller's Venrock, and New Enterprise Associates. Russia also invested in TAE in 2012. The company employs over 150 staff and has registered and renewed various patents, with over 150 academic publications in the last five years. TAE's technology, a colliding beam fusion reactor, is much more complex than General Fusion's approach. It uses a long cigar-shaped cylinder, in which a plasma can be super-heated.

Also, TAE will likely use a hydrogen-boron 11 fuel, which unlike a deuterium-tritium reaction, involves almost no radiation. Crucially, the technology involved theoretically makes possible a direct energy to electricity conversion system instead of a heat exchanger. This, together with the very low levels of radiation, means limited shielding is required, thus a truck-sized 100MW reactor may be possible.

The dark horse of nuclear fusion is EMC2, founded in 1985 and the world's oldest private fusion company. EMC2 has received millions in funding from the US Navy, especially the Office of Naval Research, as well as from Darpa, Nasa, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which gave the world the Manhattan Project.

As with General Fusion, the physics behind EMC2's technology is remarkably simple and goes back to the 1950s. Inertial electrostatic confinement (IEC) employs a polygon, with the simplest design being a cube, and is an improvement on the Farnsworth-Hirsch fusor, the most basic demonstrator of nuclear fusion, present in most plasma physics laboratories. Instead of the normal inner grid of a fusor, a metal cage, an IEC creates a virtual cathode cage within the cube using electron guns.

Plasma can be injected into the centre of the cube, and at high pressure the magnetic field can trap electrons in a "wiffle ball" configuration, which can facilitate both the deuterium-tritium and the hydrogen-boron 11 reactions. EMC2's US Navy technical review reports, just made available under the Freedom of Information Act, suggest EMC2's attainment of the wiffle ball is "one of the most significant advances made in plasma physics and magnetic fusion over the past 50 years". EMC2 plans a net energy prototype within three years and hopes to have a commercial energy power plant within seven years after testing the prototype.

As the global climate crisis worsens, the actions of the leader of the G77, now 134 countries, will go down in history. The representing of members' economic interests and the coordination of member countries as a negotiating bloc is the main purpose of the G77 and the main concern of its chair. Global climate change will strip billions of dollars from the G77 members' economies. But, fusion will replace all the world's nuclear fission reactors and make medium-to-large coal power plants obsolete.

Thus, Thailand should work out a response to the possibilities these companies represent and invest in the technology itself. Instead of waiting for a UN Security Council seat to materialise, Thailand must prove it can help lead humanity's response to climate change and take responsibility for the world our children will grow up in. Only then will it prove itself worthy of a place on the council.


Reproduced courtesy the Bangkok Post. For the full column, which adds an image of a basic fusion reaction and the ability to comment on this story, see:

http://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/937073/forging-a-role-in-low-....

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