Thursday, November 23, 2006

Tech: Fusion and Australia's race against time

Where’s fusion at? It looks like the future lies with ITER. But don’t expect results soon.

Since Australia’s prime minister (John Howard) did an abrupt u-turn on climate change, he’s been suddenly, seriously, expounding nuclear [fission] power. It’s clean, it’s green and, due to global warming, it’s necessary.

Well, conventional nuclear power is none of those, given the exceedingly long half-life of the waste products and the propensity for disaster. There remains debate on whether fusion is clean and green(see this article for the power generation issues), but it’s certainly much safer – and has drastically shorter waste half-life – than fission.

Fusion is what the sun does. Energy is released through the fusion of lighter elements into heavier. Fission is the reverse: energy released through the breakup of heavier atoms into lighter. The break-even point sits around nickel or iron on the periodic table. For elements lighter than nickel, fusion releases energy while fission absorbs it. For heavier elements, it’s the other way around.

ITER is a consortium of major industrial nations’ search for fusion. Members are: the EU, US, Japan, Russia, China, India, and South Korea. They’ve just announced the facility will be situated in France, and take 30 years (!) to complete – 10 years for construction, and a further 20 years’ operation.

The membership of the consortium, and the timeframe, suggest it’s our best hope for fusion energy. Ideally, technological innovation would render solar power (and other renewable sources) sufficient for our energy needs.

As far as Australia goes, I see a four horse race: traditional, carbon intensive energy; conventional nuclear fission power, nuclear fusion power, and renewable sources (solar, wind, etc). All have their hurdles, with the best answers (the latter two) requiring further research and investment. But that’s where I’m putting my money. Renewable is a clear favourite, with fusion a dark horse at this point in our technological evolution.

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