x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Nuclear fusion may reward patience with a technological leapfrog

New energy technologies are often greeted by ridicule or wonder. Never has this been more true than with nuclear fusion.

New energy technologies are often greeted by ridicule or wonder. Never has this been more true than with nuclear fusion, used by the sun and billions of other stars to keep burning for millennia, which has eluded scientists for decades. To sceptics, the multibillion-dollar quest to reproduce the conditions at the heart of the sun is an expensive distraction. Nuclear fusion is, and always will be, 20 years from commercial use, they say.

But to its apologists, it represents a nirvana; almost limitless energy from abundantly available resources producing a low-level waste. Traditional nuclear reactors, based on splitting the atom, are in vogue today because they are carbon-free and produce huge amounts of power. But those who make it their business to plan our energy future say uranium supplies will run short in the end if, as expected, the whole world turns to this technology. And the radioactive waste produced by a huge scaling up of fission reactors would present an unacceptable legacy for future generations.

So you can see why Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California governor, was so excited when he inaugurated America's first fusion machine in his state last month. "I can see already my friends in Hollywood being very upset that their stuff that they show on the big screen is obsolete. We have the real stuff right here," he said. The National Ignition Facility, a giant laser that can generate a power surge equal to five million million 100-watt light bulbs, is not designed to produce commercial power from nuclear fusion but to give scientists a clearer picture of whether this will ever be possible.

Another reason why this US$3.5 billion (Dh12.85bn) machine has been completed is that it doubles as a testing machine for hundreds of nuclear weapons that lie in US military bases and have not been tested since a moratorium imposed in 1992. Such military applications of nuclear science go back to the origins of the science, before the Second World War. It was Albert Einstein, the nuclear physicist who explained the gigantic amounts of energy stored up in ordinary matter with his famous formula, who wrote to president Franklin D Roosevelt in 1939 explaining how research in German laboratories into atomic chain reactions could be harnessed for warfare.

In Europe today, there is an equally ambitious nuclear fusion project under way on a hillside in Provence, southern France. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is expected to cost seven countries $14bn, more than all the investment by Europe into other alternative energy technology put together. A 42-hectare platform has been cleared for the project, including its centrepiece, known as the Tokamak. This is a doughnut-shaped vessel where a few grams of two isotopes of hydrogen are heated to 150 million degrees Centigrade, pressurised and then blasted with a gigantic electrical current.

The resulting atomic chain reaction is expected to produce more electricity than is used to ignite it, the key to fusion technology, generating heat to drive a turbine for power. The project is already years behind schedule and billions over budget, and the whole thing has been scaled back recently in the hope of achieving something approaching a "result" by 2025. After the appointment of Stephen Chu, another nuclear physicist, as energy secretary in Washington, this type of research will only get bigger, not least because of the $40bn assigned to renewable energy from America's federal "stimulus package".

While this column has applauded the UAE's efforts to exploit nuclear technology to meet its power needs and to invest in other alternatives with a view to preparing for an age after oil, fusion research is one area where the Emirates has probably done well to steer clear, at least for now. As the expected nuclear power programme of the Emirates demonstrates, there is much to be said for emerging economies leapfrogging experimental phases and deploying reliable, mature technologies to feed their development. ITER and the Californian ignition facility might give these advanced economies valuable lessons on the prospects for fusion technology, but they could also turn out to be time-wasters. After all, many scientists believe that a new generation of fission reactor will be the likely successor to the light water reactors under consideration by the Emirates.

Just as the Emirates now stands ready to benefit from five decades of nuclear energy research and build the world's most modern fleet of reactors, it also stands to gain from the experience of others in fusion technology. Perhaps in decades from now, when hundreds of Emirati nuclear physicists are operating a fleet of reactors along the coast of Abu Dhabi's western region, the Emirates might begin to indulge in such dreams of its own. tashby@thenational.ae