Asia’s now in the game with both China and Korea vying for a stake in the emergence of the fusion energy industry. They join Japan in perhaps the biggest energy play in history estimated by some at $300T. And while they started late, they are well-heeled and aggressive. Elsewhere an international consortium is betting billions on magnetic fusion in the ITER project located in Europe. The USA is advancing in laser fusion R&D at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and other countries have advanced plans for fusion energy using lasers.
Why the abrupt increase in interest? We asked Allan Offenberger and Perry Kinkaide, co-chairs of the Alberta/Canada Fusion Energy Program, “What’s new? The promise of fusion has been around before? Why the elevated interest and investment?” Here’s what they’ve told us.
Last year the Alberta Council of Technologies (ABCtech), with support from Alberta Energy, the University of Alberta, and Stantec sent a team led by Allan Offenberger – Professor Emeritus, along with Robert Fedosejevs – University of Alberta professor, and Klaas Rodenburg – Stantec business developer, to visit the major fusion research programs in Asia, Europe, and the USA. The visits were followed by meetings arranged by ABCtech with Alberta industry in Calgary and Edmonton and an international forum held at Alberta Innovates Technology Futures.
The programs visited are national responses to several converging challenges, challenges that are forcing governments to look for energy alternatives. Some of the problems are external, like the universal appreciation of climate change and the need to replace coal-fired power plants. And there are the seemingly never-ending geopolitical uncertainties with supply, the distribution issues with oil and gas and the issues of security with fission. The issues are universal, growing in significance, and well-publicized.
At the same time there is a growing realization that the demand for energy is continuing to rise, with no end in sight. As an option, we see increased interest in clean tech alternatives like wind, solar, and geothermal, but while desirable, they do not offer a universal solution to meet overall demand. Fission can meet base load electricity demand but current technology relies on a diminishing resource of U235 fuel. Fuel breeding will be required for long term nuclear fission. In an era of impact due to climate-change, many no longer speak of “peak-oil”, but rather of a post-carbon economy.
What’s left? That leaves fusion – creating a sun on Earth. But the engineering is elusive, or at least has been. And there is no shortage of skeptics – not so much with the science, but with the engineering.
The funding required to understand and achieve fusion ignition is significant and continues to be largely public. In fact, major progress has been achieved in fusion science, computer modelling and enabling technologies. And as noted above, virtually every industrialized country has or is developing a national program – with the exception of Canada. Recent advances at LLNL are promising as they get closer to achieving ignition and a sustainable burn using lasers.
Why Alberta? Why Canada? As demonstrated in ABCtech’s recent study – accessible at www.ABCtech.ca/Energy-distribution – those nations with a fusion energy research program are wanting Canada involved. Canada has a regulatory framework that anticipates fusion enabling Canada to be an early adopter. A/CFEP has the nucleus of a fusion energy leadership team. And, Alberta has a problem that fusion could solve. Oil sands production requires enormous quantities of natural gas to generate the heat necessary for steam extraction through SAGD and as a source of hydrogen for upgrading bitumen to a usable form. Fusion as a source of heat, would reduce the carbon footprint of the oil sands to everyone’s delight and when converted to steam, fusion also serves as a source of electric power. All this is good news for Alberta in the intermediate term, and with adequate planning would enable Alberta and Canada to sustain a leadership position in energy through the transition to a post-carbon economy. Also, by anticipating fusion, we are able to capitalize spin-off industries contributing to diversification – a win-win all around.
What’s Next? The Alberta Council of Technologies with the support of the A/CFEP has proposed the Alberta Government establish a Fusion Energy Directorate to prepare for a fusion energy future. The Directorate would serve to build the team, secure the relationships and demonstration facilities and set in motion the various initiatives for Alberta and Canada to lead the world in fusion energy.
The race is on. Does Alberta, Canada want in?
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