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Fusion energy: closer than ever before

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Dr David Kingham

Dr David Kingham, CEO, Tokamak Energy

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 five-stage, 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.

 

Energy

Responsible Energy Investments Could Solve Retirement Funding Crisis

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Energy Investments
Shutterstock / By Sergey Nivens | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/nivens

Retiring baby-boomers are facing a retirement cliff, at the same time as mother nature unleashes her fury with devastating storms tied to the impact of global warming. There could be a unique solution to the challenges associated with climate change – investments in clean energy from retirement funds.

Financial savings play a very important role in everyone’s life and one must start planning for it as soon as possible. It’s shocking how quickly seniors can burn through their nest egg – leaving many wondering, “How long will my retirement savings last?”

Let’s take a closer look at how seniors can take baby steps on the path to retiring with dignity, while helping to clean up our environment.

Tip #1: Focus & Determination

Like in other work, it is very important to focus and be determined. If retirement is around the corner, then make sure to start putting some money away for retirement. No one can ever achieve anything without dedication and focus – whether it’s saving the planet, or saving for retirement.

Tip #2: Minimize Spending

One of the most important things that you need to do is to minimize your expenditures. Reducing consumption is good for the planet too!

Tip #3: Visualize Your Goal

You can achieve more if you have a clearly defined goal in life. This about how your money can be used to better the planet – imagine cleaner air, water and a healthier environment to leave to your grandchildren.

Investing in Clean Energy

One of the hottest and most popular industries for investment today is the energy market – the trading of energy commodities. Clean energy commodities are traded alongside dirty energy supplies. You might be surprised to learn that clean energy is becoming much more competitive.

With green biz becoming more popular, it is quickly becoming a powerful tool for diversified retirement investing.

The Future of Green Biz

As far as the future is concerned, energy businesses are going to continue getting bigger and better. There are many leading energy companies in the market that already have very high stock prices, yet people are continuing to investing in them.

Green initiatives are impacting every industry. Go Green campaigns are a PR staple of every modern brand. For the energy-sector in the US, solar energy investments are considered to be the most accessible form of clean energy investment. Though investing in any energy business comes with some risks, the demand for energy isn’t going anywhere.

In conclusion, if you want to start saving for your retirement, then clean energy stocks and commodity trading are some of the best options for wallets and the planet. Investing in clean energy products, like solar power, is a more long-term investment. It’s quite stable and comes with a significant profit margin. And it’s amazing for the planet!

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Energy

What Should We Make of The Clean Growth Strategy?

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Clean Growth Strategy for green energy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By sdecoret | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/sdecoret

It was hardly surprising the Clean Growth Strategy (CGS) was much anticipated by industry and environmentalists. After all, its publication was pushed back a couple of times. But with the document now in the public domain, and the Government having run a consultation on its content, what ultimately should we make of what’s perhaps one of the most important publications to come out of the Department for Business, Energy and the Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in the past 12 months?

The starting point, inevitably, is to decide what the document is and isn’t. It is, certainly, a lengthy and considered direction-setter – not just for the Government, but for business and industry, and indeed for consumers. While much of the content was favourably received in terms of highlighting ways to ensure clean growth, critics – not unjustifiably – suggested it was long on pages but short on detailed and finite policy commitments, accompanied by clear timeframes for action.

A Strategy, Instead of a Plan

But should we really be surprised? The answer, in all honesty, is probably not really. BEIS ministers had made no secret of the fact they would be publishing a ‘strategy’ as opposed to a ‘plan,’ and that gave every indication the CGS would set a direction of travel and be largely aspirational. The Government had consulted on its content, and will likely respond to the consultation during the course of 2018. And that’s when we might see more defined policy commitments and timeframes from action.

The second criticism one might level at the CGS is that indicated the use of ‘flexibilities’ to achieve targets set in the carbon budgets – essentially using past results to offset more recent failings to keep pace with emissions targets. Claire Perry has since appeared in front of the BEIS Select Committee and insisted she would be personally disappointed if the UK used flexibilities to fill the shortfall in meeting the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, but this is difficult ground for the Government. The Committee on Climate Change was critical of the proposed use of efficiencies, which would somewhat undermine ministers’ good intentions and commitment to clean growth – particularly set against November’s Budget, in which the Chancellor maintained the current carbon price floor (potentially giving a reprieve to coal) and introduced tax changes favourable to North Sea oil producers.

A 12 Month Green Energy Initiative with Real Teeth

But, there is much to appreciate and commend about the CGS. It fits into a 12-month narrative for BEIS ministers, in which they have clearly shown a commitment to clean growth, improving energy efficiency and cutting carbon emissions. Those 12 months have seen the launch of the Industrial Strategy – firstly in Green Paper form, which led to the launch of the Faraday Challenge, and then a White Paper in which clean growth was considered a ‘grand challenge’ for government. Throughout these publications – and indeed again with the CGS – the Government has shown itself to be an advocate of smart systems and demand response, including the development of battery technology.

Electrical Storage Development at Center of Broader Green Energy Push

While the Faraday Challenge is primarily focused on the development of batteries to support the proliferation of electric vehicles (which will support cuts to carbon emissions), it will also drive down technology costs, supporting the deployment of small and utility-scale storage that will fully harness the capability of renewables. Solar and wind made record contributions to UK electricity generation in 2017, and the development of storage capacity will help both reduce consumer costs and support decarbonisation.

The other thing the CGS showed us it that the Government is happy to be a disrupter in the energy market. The headline from the publication was the plans for legislation to empower Ofgem to cap the costs of Standard Variable Tariffs. This had been an aspiration of ministers for months, and there’s little doubt that driving down costs for consumers will be a trend within BEIS policy throughout 2018.

But the Government also seems happy to support disruption in the renewables market, as evidenced by the commitment (in the CGS) to more than half a billion pounds of investment in Pot 2 of Contracts for Difference (CfDs) – where the focus will be on emerging rather than established technologies.

This inevitably prompted ire from some within the industry, particularly proponents of solar, which is making an increasing contribution to the UK’s energy mix. But, again, we shouldn’t really be surprised. Since the subsidy cuts of 2015, ministers have given no indication or cause to think there will be public money afforded to solar development. Including solar within the CfD auction would have been a seismic shift in policy. And while ministers’ insistence in subsidy-free solar as the way forward has been shown to be based on a single project, we should expect that as costs continue to be driven down and solar makes record contributions to electricity generation, investment will follow – and there will ultimately be more subsidy-free solar farms, albeit perhaps not in 2018.

Meanwhile, by promoting emerging technologies like remote island wind, the Government appears to be favouring diversification and that it has a range of resources available to meet consumer demand. Perhaps more prescient than the decision to exclude established renewables from the CfD auction is the subsequent confirmation in the budget that Pot 2 of CfDs will be the last commitment of public money to renewable energy before 2025.

In short, we should view the CGS as a step in the right direction, albeit one the Government should be elaborating on in its consultation response. Its publication, coupled with the advancement this year of the Industrial Strategy indicates ministers are committed to the clean growth agenda. The question is now how the aspirations set out in the CGS – including the development of demand response capacity for the grid, and improving the energy efficiency of commercial and residential premises – will be realised.

It’s a step in the right direction. But, inevitably, there’s much more work to do.

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