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Watt's Happening: Is it too late for fusion?

Fusion energy: safe nuclear energy without deadly nuclear waste, the same carbon-free forever energy that powers the Sun. Can we make it work here on Earth?
Universal Hydrogen’s Dash 8 testbed hydrogen fueled aircraft has been recently approved for test flights this month. Green hydrogen, made by electrolyzing water with renewable electricity from the sun or wind, rounds out the world’s renewable energy portfolio with a powerful zero emission liquid fuel.

Since the 1970s, this fusion dream has been powered by billions of dollars of research and development with repeated promises that is it “just a decade away.” Unfortunately, progress towards this unlimited energy technology has been agonizingly slow.

That’s because to get the fusion reaction to happen, we have to create a temperature of some 100 million degrees at immense pressures, and sustain that temperature in a controlled environment. The ultra high temperature plasma that is formed has to be contained in a “magnetic bottle” so it essentially touches nothing. Tricky.

Our efforts to date have meant putting much more energy into the system that we are getting out.

There was, however, a recent brief breakthrough, when for the first time a bit more fusion energy was produced than was needed to produce it, but that lasted for only a fraction of a second. To run the reaction continuously as a viable energy source, most experts expect nothing truly useful until at least the 2030s, but more likely the 40s or 50s — always “just a decade away.” Well, we’ll see.

Fusion in the sky

Meanwhile, that great fusion reactor in the sky, our sun, continues pouring free unlimited safe energy on our planet every day, just as it has since the Earth was born some 3 billion years ago. Each hour the sun drops on us enough energy to give all the power we need for a year.

The price for converting this solar energy to electricity has fallen by about 90% since 2010. Solar in many places is now cheaper than burning coal or gas for electricity.

That’s part of the reason both solar and wind (the moving air of wind is powered by solar energy too!) have been growing exponentially (that means almost doubling every two years or so) with no end in sight, while both get cheaper and better every year.

The other motivation for this amazingly rapid worldwide adoption is climate change. While solar and wind happily operate, converting wind and sunshine directly to electricity, they produce essentially no pollution or carbon emissions, and they are quiet, simple and safe.

And distributed: most everybody has some wind and/or solar, so they are widely available and will run, without fuel or pollution, as long as the sun continues to shine.

First green hydrogen

For a zero emission liquid fuel, (needed to power things like long distance air travel, where electric batteries don’t quite make the grade) all we need is that solar/wind energy and some water.

Pass electricity through water and the water breaks down into its two constituent elements: hydrogen and oxygen. Capture the hydrogen and compress it, and you have a high-energy liquid that will have no problem replacing jet fuel, for instance.

If that electricity comes from solar panels or wind turbines, then you have “green hydrogen” an ultra-green liquid fuel for heating, cooling, air and ground transportation and fertilizer production. Germany will take all the green hydrogen we can make.

The green hydrogen is converted to liquid ammonia by combining it with atmospheric nitrogen. It is shipped as ammonia, then converted back to hydrogen for fuel, or left as ammonia for fertilizer.

Nova Scotia leads

Nova Scotia will be hosting North America’s first commercial scale green hydrogen facility. That is really good news for the planet, for Canada, and for Nova Scotia.

EverWind Fuels has just been approved to convert a former oil storage facility and marine terminal at Point Tupper in Nova Scotia into a $6-billion green hydrogen and ammonia production hub, the first in North America. Germany can hardly wait.

The plant should be making 1 million tonnes of green hydrogen by 2027, powered by a 2,000 megawatt solar and wind facility built nearby, capitalizing on Nova Scotia’s world class wind and solar resources, which until now have sat essentially untapped.

So it may be too late for fusion on Earth. By the time it becomes possible and then practical, we just won’t need it anymore. Instead we’ve got that big fusion reactor in the sky.

Don Pettit lives and writes in Dawson Creek

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