Nuclear fusion is the creative process of the universe. All matter, besides hydrogen and a smattering of helium, was created in the fusion furnaces within stars as small atomic nuclei joined together to make larger ones. This reaction releases huge amounts of energy – about ten million times as much by weight as the chemical reaction of fossils fuels, and all without any harmful byproducts. One can see why it is hailed as the energy of the future, the power source that will right the wrongs of a fossil fuel-reliant past and present. But it is not easy to achieve.
The established principle for this reaction on Earth is to combine deuterium and tritium, two isotopes of hydrogen, to make helium and a neutron. In order to do this, fusion reactors must recreate the conditions found in stars, where fusion naturally occurs. This means creating temperatures of 100m degrees to create a super hot ‘plasma’ within which the isotopes come together. The neutron generated by this reaction is not confined by a fusion reactor and so flies out of the vessel; capturing the energy of the neutron is what generates electricity.
The scientific and engineering problems behind putting a star within a box are big, to say the least. Without proper confinement of the plasma, the reactor walls would get hot and the fusion fuel would get cold; the reaction would stop. The hot plasma must be isolated from the walls of the reactor. This feat can be performed using magnets and the most advanced machine used for this purpose is the ‘tokamak’.
The best-performing tokamak in the world is JET, producing 16MW of fusion power with 24MW input in 1997 – ie 65% as much energy out as was put in. It holds the world record for total fusion power produced and for getting closest to breakeven, the point where you get as much energy out as you put in. For JET to achieve this, fusion research had followed a Moore’s law-like path. The temperature, density and energy confinement time, which indicates fusion performance, was increasing at a faster and faster rate up until the JET experiments.
But since then it seems that progress has stalled. There have still been experiments built and much learned, but progress towards energy breakeven has slowed. We still haven’t actually reached energy breakeven almost 20 years after we nearly got there.
Traditional designs have moved to larger dimensions, culminating in the ITER experiment currently under construction in the south of France. This will be over 30m tall and weigh about 23,000 tonnes. The demonstration reactor that follows, dubbed DEMO, will likely be slightly bigger again. When ITER was being designed in the 1990s, it was believed that the only feasible way to increase fusion power was to increase machine size. But the size and complexity of ITER has led to very slow progress, with first fusion set for the mid 2020s.
Tired of waiting so long and recognising the inherent difficulties of such a big project, the possibility of a smaller way to fusion has grabbed the imagination of inventors, innovators and now investors.
As patience with progress has begun to run out there is a new climate of private funding reaching into areas previously the domain of governments. Ventures like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, or The Breakthrough Energy Coalition led by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg; these large investments in new technologies and promising areas of scientific research are becoming more common. As Lord Rees of Ludlow, past President of the Royal Society, put it in 2015, “the private sector now has greater appetite for risk in scientific projects than Western governments.”
The fusion industry has benefitted hugely from this surge in funding. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, and Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, have invested many tens of millions into private fusion ventures in the US and Tokamak Energy is seeing the same in the UK, receiving over $15 million so far from private and public investors. This has allowed the complex science and engineering needed for fusion to be developed faster than it has for years.
For Tokamak Energy this investment has allowed it to extend the lead that tokamaks already have in the race to fusion. With research beginning in the mid 20th century, a lot is known about how they hold plasma in a spherical reactor with magnetism. Tokamak Energy has added to this, publishing two papers that show for the first time that size is not an important factor in fusion reactors and proving that a compact reactor can produce an energy gain; a game changer when you consider the grand scale that other fusion projects are pursuing. Proving this has helped Tokamak Energy to turn the pursuit of fusion energy into a series of engineering challenges.
Thanks to funds raised, Tokamak Energy has been tackling these challenges head on with a fivestage, five-reactor plan. Its second device showed it was possible to make new high temperature superconducting magnets for controlling the plasma. These are made of a material with much increased conductivity in high magnetic fields than materials typically used for magnets in fusion reactors. The higher conductivity and higher operating temperature will allow fusion power to be produced in much more compact devices than conventionally thought possible.
By breaking down the challenges into such distinct goals, money can be raised privately to achieve each step, with success enabling more money to be raised to tackle the next challenge. Tokamak Energy aims to deliver a fusion power gain within 5 years, first electricity within 10 years and a 100 MWe power plant within 15 years, but acknowledges that this will depend on attracting a huge amount of investment.
There is latent public enthusiasm; many people recognise that harnessing fusion energy is an important challenge that we have a duty to tackle. The new investment climate brings hope for this fusion future. While some hold the view that fusion will forever be 30 years beyond the horizon, Tokamak Energy is working on making it a reality.
By Dr David Kingham, CEO, Tokamak Energy
This article first appeared in the Guide to Clean Energy
Is Wood Burning Sustainable For Your Home?
Wood is a classic heat source, whether we think about people gathered around a campfire or wood stoves in old cabins, but is it a sustainable source of heat in modern society? The answer is an ambivalent one. In certain settings, wood heat is an ideal solution, but for the majority of homes, it isn’t especially suitable. So what’s the tipping point?
Wood heat is ideal for small homes on large properties, for individuals who can gather their own wood, and who have modern wood burning ovens. A green approach to wood heat is one of biofuel on the smallest of scales.
Is Biofuel Green?
One of the reasons that wood heat is a source of so much divide in the eco-friendly community is that it’s a renewable resource and renewable has become synonymous with green. What wood heat isn’t, though, is clean or healthy. It lets off a significant amount of carbon and particulates, and trees certainly don’t grow as quickly as it’s consumed for heat.
Of course, wood is a much less harmful source of heat than coal, but for scientists interested in developing green energy sources, it makes more sense to focus on solar and wind power. Why, then, would they invest in improved wood burning technology?
Solar and wind technology are good large-scale energy solutions, but when it comes to small-space heating, wood has its own advantages. First, wood heat is in keeping with the DIY spirit of homesteaders and tiny house enthusiasts. These individuals are more likely to be driven to gather their own wood and live in small spaces that can be effectively heated as such.
Wood heat is also very effective on an individual scale because it requires very little infrastructure. Modern wood stoves made of steel rather than cast iron are built to EPA specifications, and the only additional necessary tools include a quality axe, somewhere to store the wood, and an appropriate covering to keep it dry. And all the wood can come from your own land.
Wood heat is also ideal for people living off the grid or in cold areas prone to frequent power outages, as it’s constantly reliable. Even if the power goes out, you know that you’ll be able to turn up the heat. That’s important if you live somewhere like Maine where the winters can get exceedingly cold. People have even successfully heated a 40’x34’ home with a single stove.
Benefits Of Biomass
The ultimate question regarding wood heat is whether any energy source that’s dangerous on the large scale is acceptable on a smaller one. For now, the best answer is that with a growing population and limited progress towards “pure” green energy, wood should remain a viable option, specifically because it’s used on a limited scale. Biomass heat is even included in the UK’s Renewable Heat Initiative and minor modifications can make it even more sustainable.
Wood stoves, when embraced in conjunction with pellet stoves, geothermal heating, and masonry heaters, all more efficient forms of sustainable heat, should be part of a modern energy strategy. Ultimately, we’re headed in the direction of diversified energy – all of it cleaner – and wood has a place in the big picture, serving small homes and off-the-grid structures, while solar, wind, and other large-scale initiatives fuel our cities.
7 Benefits You Should Consider Giving Your Energy Employees
As an energy startup, you’re always looking to offer the most competitive packages to entice top-tier talent. This can be tough, especially when trying to put something together that’s both affordable but also has perks that employees are after.
After all, this is an incredibly competitive field and one that’s constantly doing what it can to stay ahead. However, that’s why I’m bringing you a few helpful benefits that could be what bolsters you ahead of your competition. Check them out below:
One benefit commonly overlooked by companies is offering your employees financial advising services, which could help them tremendously in planning for their long-term goals with your firm. This includes anything from budgeting and savings plans to recommendations for credit repair services and investments. Try to take a look at if your energy company could bring on an extra person or two specifically for this role, as it will pay off tremendously regarding retention and employee happiness.
While often included in a lot of health benefits packages, offering your employees life insurance could be an excellent addition to your current perks. Although seldom used, life insurance is a small sign that shows you care about the life of their family beyond just office hours. Additionally, at such a low cost, this is a pretty simple aspect to add to your packages. Try contacting some brokers or insurance agents to see if you can find a policy that’s right for your firm.
Dedicated Time To Enjoy Their Hobbies
Although something seen more often in startups in Silicon Valley, having dedicated office time for employees to enjoy their passions is something that has shown great results. Whether it be learning the piano or taking on building a video game, having your team spend some time on the things they truly enjoy can translate to increased productivity. Why? Because giving them the ability to better themselves, they’ll in turn bring that to their work as well.
The Ability To Work Remotely
It’s no secret that a lot of employers despise the idea of letting their employees work remotely. However, it’s actually proven to hold some amazing benefits. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 95% of employers that allow their employees to telework reported an increased rate of retention, saving on both turnover and sick days. Depending on the needs of each individual role, this can be a strategy to implement either whenever your team wants or on assigned days. Either way, this is one perk almost everyone will love.
Even though it’s mandated for companies with over 50 employees, offering health insurance regardless is arguably a benefit well received across the board. In fact, as noted in research compiled by KFF, 28.6% of employers with less than 50 people still offered health care. Why is that the case? Because it shows you care about their well-being, and know that a healthy employee is one that doesn’t have to worry about astronomical medical bills.
Unlimited Time Off
This is a perk that almost no employer offers but should be regarded as something to consider. According to The Washington Post, only 1-2% of companies offer unlimited vacation, which it’s easy to see why. A true “unlimited vacation” program could be a firm’s worse nightmare, with employees skipping out every other week to enjoy themselves. However, with the right model in place that rewards hard work with days off, your employees will absolutely adore this policy.
A Full Pantry
Finally, having a pantry full of food can be one perk that’s not only relatively inexpensive but also adds to the value of the workplace. As noted by USA Today, when surveying employees who had snacks versus those who didn’t, 67% of those who did reported they were “very happy” with their work life. You’d be surprised at how much of a difference this could make, especially when considering the price point. Consider adding a kitchen to your office if you haven’t already, and always keep the snacks and drinks everyone wants fully stocked. Doing so will increase morale tremendously.
Compiling a great package for your energy company is going to take some time in looking at what you can afford versus what’s the most you can offer. While it might mean cutting back in other areas, having a workforce that feels like you genuinely want to take care of them can take you far. And with so many different benefits to include in your energy company’s package, which one is your favorite? Comment with your answers below!