Fusion Technology Is Reaching a Turning Point That Could Change The Energy Game

 (dani3315/iStock/Getty Images)

Our society faces the grand challenge of providing sustainable, secure, and affordable means of generating energy while trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to net zero around 2050. To date, developments in fusion power, which potentially ticks all these boxes, have been funded almost exclusively by the public sector. However, something is changing.sion


Private equity investment in the global fusion industry has more than doubled in just one year – from US$2.1 billion in 2021 to US$4.7 billion in 2022, according to a survey from the Fusion Industry Association.

So, what is driving this recent change? There’s lots to be excited about.Before we explore that, let’s take a quick detour to recap what fusion power is.

Merging atoms together

Fusion works the same way our Sun does, by merging two heavy hydrogen atoms under extreme heat and pressure to release vast amounts of energy.It’s the opposite of the fission process used by nuclear power plants, in which atoms are split to release large amounts of energy.

Sustaining nuclear fusion at scale has the potential to produce a safe, clean, almost inexhaustible power source. Our Sun sustains fusion at its core with a plasma of charged particles at around 15 million degrees Celsius. Down on Earth, we are aiming for hundreds of millions of degrees Celsius, because we don’t have the enormous mass of the Sun compressing the fuel down for us.

Scientists and engineers have worked out several designs for how we might achieve this, but most fusion reactors use strong magnetic fields to “bottle” and confine the hot plasma.

Generally, the main challenge to overcome on our road to commercial fusion power is to provide environments that can contain the intense burning plasma needed to produce a fusion reaction that is self-sustaining, producing more energy than was needed to get it started.

Joining the public and private

Fusion development has been progressing since the 1950s. Most of it was driven by government funding for fundamental science. Now, a growing number of private fusion companies around the world are forging ahead toward commercial fusion energy. A change in government attitudes has been crucial to this.

The US and UK governments are fostering public-private partnerships to complement their strategic research programs.For example, the White House recently announced it would develop a “bold decadal vision for commercial fusion energy“.

In the United Kingdom, the government has invested in a program aimed at connecting a fusion generator to the national electricity grid.

The technology has actually advanced, too

In addition to public-private resourcing, the technologies we need for fusion plants have come along in leaps and bounds.

In 2021, MIT scientists and Commonwealth Fusion Systems developed a record-breaking magnet that will allow them to build a compact fusion device called SPARC “that is substantially smaller, lower cost, and on a faster timeline”.

In recent years, several fusion experiments have also reached the all-important milestone of sustaining plasma temperatures of 100 million degrees Celsius or above. These include the EAST experiment in China, Korea’s flagship experiment KSTAR, and UK-based company Tokamak Energy.

These incredible feats demonstrate an unprecedented ability to replicate conditions found inside our Sun and keep extremely hot plasma trapped long enough to encourage fusion to occur. In February, the Joint European Torus – the world’s most powerful operational tokamak – announced world-record energy confinement.

And the next-step fusion energy experiment to demonstrate net power gain, ITER, is under construction in France and now about 80 percent complete. Magnets aren’t the only path to fusion, either. In November 2021, the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California achieved a historic step forward for inertial confinement fusion.

By focusing nearly 200 powerful lasers to confine and compress a target the size of a pencil’s eraser, they produced a small fusion “hot spot” generating fusion energy over a short time period. In Australia, a company called HB11 is developing proton-boron fusion technology through a combination of high-powered lasers and magnetic fields.

Fusion and renewables can go hand in hand

It is crucial that investment in fusion is not at the cost of other forms of renewable energy and the transition away from fossil fuels. We can afford to expand adoption of current renewable energy technology like solar, wind, and pumped hydro while also developing next-generation solutions for electricity production.

This exact strategy was outlined recently by the United States in its Net-Zero Game Changers Initiative. In this plan, resource investment will be targeted to developing a path to rapid decarbonization in parallel with the commercial development of fusion.

History shows us that incredible scientific and engineering progress is possible when we work together with the right resources – the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines is just one recent example.

It is clear many scientists, engineers, and now governments and private investors (and even fashion designers) have decided fusion energy is a solution worth pursuing, not a pipe dream. Right now, it’s the best shot we’ve yet had to make fusion power a viable reality.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

By: Nathan Garland & Matthew Hole, The Conversation

Nathan Garland, Lecturer in Applied Mathematics and Physics, Griffith University and Matthew Hole, Senior Research Fellow, Mathematical Sciences Institute, Australian National University

Source: Fusion Technology Is Reaching a Turning Point That Could Change The Energy Game : ScienceAlert


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Ukraine And The Financial Markets: The Winners And Losers So Far

It’s two weeks since the world woke up to the dreadful news of a Russian attack to Ukraine. Notwithstanding the incalculable costs in terms of human lives, as well as human capital and physical infrastructure, we’ve seen much turbulence in the financial markets. So what has happened so far?

Since markets tend to react to geopolitical risks, US Federal Reserve economists Dario Caldara and Matteo Iacoviello recently built a geopolitical risk index (GPR) to be able to compare events at different points in time. It is based on real-time reports in the news of war threats, terror threats, military build-ups, nuclear threats, acts of terror, beginnings of war and escalations.You can see below their plot of the daily data, which dates back nearly 40 years. The most remarkable spikes capture the 1991 Gulf war, 9/11, the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, the London bombings of July 2005, and now the Ukraine invasion. For those looking for some kind of consolation right now, the index reckons that we are still not close to the level of geopolitical risk that we saw in the aftermath of 9/11.

The geopolitical risk index

High geopolitical risk has been shown to increase investors’ uncertainty, prompting declines in stock prices and other financial assets. The link with stock market uncertainty is particularly clear in the graph below, which compares the GPR to the VIX indicator of stock market volatility, which is sometimes referred to as the “investors’ fear gauge”.

The GPR daily is in orange, while there are two other versions that track risk of threat (red) and geopolitical acts (green). Essentially they have all been moving in the same direction, with the red risk line leading the way.

As you can see, both these lines and the VIX rose in November after satellite imagery first showed build-ups of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. Other peaks correspond to January 26, which was the date of Nato’s written response to the Russians, and the start of the invasion on February 24.

Geopolitical risk vs stock market volatility

Energy markets, and oil in particular, react to geopolitical risk at the best of times. And given Russia’s huge importance as an oil exporter, energy prices have been particularly affected by this war. Brent crude is currently trading at around US$116 (£88) per barrel, having risen over US$130 a couple of days ago. This will impact everything from firms’ cash flows to consumer petrol prices, creating inflationary pressure that helps to bring about recessions.

Because Russia and Ukraine are also major exporters of many other important commodities such as wheat, neon gas, palladium and sunflower oil, their prices have been soaring too – and they’re destined to keep increasing due to western sanctions.

Commodity and asset prices compared since invasion

On the other hand, safe havens in times of volatility have been doing well. The price of gold is up again after its remarkable uptick in the early months of the pandemic. Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have the potential to benefit since they are a possible vehicle for Russians to circumvent sanctions, but they have been more subdued lately.

Stock Market

The response of stock markets to the war is more complex, given that different markets have more or less exposure to different commodities than others. They also have different levels of exposure to the Russian stock market (which remains closed after plunging together with the rouble following the invasion).According to our calculations from data that dates back to 1985, European countries are more correlated to the Russian market and therefore more vulnerable.

For example, France, Germany and the UK have a 0.45, 0.42 and 0.47 correlation with Russia, where 1 would mean they moved in lockstep and 0 that they did not influence each other at all.The US, on the other hand, has an 0.26 correlation, while China’s, interestingly, is just 0.1. This all broadly corresponds to how different stork markets have performed since the invasion, as you can see below.

Stock markets compared

Finally, what about different types of companies? As you can see below in this breakdown of US players, different sectors have performed quite differently in the early stages of this crisis. The black line is the S&P 500, so those below have underperformed and those above have done better.Energy companies have been doing very well, for example (as have weapons makers).

Companies that either sell consumer staples or consumer products that are more discretionary, ranging from hifi equipment to cinema tickets, have been losing out amid fears that they will have less to spend because of commodity inflation.

We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that some sectors are simply going to benefit from the war, however. There can be short-run winners, but the interconnectedness of economies, the burden of sanctions and the costs of increased uncertainty will eventually bite all markets. It’s going to affect household budgets, wages and also pensions – regardless of the final outcome, which remains largely unpredictable.

By: Senior Lecturer in Economics, Keele University Senior Lecturer in Economics, University of the West of England & Senior Lecturer in Macroeconomics, University of Portsmouth

Source: Ukraine and the financial markets: the winners and losers so far



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Russian Seizure of Ukraine Nuclear Plant Sparks Worries About Radiation

Russia’s seizure of a Ukrainian nuclear power plant has raised fears about access to data, atomic experts said, although they stressed they did not see immediate radiological risks and a U.N. watchdog said its reactors were undamaged.

Russian forces captured the Zaporizhzhia plant – Europe’s largest – after attacking it in the early hours of Friday, setting an adjacent five-storey training facility on fire

Russian forces captured the Zaporizhzhia plant – Europe’s largest – after attacking it in the early hours of Friday, setting an adjacent five-storey training facility on fire, Ukrainian authorities said. Russia has blamed the attack on the plant on Ukrainian saboteurs.

In a press conference on Friday, Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) chief Rafael Grossi said no damage had been done to the Zaporozhzhia reactors and Ukrainian staff continued to operate the nuclear facilities while Russian forces controlled the area.

The monitoring system at the site was functioning normally and there had been no release of radioactive material, Grossi said.

Park Jong-woon, a professor at the energy and electric engineering department of Dongguk University, said he did not think there was an immediate radiological threat posed by the plant’s seizure, but added Russia could disrupt public access to data to sow confusion.

“They can make people wonder, freak them out and spread fear,” said Park, who worked at state-run power operators between 1996 and 2009, helping build nuclear reactors.

The fire at the Zaporizhzhia facility has since been extinguished but it had raised “a very real concern” about the potential for disaster, Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington D.C., said.

“For example, the prospect of a widespread fire, although that appears not to be the case, could disable the plant’s electrical systems and lead to an event very much like Fukushima if cooling is not restored in time,” he said.

More broadly, experts expressed worries about access to real time data necessary for gauging the radiation situation on the ground.

The official website for radiation readings at the Zaporizhzhia site was not immediately accessible as of Friday afternoon, Lyman said.

Since last week’s takeover by Russian forces of Chernobyl – the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster and now a defunct power plant – monitoring of radiation levels there has been more difficult, according to Kenji Nanba, who heads Fukushima University’s Institute of Environmental Radioactivity and has been involved in a joint research project with Ukrainian scientists.

He said an official Ukrainian website with hourly radiation measurements from Chernobyl’s exclusion zone had been down for days and that another site had gradually lost most of its real-time readings.

Although the damaged Chernobyl reactor is stable and is covered under a large new containment structure, Nanba said it was still crucial for researchers like himself to track radiation data at the site to make sure there were no sudden changes.

Elevated radiation readings were recorded near Chernobyl after it was taken over by Russian forces last week, but experts say those were most likely caused by military activity that kicked up irradiated dirt and earth into the air.

The fourth reactor at Chernobyl exploded in April 1986 during a botched safety test, sending clouds of radiation billowing across much of Estimates for the numbers of direct and indirect deaths from the disaster vary from the low thousands to as many as 93,000 extra cancer deaths worldwide.

Source: Russian seizure of Ukraine nuclear plant sparks worries about radiation | Business Standard News


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Can Germany Show Us How to Leave Coal Behind?

In late September, just before the German parliamentary elections, the Alternative für Deutschland held a large campaign rally in Görlitz, a picturesque city of about fifty-six thousand people across the Neisse River from Poland. I was making my way down a narrow street toward the rally when I entered a square that had been dressed up as Berlin circa 1930, complete with wooden carts, street urchins, and a large poster of Hitler.

Görlitz, which was barely damaged in the Second World War, often stands in for prewar Europe in movies and TV shows. (“Babylon Berlin,” “Inglourious Basterds,” and other productions have filmed scenes there.) It was a startling sight nonetheless, especially since, a few hundred yards away, a crowd was gathering for the AfD, the far-right party whose incendiary rhetoric about foreign migrants invading Germany has raised alarms in a country vigilant about the resurgence of the radical right.

In fact, at the rally, the rhetoric about foreigners from the AfD’s top national candidate, Tino Chrupalla, was relatively mild. Germany’s general success with handling the wave of more than a million refugees and migrants who arrived in the country starting in 2015 has helped undermine the Party’s central platform.

Chrupalla moved on from migrants to other topics: the threat of coronavirus-vaccination mandates for schoolchildren, the plight of small businesses, and the country’s desire to stop burning coal, which provides more than a quarter of its electricity, a greater share even than in the United States.

Coal has particular resonance in the area around Görlitz, one of the country’s two large remaining mining regions. Germany’s coal-exit plan, which was passed in 2020, includes billions of euros in compensation for the coal regions, to help transform their economies, but there are reports that some of the money has been allocated to frivolous-sounding projects far from the towns most dependent on mining.

Chrupalla, who is from the area, listed some of these in a mocking tone and told the crowd that the region was being betrayed by the government, just as it had been after German reunification, when millions in the former East Germany lost their jobs, leading many to abandon home for the West. “We are being deceived again, like after 1990,” he said.

Such language was eerily familiar. For years, I had been reporting on American coal country, where the industry’s decades-long decline has spurred economic hardship and political resentment. In West Virginia, fewer than fifteen thousand people now work in coal mining, down from more than a hundred thousand in the nineteen-fifties.

The state is the only one that has fewer residents than it did seventy years ago, when the U.S. had a population less than half its current size—a statistic that is unlikely to surprise anyone who has visited half-abandoned towns such as Logan, Oceana, and Pineville.

Accompanying the decline has been a dramatic political shift: a longtime Democratic stronghold, West Virginia was one of only ten states to vote for Michael Dukakis, in 1988; in 2020, it provided Donald Trump with his second-largest margin of victory, after Wyoming, which also happens to be the country’s largest coal producer, ahead of West Virginia.

The statistics are strikingly similar in Lusatia, the coal-mining region that stretches north of Görlitz along the Polish border, straddling the states of Brandenburg and Saxony, about ninety miles southeast of Berlin. Since 1990, employment at coal mines and power plants has plunged from eighty thousand to less than eight thousand, and the region’s population has fallen sharply, too.

Hoyerswerda, in the heart of the area, has lost more than half of its seventy thousand inhabitants, leaving a constellation of vacant Eastern Bloc high-rises; Cottbus, the region’s largest city, has dropped from roughly a hundred and thirty thousand people, just before the Berlin Wall fell, to less than a hundred thousand. And the rightward shift visible in West Virginia has happened here, too: along with the rest of eastern Saxony, Lusatia is the AfD’s stronghold, with the Party capturing more than a third of the vote in some towns.

But there’s one crucial difference between the two places. As part of its Energiewende, or energy pivot, Germany has embarked on a formal effort to exit coal, with a national commission and subsequent legislation setting specific closure deadlines for mines and plants, and distributing billions of euros in compensation to coal companies, workers, and the regions themselves. In the U.S., the coal exit has been haphazard.

Federal attempts to move beyond coal went dormant under President Donald Trump, and under President Joe Biden they are now running up against the opposition of Senator Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who holds both the crucial fiftieth vote in the Senate and a stake in a family coal business that earned him nearly five hundred thousand dollars in 2020.

To the extent that the country has reduced its coal usage, it has been driven mostly by the profusion of cheap natural gas. The effort to provide solutions to the social and economic fallout for coal regions has been limited to fledgling projects, such as a working group that Biden convened last year to identify communities in need and funding opportunities for them to pursue.

This contrast was what brought me to Lusatia. The German coal exit has assumed outsized symbolic importance in a world that desperately needs to reduce carbon emissions: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that we need to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2050 in order to have any hope of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Burning coal for electricity represented nearly a third of all energy-related carbon emissions—the world’s single largest source—in 2018, and the International Energy Agency believes that global consumption of coal power reached record levels last year. In the absence of leadership from the U.S., Germany is seeking to show how a major manufacturing power can reduce its reliance on coal without causing too much economic damage or political backlash. A lot is riding on whether the country can pull it off.

“God created Lusatia, and the Devil buried brown coal underneath it.” This saying is credited to the Sorbs, the ethnic Slavic people who have lived in the region—die Lausitz—since the sixth century. The land was swampy, and the area remained relatively impoverished, with the exception of the cities at its southern end, Görlitz and Bautzen, which flourished as market hubs on one of Central Europe’s primary east-west trade routes.

Everything changed after the discovery of the brown coal, in the late eighteenth century. Brown coal, or lignite, is sedimentary rock that is less compressed than typical bituminous coal. Lignite is softer, closer to peat in carbon’s geological arc. It’s also even dirtier to burn than bituminous coal, and emits even more carbon.

Because lignite sits closer to the surface than bituminous coal, workers don’t need to dig deep shafts and tunnels. Instead, they use the open-cast method, excavating the clay and sand that lie above the lignite seam. This is safer than sending workers deep underground.

But it requires removing everything that stands in the way, and in densely settled Central Europe that means demolishing villages—Braunkohle mining has led to the destruction of hundreds of communities in Germany. Once the mines are exhausted, they are either flooded to become lakes or levelled off with fill, which often leaves the land unusable for farming and in some cases even too unstable to walk on. “No entry” signs dot the local woods.

Open-cast mining started in Lusatia around 1900, and, in the decades that followed, the villages targeted for destruction tended to be Sorbian. The new industry brought a wave of workers to the area, mostly ethnic Germans, and a prosperity that it hadn’t known before. Lusatia produced coal briquettes that warmed homes, and the fuel that lit the streets of Berlin and powered factories in Chemnitz and Dresden. The German word for miner has a noble connotation: Bergmann—literally, “mountain man.”

Brown coal is found in western Germany, too, near Cologne. But there it was long overshadowed by the much larger sprawl of bituminous mines in the Ruhr region, just to the north. These mines transformed the area into Germany’s great industrial powerhouse, a vast urban agglomeration home to Essen, Dortmund, and other manufacturing cities.

Germany’s coal riches were integral to the new nation’s rise in the late nineteenth century, to the war machine that sustained it through two horrific conflicts, and to West Germany’s rebound in the nineteen-fifties, after which the region’s bituminous mining became less competitive with imported coal. In 2018, mining of bituminous coal in Germany was shut down for good.

In the coal regions of the former East Germany—Lusatia and a second region, near Leipzig, which has seen employment decline even more precipitously—the cultural and economic hold of coal persists. Braunkohle was the German Democratic Republic’s only major energy resource—it had almost no oil or bituminous coal—so the country opened several dozen open-cast mines in the postwar decades, destroying many more villages in the process.

It built high-rise apartment towers in the larger towns to relocate people from the destroyed villages and to house mine workers. It gave these workers preferential pension payments and exalted them as paragons of the “workers’ and farmers’ state,” as the country’s leaders called the G.D.R. “Being a miner meant something,” a retired excavator operator, Monika Miertsch, told me.

A former electrical engineer in Cottbus recalled that, when he was a child in the G.D.R., his teachers endlessly told students that their small nation produced more brown coal than any other country in the world. Christian Hoffmann, a naturalist who grew up in Weisswasser, in Lusatia, said that people would snap to attention whenever a band started playing the coal-miner anthem, “Steigerlied.”

The industry permeated local life. The soccer team in Cottbus is named Energie. Regional artists put Braunkohle mines on canvas—a museum in Cottbus recently held a retrospective of the work. One of East Germany’s best-known singer-songwriters, its Bob Dylan, was an excavator operator from Hoyerswerda named Gerhard Gundermann, who kept working in the giant pits even as his musical career blossomed.

After my first visits to Lusatia, which is now home to slightly more than a million people, the dominance of Braunkohle started to seem overwhelming. It was as if everyone was working for the industry or had lost his or her family’s village to it, or both—which helped explain why some residents weren’t too upset about the latter. It made for an especially stark manifestation of the trade-off between the coal-based development of the modern world and the environmental costs that came with it.

“They knew that it gave work. They accepted it,” Hannelore Wodtke, a member of the town council in Welzow, said when we met. We were in Proschim, a village that she helped save from a planned expansion of the Welzow-Süd mine, two years ago. “Through coal, people did earn well. And that’s why it looks pretty good around here.”

One Saturday, I accompanied a group into the Welzow-Süd mine, on a tour offered by the owner of all the Lusatian mines, a Czech-controlled company called LEAG. We started at an outlook above the mine, a vast barren moonscape stretching to the horizon, four miles across, and then a bus took us down a long winding dirt road, pausing to let us admire giant excavators—more than six hundred feet long, among the largest machines in the world—that would resume work on Monday morning.

At last, we arrived at a seam of brown coal, about three hundred feet underground. A guide handed out plastic bags and encouraged us to pick up chunks as souvenirs. Some pieces were so soft or ragged that they resembled old wood or caked mud. It was hard to believe that this rudimentary stuff was still powering one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

I recalled a similar moment, years earlier, when I was far belowground, in a mine in southern Illinois, watching workers shear bituminous coal off a seam at the end of a three-and-a-half-mile tunnel. It had seemed unbelievably archaic at the time—men tossed hunks of black rock onto a conveyor belt so that we could power our laptops and cell phones.

The giant hole in Lusatia seemed even more unfathomable: machines had destroyed villages, and then larger machines had dug into the fossilized past for three-hundred-million-year-old carbon with which to fuel yet other machines, our daily life.

“Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes different people inhabit,” George Orwell wrote in “The Road to Wigan Pier,” his 1937 account from the North of England. “Down there where coal is dug it is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about.

Probably a majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above. . . . Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.”

That quality of not wanting to hear about the mining of coal, the reluctance of those in far-removed cities to make the connection between their world and that other one, provoked much of the resentment in the producing regions of the U.S.

“This country benefitted from having the cheapest electricity in the world,” Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, told me in New York in July, after a rally of current and retired miners on behalf of striking Warrior Met Coal workers, in Alabama. “So what are we going to do with these communities?”

I heard a similar sentiment from miners in Germany. “If we really shut down now, then Berlin will have no more electricity,” Toralf Smith, a leading representative for power-plant workers in Lusatia, told me. “And I’d like to see how it goes at the universities in Berlin when the toilets don’t function and the cell phones don’t function and the Internet doesn’t function.

When their lives don’t function. It’s a lack of respect. If we have to switch things over for the sake of climate politics, we won’t stand against that, but it can’t be done on our backs. It has to be done with us.”

In 2019, the sociologist Klaus Dörre, of the University of Jena, and a team of researchers interviewed dozens of coal workers in Lusatia about the region’s transition away from the industry. They found that workers keenly felt the loss of Anerkennung—recognition or esteem—that they and their forebears had enjoyed in East Germany.

The workers cited opprobrium like that from a Green Party state legislator in western Germany who tweeted a protest poster that read “Whether Nazis or coal, brown is always shit.” One worker told the researchers, “In [East German] times, we were the heroes of the nation—that’s what they always said. And now we’re the fools or evildoers of the nation, because we have to let ourselves be scolded as Nazis or murderers or polluters and I don’t know what else. And that hurts.”

When I visited Dörre in his office in Jena, he said that the overriding theme from the interviews was the lingering trauma of the economic dislocation after the collapse of the Wall, a period known as die Wende. “The story that was told to us was ‘We’re the survivors, from eighty thousand down to eight thousand. Now you’re all coming and want to give us a second Wende.’ ”

But his team also found that the workers were not necessarily all gravitating to the AfD as a result of their anger and anxiety. Organized labor still has a strong hold on the German coal industry, unlike in the U.S.; the national coal workers’ union is allied with the center-left Social Democratic Party, and has managed to keep many members from straying right.

Union leaders, as Dörre wrote in a report summarizing his research, hope that the region as a whole can also be kept from straying too much further right: “If you can manage to show that positive development is possible for the region, despite the coal exit, that would cut the ground out from under the AfD.”

In 2020, China built more than three times more new capacity for generating power from coal than the rest of the world combined. Last year, despite recurring pledges to start corralling carbon emissions, the country produced a record four billion tons of coal, up nearly five per cent from the year before.

Defenders of coal in Germany like to point to figures like this, along with the fact that Germany’s greenhouse-gas emissions constitute a mere two per cent of the global total. Why should Germany be putting its economy at risk for such relatively slight gains?

Such arguments have stood little chance against Germany’s vigorous climate-activism movement. Activists and energy analysts told me that the country bears a special responsibility to reduce emissions. As a major industrial power, it produced a significant share of historical emissions; as manufacturing has shifted to Asia, the nation’s consumers are relying on goods produced elsewhere, making them partly responsible for emissions there, too; and, as a wealthy nation, Germany has the resources to demonstrate a better path.

“It makes a huge difference if well-off, industrialized Germany manages to transition away to a different system that sustains its prosperity without causing massive emissions,” Benjamin Wehrmann, a Berlin-based correspondent for Clean Energy Wire, said. “Most people in the industry agree that its signalling effect is much larger than the actual effect.”

This exceptionalism has, however, complicated the effort to leave coal. Germany has long been home to a strong anti-nuclear movement, partly as a result of its fears of being caught in the middle of a Soviet-U.S. nuclear war. In 2000, the governing coalition of the Social Democrats and the Green Party, whose roots lay in anti-nuclear activism, agreed to phase out nuclear power.

Chancellor Angela Merkel reversed this stance in 2009, after her center-right Christian Democratic Union regained power, but in 2011, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, she announced that the country would close all seventeen of its nuclear power plants within eleven years. To replace the lost energy—nearly a quarter of the country’s load at the time—Germany would ramp up renewable energy. Thus the Energiewende accelerated.

Since then, the country has greatly expanded its wind and solar capacity. The dramatic shift toward renewables in a country of eighty-three million people helped drive down prices worldwide for wind and solar equipment, fulfilling the country’s self-conception as a market leader. (This plunge in prices came at a cost, though, as cheap Chinese solar panels put many German panel-makers out of business.)

But the expansion has slowed in recent years, owing to a combination of state-level restrictions on siting wind turbines, resistance to turbines and transmission lines among conservationists and local residents, and a reduction in subsidies for wind-power developers. In the first half of 2021, coal was back to providing more of the country’s electricity than wind.

Most experts estimate that, to meet its renewable-energy goals, Germany needs to quadruple its wind production, to the point where turbines cover two per cent of the country’s landscape. And Germany is already contending with some of the highest electricity prices in the world, a source of consternation for domestic manufacturers seeking to remain globally competitive.

This was the daunting context in which the government convened its commission for the coal exit—Kohleausstieg—in June, 2018. Germany’s per-capita carbon emissions were still significantly higher than the E.U. average. Activists were demanding a fast response—hundreds of them had, since 2012, occupied Hambach Forest, a patch of woods in western Germany that was threatened by the expansion of a brown-coal mine.

But the country needed to time the exit so that it could be assured of having enough power not only to replace both coal and nuclear energy but to add capacity, in order to handle the coming transition to electric-powered vehicles. (Tesla recently built a manufacturing plant outside Berlin.)

The thirty-one-member Commission on Growth, Structural Change, and Employment consisted of environmentalists and scientists, industry representatives and trade unionists, and residents and elected officials from the coal regions. It met regularly in Berlin and visited some coal towns. In January, 2019, after its final meeting, which ran until almost 5 A.M., it voted nearly unanimously in favor of a plan to exit coal by 2038.

In July, 2020, the Bundestag passed a law with closure dates for various mines and power plants, and specific sums for compensation: 4.4 billion euros for the power companies, five billion euros for older workers to retire a few years early (separate funds would cover younger workers while they looked for new jobs), and, most important, forty billion euros for the mining regions, to help them with their economic transformation, a process known as the Strukturwandel.

It was a remarkable achievement, an example of postwar Germany’s consensus politics. “At a fundamental level, that all these different branches of society were able to come together around a coal exit is very significant,” Ingrid Nestle, a Green member of the Bundestag, told me. Climate-change experts in the U.S. looked on with admiration.

“They got the environmental community, labor community, and business community together to hash it out,” Jeremy Richardson, an energy analyst and a West Virginia native formerly with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told me. “You have to get people together, and you have to invest.”

But it did not take long for the good feelings to fade. Environmental groups and Green Party leaders began arguing that the country needed to move up the exit date if it wanted to meet the European Union’s new, more ambitious goal of cutting emissions by fifty-five per cent from 1990 levels by 2030. In April, 2021, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the country’s existing climate efforts did not go far enough to stave off disaster.

And, in July, heavy rains caused devastating flooding in western Germany, near Belgium. The floods killed at least a hundred and eighty people and destroyed entire towns, drawing greater attention to the possible effects of climate change.

As the election to replace Merkel got under way during the summer, climate change was central. Having sat through countless American Presidential TV debates where the subject was barely mentioned—and where politicians couldn’t even agree on whether climate change is real—I was astonished to see it take up twenty minutes in each of the three German debates that I watched, and to see the candidates toss around Klimaneutralität and Kohleausstieg as if they were household terms.

The Social Democrats’ candidate for Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, agreed with his Green rival, Annalena Baerbock, on the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions. On Election Day, September 26th, the Social Democrats won more votes than Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats, putting them in a position to form a government with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats.

The AfD saw its nationwide numbers sag, but, in the coal towns of Lusatia and the nearby regions of eastern Saxony, the Party did even better than it had four years earlier.

I encountered an AfD voter at a wind-turbine factory in Lauchhammer, on the western edge of Lusatia. The Danish company Vestas had opened the plant in 2002, and it seemed to embody the ideals of the Energiewende: a century earlier, Lauchhammer had been home to one of the first brown-coal mines in the region, and now it was making the machinery of renewable power.

But, a week before the election, Vestas announced that it was shutting down the factory, a decision widely attributed to the slowing growth of wind power in Germany. It will lay off the plant’s four hundred and sixty employees early this year.

I arrived at the factory one weekday evening at dusk, and waited in a light rain in a parking lot. After a while, a young man emerged, headed for his car. Cornell Köllner, a genial thirty-one-year-old, had worked at the plant for five years as a mechanic, advancing to a supervisory role.

He enjoyed the work, and did not know what he would do next. The only other major employer in this part of Lusatia was B.A.S.F., the chemical company, which had a plant in nearby Schwarzheide that would soon be expanding into battery production. He could look for work outside the region, but he had recently bought a house, and he did not want to leave his family. “I’ve got to look for work here in the area,” he said.

The confounding nature of it all—shuttering a wind-turbine factory at a time when the country was supposedly ramping up renewable energy, and doing so in the region that was supposed to be targeted for extra assistance in managing the transition—had only confirmed for Köllner his preference for the AfD. “Not because of ‘Nazi,’ God forbid,” he said.

“But because AfD is proposing something completely different.” I pressed him on what, exactly, that was, what the Party would do to help Lusatia or people like him, but he stuck to generalities. “They would change things,” he said. “They would really change things.”

Reluctance to leave in search of work elsewhere was widespread in Germany. “We work where we live,” Klaus Emmerich, the chief worker representative at the Garzweiler mine, in the western region, told me. “Where we live, that is our Heimat”—the German word that expresses something stronger than just “home” or “home town.”

Again, the echo was strong from U.S. coal regions, where residents, especially younger ones, constantly wrestle with the question of whether to stay or go. “It’s just home,” John Arnett, a marine veteran who worked for a closing coal-fired plant in southern Ohio, told me, in 2018. “I’ve been a bunch of different places, different countries. I’ve been across the equator. And now this is where I want to be, or I’d have stayed somewhere else. It’s the most beautiful place in the world, these hills.”

The people who remained often took offense at the economist’s or the pundit’s counsel that the only thing to do for regions that had lost their former economic rationale was to give people a bus or plane ticket out. In the U.S., the rate of people moving across state lines has in fact dropped by half since the early nineties, a trend attributed to, among other things, the cost of living in higher-opportunity cities and the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family, which leaves people dependent on extended family for child care or elder care.

The stay-or-go question is particularly sensitive in eastern Germany, because of the flight of younger people that occurred in the years after reunification. Die Zeit estimates that 3.7 million people, a quarter of the population of the former G.D.R., eventually left. One night, at a tavern in Hoyerswerda, I talked with Jörg Müller, a fifty-six-year-old man who worked at the B.A.S.F. plant, making paint for German car companies, and who had in his youth done cleaning jobs at the mine where his father worked as an engineer.

Müller, who had brought up his children alone after his wife died young, of cancer, was worried about the impact that higher energy prices could have on B.A.S.F.’s prospects. But his main preoccupation was his grown children, who had left the area—one to study in Dresden, one to work in Kassel, in the former West Germany. I asked him how often he saw them. “Once or twice a year,” he said.

To coal’s opponents in Germany, such laments about home-town decline are undermined by the fact that the industry has been demolishing home towns for decades. The extent of the destruction is all the more striking in a culture that generally idealizes the village. Even amid all the devastation wrought by the coal industry in Appalachia—the mountaintop-removal mining, the coal-slurry spills—coal companies have not had to wipe entire towns off the map, as happens in Germany.

The week after the election, I travelled to the western brown-coal region, known as the Rhenish district, which has become the primary front for climate activists seeking to halt mining via direct action. They had succeeded in sparing Hambach Forest, and many had now moved to a new encampment, in a tiny hamlet called Lützerath that was on the verge of being claimed by the Garzweiler mine.

Part of the hamlet had already been demolished by R.W.E., the German energy company that owns all the western region’s mines and power plants, which employ about nine thousand people. The only villager still living in Lützerath was a fifty-six-year-old farmer who was fighting the company in court and had welcomed more than a hundred activists to set up camp on his property.

An R.W.E. spokesperson told me that the company “will continue to try to find an amicable solution with the landowner.” The spokesperson added that R.W.E. works closely with those affected by its plans and stands by its promises.

On October 1st, the day that the company was allowed to resume removing trees there, I cycled from the town of Erkelenz through fields of harvested sugar beets to reach Lützerath, where several dozen advocates had joined the occupiers to launch the defense. It made for a jarring juxtaposition:

There were the remaining trees around the hamlet, festooned with tree houses and anti-coal banners; a narrow strip where the advocates were arrayed to speak; and, behind them, a vast pit, with excavators churning away at the edge of it. “If Lützerath falls, then the 1.5-degree limit falls,” Pauline Brünger, an activist with the youth movement Fridays for Future, said. “It lies in our hands—1.5 degrees is nonnegotiable. Lützerath must stand.”

I wandered into the encampment, where activists were breaking down pallets to build huts and more tree houses while others held an orientation session for new arrivals. Many wore balaclavas to try to hide their identities; others wore covid masks that served the same function. When I took pictures, a young woman came over to stop me.

Suddenly, a cry went up from the entrance to the encampment: two large excavators were approaching the hamlet. A couple of dozen activists marched down the road to block them. One of the drivers climbed out, saying that he and his colleague were only doing land-reclamation work on the older portion of the mine, and were coming to park their equipment for the weekend. The activists refused to let him through. “Hey, have a lot of fun sitting!” he called out angrily as he reversed back down the road.

Soon afterward, two large pickups approached from the other direction, loaded with concrete blocks and metal fencing, and rolled into the main assemblage of protesters; they were bringing the materials for an added security perimeter, and had taken a wrong turn, right into the enemy camp.

The activists fell upon them and unloaded the blocks and fencing to build their own security perimeter, preventing access to one of the hamlet’s roads. The drivers sat helplessly in their cabs, watching the expropriation. Finally, a handful of police officers arrived and, after some cajoling, arranged for the materials to be returned and for the trucks to be allowed back out.

Nearby, five larger villages were also threatened with destruction by R.W.E. Most families had already sold their homes to the company and moved out, many of them to new developments on the outskirts of Erkelenz which had been built to house relocated families, and had even been named for the marked villages—Kuckum-Neu, Keyenberg-Neu, and so on.

Tina Dresen, twenty-one, and her family were still holding out in Kuckum, and she told me how strange it had been to grow up in the shadow of Garzweiler and to see other villages falling to the bulldozers, one by one. “On the right side of my home was the hole, and life ended there,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone who lived there, and the bus stopped driving there, and the villages were destroyed there. I lived only to the left.”

She told me that some of the vacant homes in Kuckum were being used to house families who had lost their homes to the recent flooding. The irony was overpowering: people rendered homeless by a disaster likely exacerbated by climate change were now living in homes made available by the looming displacement of the coal mining that was contributing to climate change.

That evening, I rode my bike to Kuckum and found one of the displaced families. Anja Kassenpecher had been relocated to the village with her son, four cats, and two dogs, after the flooding destroyed her beloved half-timber house in the town of Ahrweiler. “What happened in the flood catastrophe, that was nature, and one couldn’t do anything against that,” she said. “But the dismantling of the coal here, one could do something about that.”

In 1945, the victorious Russians removed a thirty-kilometre stretch of rail between Cottbus and the town of Lübbenau, to take back to the Soviet Union, one of many such claims made throughout eastern Germany. The rails were never replaced, and the single track in that stretch has meant that trains run between Cottbus and Berlin only once an hour—less than ideal by German standards. Part of the Strukturwandel’s forty billion euros will be used to replace the missing track.

But, toward the end of 2021, reports kept appearing in the local and national media of the questionable ways other portions of the fund were being put to use by federal agencies and by the obscure provincial councils that were overseeing much of the spending: a techno festival, a zoo, new streetcars in Görlitz.

Coal defenders and opponents alike told me how wrong they thought it was to spend three hundred and ten million euros on a new branch of Germany’s public-health agency in an exurb of Berlin sixty miles from Cottbus, or millions more on the renovation of a cultural center in a town thirty miles from Dresden, far from the coal towns.

In November, eleven mayors met to express their frustration with the spending decisions and to demand that communities closest to the coal mines get more of a say. “If it goes on like this, the pot will be empty,” Tristan Mühl, the mayor of the village of Krauschwitz, told me afterward. “The perspective of the community is missing.”

Part of the challenge for the appropriators was structural: under European Union rules, they were forbidden to use the money to subsidize new or existing businesses in the region. Instead, the discussion was of funding research institutes for renewable energy, including innovations in hydrogen power, that might eventually lead to job creation.

René Schuster, a Cottbus-based representative of the environmental group Grüne Liga, told me that it was doubtful whether such ventures would ever come close to replacing the jobs that would vanish in the coal exit. “I doubt you’re going to get a boom in new jobs that will replace what you’re losing from coal,” he said. “That you’re going to get seven thousand jobs, that’s not going to happen.”

But it was still wrong to think of the coal jobs as somehow sacrosanct, he added. “It’s often discussed as if coal workers have a fundamental right to their job. There’s no right to an income. You have a fundamental right to your property. Whoever gets relocated, their property rights are being encroached on. But whoever wants to live off that relocation, well, they have no fundamental right to that.”

After the election, Olaf Scholz and his counterparts in the Greens and the Free Democrats began negotiating the coal-exit terms for their coalition pact, including whether to move the 2038 date to 2030. Adding pressure was the concurrent climate summit in Glasgow, where a major focus was whether to mandate a global end to burning coal.

The talk of an earlier exit prompted more consternation in Lusatia, where many viewed it as a breach of the commission’s compromise. “By 2030, little of this will have got started,” Christine Herntier, the mayor of Spremberg, said of the Strukturwandel.

Every day or two, I checked an app called Electricity Map, which shows the sources from which countries are drawing their electricity. Invariably, coal was Germany’s largest source, with wind a distant second or third. The plan was to use natural gas as a bridge to the expansion of renewables, but that would require building more gas power plants, fast, and would also mean making Germany even more dependent on Russia, one of its biggest gas suppliers.

Recently, Russia built a controversial pipeline to Germany through the Baltic Sea, called Nord Stream 2. As a last resort, Germany could buy nuclear-based electricity from France, which has remained staunchly committed to nuclear power, or coal-fired electricity from Poland, but not without hypocrisy, given its own disavowal of both sources.

On November 24th, the coalition released its governing agreement, which called for “ideally” moving up the coal exit to 2030. The rhetorical wiggle room satisfied neither side, and reflected the bind in which the country has found itself. Germany had set out to be an example of how to relinquish the dirty-energy source that had enabled modernity.

It had developed a clear timetable, and it had agreed on significant compensation, recognizing that there was a societal obligation to people whose livelihood was being shut down as a matter of policy. The process was undoubtedly superior to what was playing out at the same time in the U.S., where the Biden Administration’s plan to spend five hundred and fifty-five billion dollars on incentives to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, as part of the sweeping Build Back Better package, was foundering, shy of majority support in the Senate.

But Germany was also at risk of being an unintended example, one that could be cited by opponents of the imposition of emissions reductions. (A recent Wall Street Journal editorial was titled “Germany’s Energy Surrender: Rarely has a country worked so hard to make itself vulnerable.”)

The exit from nuclear power was leaving the country much less space to maneuver as it tried to move away from coal. And the lack of transparency and forethought with the regional spending undermined the purpose of the compensation: to convey that, this time around, the rest of the country really did care what happened to its left-behind places.

On my final visit to Lusatia, in November, I met Lars Katzmarek, an employee at LEAG, the coal company, at a coffee shop in Cottbus. Katzmarek, who is twenty-nine, oversees telecommunications at the mines, a job he loves and hopes to keep until things shut down. He was not drifting to the AfD: he is a loyal Social Democrat, he believes in climate change, and he even met with some Fridays for Future activists in 2019.

But he understood the feeling of betrayal in the region. His parents both worked in Braunkohle. His mother lost her job in the nineties and never found steady work again. Cottbus has experienced the third-highest rate of departures to western Germany of any city in the former G.D.R., and nearly all of Katzmarek’s high-school friends have left town. It was hard now to watch a new wave of people leaving the company and the region because they didn’t believe the promises of the Strukturwandel. “The sorrow is gigantic,” he said.

Katzmarek composed rap music on the side, and he had recently produced a single about Lusatia’s plight which included clips of him singing atop one of the turbines at the Vestas plant—before the news came of its closure. “For politics to win back the trust of the people, it has to finally be the case that things are carried out the way they said they would,” he said. “This is the big chance to win back trust.”

What you couldn’t have was a coal exit that led to a decline in German industry because of higher electricity costs. “You can’t have deindustrialization in Germany,” he said. “Industry means prosperity. A loss of prosperity would be absurd. If other countries look to see how Germany has fared, and they see deindustrialization and a loss of prosperity and the people growing discontent and populism gaining a new foothold, who would follow our example?”

His nuanced tone made me wish that we had more time to talk. But he had to catch the hourly train to Berlin, to visit one of his many friends who had left Lusatia.

Source: Can Germany Show Us How to Leave Coal Behind? | The New Yorker


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Fusion Power Is a Reason To Be Excited About The Future of Clean Energy

Fusion energy is perhaps the longest of long shots. To build a fusion reactor is essentially to create an artificial star. Scientists have been studying the physics of fusion for a century and working to harness the process for decades. Yet almost every time researchers make an advance, the goal posts seem to recede even farther in the distance.

Still, the enormous potential of fusion makes it hard to ignore. It’s a technology that could safely provide an immense and steady torrent of electricity, harnessing abundant fuel made from seawater to ignite the same reaction that powers the sun. It would produce no greenhouse gases and minimal waste compared to conventional energy sources.

With global average temperatures rising and energy demands growing, the quest for fusion is timelier than ever: It could help solve both these problems at the same time. But despite its promise, fusion is often treated as a scientific curiosity rather than a must-try moonshot — an actual, world-changing solution to a massive problem.

The latest episode of Unexplainable, Vox’s podcast about unsolved mysteries in science, asks scientists about their decades-long pursuit of a star in a bottle. They talk about their recent progress and why fusion energy remains such a challenge. And they make the case for not only continuing fusion research, but aggressively expanding and investing in it — even if it won’t light up the power grid anytime soon.

With some of the most powerful machines ever built, scientists are trying to refine delicate, subatomic mechanics to achieve a pivotal milestone: getting more energy out of a fusion reaction than they put in. Researchers say they are closer than ever.

Fusion is way more powerful than any other energy source we have

Nuclear fission is what happens when big atoms like uranium and plutonium split apart and release energy. These reactions powered the very first atomic bombs, and today they power conventional nuclear reactors.

Fusion is even more potent. It’s what happens when the nuclei of small atoms stick together, fusing to create a new element and releasing energy. The most common form is two hydrogen atoms fusing to create helium.

The reason that fusion generates so much energy is that the new element weighs a smidgen less than the sum of its parts. That tiny bit of lost matter is converted into energy according to Albert Einstein’s famous formula, E = mc2. “E” stands for energy and “m” stands for mass.

The last part of the formula is “c,” a constant that measures the speed of light — 300,000 kilometers per second, which is then squared. So there’s an enormous multiplier for matter that’s converted into energy, making fusion an extraordinarily powerful reaction.

These basics are well understood, and researchers are confident that it’s possible to harness it in a useful way, but so far, it’s been elusive.

“It’s a weird thing, because we absolutely know that the fundamental theory works. We’ve seen it demonstrated,” said Carolyn Kuranz, a plasma physicist at the University of Michigan. “But trying to do it in a lab has provided us a lot of challenges.”

For a demonstration, one only has to look up at the sun during the day (but not directly, because you’ll hurt your eyes). Even from 93 million miles away, our nearest star generates enough energy to heat up the Earth through the vacuum of space.

But the sun has an advantage that we don’t have here on Earth: It is very, very big. One of the difficulties with fusion is that atomic nuclei — the positively charged cores of atoms — normally repel each other. To overcome that repulsion and spark fusion, you have to get the atoms moving really fast in a confined space, which makes collisions more likely.

A star like the sun, which is about 333,000 times the mass of Earth, generates gravity that accelerates atoms toward its center — heating them up, confining them, and igniting fusion. The fusion reactions then provide the energy to speed up other atomic nuclei and trigger even more fusion reactions.

What makes fusion energy so tricky

Imitating the sun on Earth is a tall order. Humans have been able to trigger fusion, but in ways that are uncontrolled, like in thermonuclear weapons (sometimes called hydrogen bombs). Fusion has also been demonstrated in laboratories, but under conditions that consume far more energy than the reaction produces. The reaction generally requires creating a high-energy state of matter known as plasma, which has quirks and behaviors that scientists are still trying to understand.

To make fusion useful, scientists need to trigger it in a controlled way that yields far more energy than they put in. That energy can then be used to boil water, spin a turbine, or generate electricity. Teams around the world are studying different ways to accomplish this, but the approaches tend to fall into two broad categories.

One involves using magnets to contain the plasma. This is the approach used by ITER, the world’s largest fusion project, currently under construction in southern France.

The other category involves confining the fusion fuel and compressing it in a tiny space with the aid of lasers. This is the approach used by the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Replicating a star requires doing this research at massive scales, so fusion experiments often involve the most powerful scientific instruments ever built. ITER’s central solenoid, for example, can generate a magnetic force strong enough to hoist an aircraft carrier 6 feet out of the water.

Building hardware to withstand these extreme conditions is its own scientific and engineering challenge. Managing such massive experiments has also been a struggle. ITER started with an initial cost estimate of 6.6 billion euros, which has since more than tripled. It began construction in 2007 and its first experiments are set to begin in 2025.

An upside to the intricacy of fusion reactions is that it is almost impossible to cause a runaway reaction or meltdown of the sort that have devastated fission power plants like Chernobyl. If a fusion reactor is disrupted, the reaction rapidly fizzles out. In addition, the main “waste” product of hydrogen fusion is helium, an inert gas. The process can induce some reactor materials to become radioactive, but the radioactivity is much lower, and the quantity of hazardous waste is far smaller, compared to conventional nuclear power plants. So nuclear fusion energy could become one of the safest sources of electricity.

For policymakers, investing in an expensive research project that may not yield fruit for decades, if at all, is a tough sell. Scientific progress doesn’t always keep up with political timelines: A politician who greenlights a fusion project might not even live to see it become a viable energy source — so they certainly won’t be able to brag about their success by the time the next election rolls around.

In the United States, funding for fusion research has been erratic over the years and far below the levels government analysts say is needed to make the technology a reality. The US Department of Energy currently spends about $500 million on fusion per year, compared to almost $1 billion on fossil fuel energy and $2.7 billion on renewables. Investment in fusion seems even tinier next to other major programs like NASA ($23 billion) or the military ($700 billion).

So from its basic physics to government budgets, fusion energy has a lot working against it.

Fusion energy should be treated as a solution, not just an experiment

Working in fusion’s favor, however, are scientists and engineers who think it’s not just possible, but inevitable.

“I’m a true believer. I do think we can solve this problem,” said Troy Carter, a plasma physicist at the University of California Los Angeles. “It will take time, but the real issue is getting the resources brought to bear on these issues.”

Investors are also getting in the game, placing billion-dollar bets on private startup companies developing their own fusion strategies.

The journey toward fusion has yielded benefits for other fields, particularly in plasma physics, which is used extensively in manufacturing semiconductors for electronics. “Plasma processing is one of the things that make your iPhones possible,” said Kathryn McCarthy, a fusion researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

And despite the hurdles, there have been some real advances. Researchers at NIF reported last summer that they achieved their best results yet — 1.3 megajoules of output from 1.9 megajoules of input — putting them closer than ever to energy-positive fusion. “We’re on the threshold of ignition,” said Tammy Ma, a plasma physicist at NIF.

To break out of its rut, fusion will need to be more than a science experiment. Just as space exploration is more than astronomy, fusion is much more than physics. It should be a leading tool in the fight against the world’s most urgent problems, from climate change to lifting people out of poverty.

Increasing energy access is closely linked to improving health, economic growth, and social stability. Yet close to a billion people still don’t have electricity and many more only have intermittent power, so there is an urgent humanitarian need for more energy.

At the same time, the window for limiting climate change is slamming shut, and electricity and heat production remain the dominant sources of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. To meet one of the goals of the Paris climate agreement — limiting warming to less than 1.5 degrees Celsius this century — the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions by half or more by 2030, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Many of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters are also aiming to zero out their contributions to climate change by the middle of the century. Making such drastic cuts in emissions means phasing out fossil fuels as quickly as possible and rapidly deploying much cleaner sources of energy.

The technologies of today may not be up to the task of resolving the tension between the need for more energy and the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. A problem like climate change is an argument for placing bets on all kinds of far-reaching energy solutions, but fusion may be the technology with the highest upside. And on longer time scales, closer to the 2040s and 2050s, it could be a real solution.

With more investment from governments and the private sector, scientists could speed up their pace of progress and experiment with even more approaches to fusion. In the US, where much of the research is conducted at national laboratories, this would mean convincing your representatives in Congress to get excited about fusion and ultimately to spend more money. Lawmakers can also encourage private companies to get into the game by, for example, pricing carbon dioxide emissions to create incentives for clean energy research.

The key, according to Carter, is to ensure support for fusion remains steady. “Given the level of importance here and the amount of money invested in energy, the current investment in fusion is a drop in the bucket,” Carter said. “You could imagine ramping it up orders of magnitude to get the job done.”

He added that funding for fusion doesn’t have to cannibalize resources from other clean energy technologies, like wind, solar, and nuclear power. “We need to invest across the board,” Carter said.

For now, the big fusion experiments at NIF and ITER will continue inching forward. At NIF, scientists will continue refining their process and steadily work their way up toward energy-positive fusion. ITER is scheduled to begin operation in 2025 and start hydrogen fusion experiments in 2035.

Artificial star power might not illuminate the world for decades, but the foundations have to be laid now through research, development, and deployment. It may very well become humanity’s crowning achievement, more than a century in the making.

Umair Irfan covers climate change, energy, and Covid-19 vaccine development for Vox. He is also a contributor to Science Friday. Before joining Vox, Umair was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News in Washington, DC, where he covered health and climate change, science, and energy policy.

Source: Fusion power is a reason to be excited about the future of clean energy – Vox


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