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Fusion: Will Humanity Ever Harness Star Power?

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fusion timeline

Fusion is the epitome of “high risk, high reward” scientific research.

If we were to ever successfully harness the forces that power the stars, mankind could have access to power that is almost literally too cheap to meter. However, reaching that goal will be a very expensive, long-term commitment – and it’s also very possible that we may never achieve a commercially viable method of fusion power generation.

Today’s video, by the talented team at Kurzgesagt, explains how fusion works, what experiments are ongoing, and the pros and cons of pursuing fusion power generation.

How Fusion Works

Fusion involves heating nuclei of atoms – usually isotopes of hydrogen – to temperatures in the millions of degrees. At extreme temperatures, atoms are stripped of their electrons and nuclei move so quickly that they overcome their “mutual repulsion”, joining together to form a heavier nucleus. This process gives off massive amounts of energy that investors and researchers hope will propel mankind into an era of cheap and abundant electricity, but without the downsides of many other forms of energy.

I would like nuclear fusion to become a practical power source. It would provide an inexhaustible supply of energy, without pollution or global warming.

– Stephen Hawking, award-winning theoretical physicist

Stars are so large that fusion occurs naturally in their cores – but here on Earth, we’re trying a number of complex methods in the hopes of replicating that process to achieve positive net energy.

The Cost of Bottling a Star

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), an experimental reactor currently being built in the south of France, will house the world’s largest ever tokamak – a doughnut-shaped reactor that uses a powerful magnetic field to confine plasma. Construction of the facility began in 2013 and is expected to cost €20 billion upon completion in 2021.

iter fusion reactor funding

Research organizations see ITER as a crucial step in realizing fusion. Though the facility is not designed to generate electricity, it would pave the way for functional reactors.

Competition is Heating Up

There are some who claim that the bureaucracy of government-funded labs is hampering the process. As a result, there is a pack of private companies, fueled by high-profile investors, looking to make commercially-viable fusion into a reality.

Tri Alpha, a company in southern California, is hoping their method of spinning magnetized plasma inside a containment vessel will be a lower-cost method of power generation than ITER. In 2015, they held super-heated hydrogen plasma in a stable state for 5 milliseconds, which is a huge deal in the world of fusion research. The company has attracted over $500 million in investment in the past 20 years, and has the backing of Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen.

Helion Energy, located in Redmond, Washington, believes they are only a few years away from creating nuclear fusion that can be used as a source for electricity. Their reaction is created by colliding two plasma balls made of hydrogen atom cores at one million miles per hour. Helion Energy’s ongoing research is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program, which the Trump administration slated for elimination. Thankfully, Helion still counts Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital and Y Combinator as supporters.

General Fusion, located in Burnaby, B.C., is taking a different approach. Their piston-based reactor is designed to create energy bursts lasting thousandths of seconds, rather than a sustained plasma reaction. Heat recovered bursts would be used to generate electricity much like nuclear power plants, minus the long-term radioactive waste. General Fusion has attracted millions of dollars in funding, including investment from Bezos Expeditions and the Business Development Bank of Canada.

Time Horizon

Though commercially viable fusion is still a long way off, each new technological breakthrough brings us one step closer. With such a massive payoff for success, research will likely only increase as we get closer to bottling a star here on Earth.

fusion timeline

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Energy

All the World’s Coal Power Plants in One Map

Today’s interactive map shows all of the world’s coal power plants, plotted by capacity and carbon emissions from 2000 until 2018.

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All The World’s Coal Power Plants in One Map

The use of coal for fuel dates back thousands of years.

Demand for the energy source really started to soar during the Industrial Revolution, and it continues to power some of the world’s largest economies today. However, as the clean energy revolution heats up, will coal continue to be a viable option?

Today’s data visualization from Carbon Brief maps the changing number of global coal power plants operating between 2000 and 2018. The interactive timeline pulls from the Global Coal Plant Tracker’s latest data and features around 10,000 retired, operating, and planned coal units, totaling close to 3,000 gigawatts (GW) of capacity across 95 countries.

On the map, each circular icon’s size represents each plant’s coal capacity in megawatts (MW). The data also highlights the type of coal burned and the CO₂ emissions produced as a result.

A Precarious Power Source

Throughout its history, coal has been used for everything from domestic heating and steel manufacturing, to railways, gas works, and electricity. The fuel played a pivotal role in powering economic development, and had a promising future with a flurry of plant openings.

However, in 2016, coal output dropped by 231 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe). Combined with a rapid slowdown of new plants being built, total coal units operating around the world fell for the first time in 2018.

With the remaining fleet of plants operating fewer hours than ever, plant closures have been triggered in South Africa, India, and China—steadily eroding coal’s bottom line. Industry trends have also forced a wave of coal companies to recently declare bankruptcy, including giants such as Peabody Energy and Alpha Natural.

Can Coal Compete with Clean Energy?

Today, coal is experiencing fierce competition from low-priced natural gas and ever-cheaper renewable power—most notably from wind and solar. Further, solar power costs will continue to decline each year and be cut in half by 2020, relative to 2015 figures.

chart

Source: Lazard

Natural gas surpassed coal as America’s #1 power source in 2016, with the total share of power generated from coal tumbling from 45% in 2010 to 28% in 2018. By next year, the role of coal is expected to be further reduced to 24% of the mix.

On the interactive visualization, the decline of coal is especially evident in 2018 as plant closures sweep across the map. The chart shows how several countries, notably China and India, have been closing many hundreds of smaller, older, and less efficient units, but replacing them with larger and more efficient models.

As of today, China retains the largest fleet of coal plants, consuming a staggering 45% of the world’s coal.


Use the above slider to see the difference between China’s coal plants in 2000 with projected future capacity.

Towards a New Reality

Coal is the most carbon intensive fossil fuel, and for every tonne of coal burned there are approximately 2.5 tonnes of carbon emissions. The International Energy Agency states that all unabated coal must be phased out within a few decades if global warming is to be limited.

Despite these warnings, global coal demand is set to remain stable for the next five years, with declines in the U.S. and Europe offset by immediate growth in India and China. The latter are the main players in the global coal market, but will eventually see a gradual decline in demand as they move away from industrialization.

A total phaseout of unabated coal is planned by 14 of the world’s 78 coal-powered countries, with many of these countries working to convert coal capacity to natural gas.

As the price of premium solar generation drops steadily, and innovation in renewable energy technology becomes more prominent, the world is shifting its attention to a clean energy economy. A global revival of coal looks less and less likely—and the fossil fuel might very well one day become obsolete.

Editor’s Note: The map uses WebGL and will not work on some older browsers. The map may also fail to load if you are using an ad-blocking browser plugin.

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Economy

What is a Commodity Super Cycle?

The prices of energy, agriculture, livestock and metals tell the story of human development. Learn about the commodity super cycle in this infographic.

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Visualizing the Commodity Super Cycle

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the world has seen its population and the need for natural resources boom.

As more people and wealth translate into the demand for global goods, the prices of commodities—such as energy, agriculture, livestock, and metals—have often followed in sync.

This cycle, which tends to coincide with extended periods of industrialization and modernization, helps in telling a story of human development.

Why are Commodity Prices Cyclical?

Commodity prices go through extended periods during which prices are well above or below their long-term price trend. There are two types of swings in commodity prices: upswings and downswings.

Many economists believe that the upswing phase in super cycles results from a lag between unexpected, persistent, and positive trends to support commodity demand with slow-moving supply, such as the building of a new mine or planting a new crop. Eventually, as adequate supply becomes available and demand growth slows, the cycle enters a downswing phase.

While individual commodity groups have their own price patterns, when charted together they form extended periods of price trends known as “Commodity Super Cycles” where there is a recognizable pattern across major commodity groups.

How can a Commodity Super Cycle be Identified?

Commodity super cycles are different from immediate supply disruptions; high or low prices persist over time.

In our above chart, we used data from the Bank of Canada, who leveraged a statistical technique called an asymmetric band pass filter. This is a calculation that can identify the patterns or frequencies of events in sets of data.

Economists at the Bank of Canada employed this technique using their Commodity Price Index (BCPI) to search for evidence of super cycles. This is an index of the spot or transaction prices in U.S. dollars of 26 commodities produced in Canada and sold to world markets.

  • Energy: Coal, Oil, Natural Gas
  • Metals and Minerals: Gold, Silver, Nickel, Copper, Aluminum, Zinc, Potash, Lead, Iron
  • Forestry: Pulp, Lumber, Newsprint
  • Agriculture: Potatoes, Cattle, Hogs, Wheat, Barley, Canola, Corn
  • Fisheries: Finfish, Shellfish

Using the band pass filter and the BCPI data, the chart indicates that there are four distinct commodity price super cycles since 1899.

  • 1899-1932:
    The first cycle coincides with the industrialization of the United States in the late 19th century.
  • 1933-1961:
    The second began with the onset of global rearmament before the Second World War in the 1930s.
  • 1962-1995:
    The third began with the reindustrialization of Europe and Japan in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
  • 1996 – Present:
    The fourth began in the mid to late 1990s with the rapid industrialization of China

What Causes Commodity Cycles?

The rapid industrialization and growth of a nation or region are the main drivers of these commodity super cycles.

From the rapid industrialization of America emerging as a world power at the beginning of the 20th century, to the ascent of China at the beginning of the 21st century, these historical periods of growth and industrialization drive new demand for commodities.

Because there is often a lag in supply coming online, prices have nowhere to go but above long-term trend lines. Then, prices cannot subside until supply is overshot, or growth slows down.

Is This the Beginning of a New Super Cycle?

The evidence suggests that human industrialization drives commodity prices into cycles. However, past growth was asymmetric around the world with different countries taking the lion’s share of commodities at different times.

With more and more parts of the world experiencing growth simultaneously, demand for commodities is not isolated to a few nations.

Confined to Earth, we could possibly be entering an era where commodities could perpetually be scarce and valuable, breaking the cycles and giving power to nations with the greatest access to resources.

Each commodity has its own story, but together, they show the arc of human development.

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