• Monday, July 15, 2024
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Nuclear fusion offers sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels

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Though it is 93 million miles away from the earth, in only 15 minutes, the sun radiates as much energy as people use in all forms in an entire year. Now scientists have found a way to replicate certain conditions found in the sun to generate massive amounts of energy, and oil producers are right to be jittery.

On December 13, scientists in the United States announced they had for the first time produced more energy in a fusion reaction than was used to ignite it—a major breakthrough in the quest to harness the power from the process that powers the sun.

Those who advocate for fusion hope it could one day displace fossil fuels and other traditional energy sources. The energy produced is supposed to be carbon-free, unlike dirty fossil fuels, and could power homes and factories.

Skeptics believe it is still the stuff of science fiction, perhaps decades away, but the breakthrough announcement marks a significant leap forward.

“It’s almost like a starting gun going off,” said professor Dennis Whyte, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a leader in fusion research. “We should be pushing towards making fusion energy systems available to tackle climate change and energy security.”

Instructively, many dismissed the announcement of shale oil as fantasy. Yet, it sounded the death knell for Nigeria’s oil in the American market.

How it works

Nuclear fusion reactions provide the energy for the sun and stars. In the core of the sun, hydrogen is being converted into helium. This is called nuclear fusion. It takes four hydrogen atoms to fuse into each helium atom. During the process, some of the mass is converted into energy.

In reality, though, the process is much more complex. According to an article by Washington University, the sun has different layers with different properties; these layers are composed of material that is about 75 percent hydrogen and 25 percent helium by mass.

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In essence, the sun is a massive ball of hot gas that glows at every level. In the very innermost part of the sun, called its core, the temperature is about 15 million Kelvin, the density is 150 times that of water, and the pressure is over 200 billion times greater than the atmospheric pressure here on Earth. This heavy, sweltering place is where the sun’s energy is produced via a process known as thermonuclear fusion.

These conditions are difficult to replicate on Earth because the temperatures are not high enough for hydrogen atoms to smash together and form helium nuclei, releasing huge amounts of energy in various forms. The sun’s intense heat (estimated at millions of degrees Celsius) and the pressure exerted by its gravity allow atoms that would otherwise repel each other to fuse.

It is the replication of this condition that makes the discovery a breakthrough after decades of failed attempts. According to the Department of Energy, current efforts focus on fusing a pair of hydrogen isotopes — deuterium and tritium — which release “much more energy than most fusion reactions” and require less heat to do so.

The reaction happens when two light nuclei merge to form a single heavier nucleus. Because the total mass of that single nucleus is less than the combined mass of the two original nuclei, the leftover mass is energy that is released in the process, according to the Department of Energy.

Scientists have long understood how nuclear fusion works and have been trying to duplicate the process on Earth since as far back as the 1930s. In 2022, they finally found a way.

Fusion occurs when hydrogen atoms collide with such force that they combine to form helium, releasing enormous amounts of energy and heat. Unlike other nuclear reactions, it doesn’t create radioactive waste.

While there may still be a long way to go to turn fusion into a usable power source, the researchers say the lab’s achievement makes them optimistic that someday, fusion could be the ideal power source that emits no carbon and runs on an abundant form of hydrogen that can be extracted from seawater.

One approach to fusion turns hydrogen into plasma, an electrically charged gas that is then controlled by huge magnets. This method is being explored in France in a collaboration among 35 countries called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, as well as by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a private company.

The future of oil

Soon after the discovery of nuclear fusion was made public, memes mocking panicked oil executives debuted on Twitter. Others began to share conspiracy theories about possible moves by the oil lobby to claw back financing for nuclear fusion research.

If the past is any indication, nuclear fusion’s potential to upend the current energy market cannot be wished away. The US Department of Energy (DOE) spent $92 million on research in the 1970s to encourage the production of domestic shale gas; today it is competitive.
With the help of the technological developments brought on by this investment, U.S. shale gas output has increased and now accounts for more than 8 billion cubic feet per day, or roughly 14% of the nation’s total dry natural gas production.

The DOE’s Energy Information Administration (EIA), projects that by 2035, shale gas will account for 45 percent of all natural gas produced in the United States.

Additionally, the EIA estimates that 827 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, or an increase of nearly 500 trillion cubic feet from earlier projections, may now be extracted from American shale deposits using currently available technology.

Analysts interviewed for this story say they see no immediate threat to oil markets for now, but note that the current shift towards cleaner energies spurred by climate concerns will attract funding to nuclear fusion and could cut back on the time required for commercial applications to be developed for the technology.

“For oil producers, the concern is whether nuclear will continue to shine as a major force in the energy transition,” said Etulan Adu, an oil and gas production engineer. “If yes, then oil producers should utilize the near term opportunity for oil and gas to power society.”

Some analysts say Nigeria and other oil producers, especially in Africa, whose natural resources have not translated to much value for their people should focus on extracting the best possible value before the era of fossil fuels passes.

“Nigeria and other African nations need to ramp up their oil and gas production, (utilizing energy sources they have a comparative advantage in) to be able to meet the growing demand for energy in Africa and to be able to improve the standard of living of their people,” said Olufola Wusu, partner and head of oil and gas at Megathos Law Practice.

This is the strategy employed by some of the world’s biggest oil producers, like Saudi Arabia. The oil rich kingdom is investing massively in petrochemicals, renewable energy, and technology to hedge against the risk of a world moving inexorably away from crude oil.