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.
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.
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.
Ranked: Countries with the Most Sustainable Energy Policies
Which countries are able to balance prosperity and sustainability in their energy mixes? See the countries with the most sustainable energy policies.
Ranked: Countries With Most Sustainable Energy Policies
The sourcing and distribution of energy is one of the most pressing issues of our time.
Just under one billion people still lack basic access to electricity, and many more connect to the grid through improvised wiring or live through frequent blackouts. On the flip side of the socioeconomic spectrum, a growing chorus of voices is pressuring governments and corporations to power the global economy in a more sustainable way.
Today’s visualization – using data from the World Energy Council (WEC) – ranks countries based on their mix of policies for tackling issues like energy security and environmental sustainability.
The Energy Trilemma Index
According to WEC, there are three primary policy areas that form the “trilemma”:
1. Energy Security
A nation’s capacity to meet current and future energy demand reliably, and bounce back swiftly from system shocks with minimal disruption to supply. This dimension covers the effectiveness of management of domestic and external energy sources, as well as the reliability and resilience of energy infrastructure.
2. Energy Equity
A country’s ability to provide universal access to reliable, affordable, and abundant energy for domestic and commercial use. This dimension captures basic access to electricity and clean cooking fuels and technologies, access to prosperity-enabling levels of energy consumption, and affordability of electricity, gas, and fuel.
3. Environmental Sustainability
The transition of a country’s energy system towards mitigating and avoiding environmental harm and climate change impacts. This dimension focuses on productivity and efficiency of generation, transmission and distribution, decarbonization, and air quality.
Using the dimensions above, a score out of 100 is generated. Here’s a complete ranking that shows which countries have the most sustainable energy policies:
|Rank||Country||Trilemma Score||Letter Grade*|
|4||🇬🇧 United Kingdom||81.5||AAA|
|10||🇳🇿 New Zealand||79.4||AAA|
|15||🇺🇸 United States||77.5||AAB|
|16||🇨🇿 Czech Republic||77.4||AAB|
|34||🇭🇰 Hong Kong (China)||72.5||DAB|
|37||🇰🇷 South Korea||71.7||BAC|
|38||🇨🇷 Costa Rica||71.6||CBA|
|62||🇸🇻 El Salvador||66.0||BCA|
|71||🇲🇰 North Macedonia||63.7||CBC|
|76||🇹🇹 Trinidad and Tobago||63.3||CAD|
|78||🇸🇦 Saudi Arabia||62.8||CAD|
|79||🇧🇦 Bosnia and Herz.||62.1||BBC|
|85||🇱🇰 Sri Lanka||60.1||BCB|
|92||🇿🇦 South Africa||58.9||DBD|
|97||🇩🇴 Dominican Republic||57.6||DBB|
|111||🇨🇮 Côte d’Ivoire||49.3||BDC|
*The letter grade represents national performance in three dimensions. The first letter represents Security, the second letter represents Equity, the third letter represents the Environmental Sustainability. The top grade is AAA, the lowest is DDD.
Highs, Lows, and Outliers
Every country has unique circumstances — from strategic energy reserves to green energy ambitions — that shape their domestic energy policies. Let’s take a closer look at some of the more interesting situations around the world.
Global Energy Outlook
Achieving the balance of prosperity and sustainability is a goal of nearly every country, but it takes stability and the right mix of policies to get the job done.
The fact that many trilemma scores are improving is an indicator that the world’s patchwork of energy policies are slowly moving in the right direction.
Ranked: The World’s Largest Energy Sources
As global population grows, our energy demand grows as well. Here are the largest energy sources in the world and how much electricity they generate.
The World’s Largest and Most Notable Energy Sources
Every day, humans consume roughly 63,300,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity to power our homes, workplaces, and vehicles─about the same produced by over 5,700 Hoover Dams.
While present-day electricity generation is slanted heavily in favor of coal and gas on a global basis, renewable sources have started to gain ground.
Today’s graphic from Information is Beautiful lists the world’s largest energy sources and their energy outputs. These power plants are ranked using the daily megawatt-hour (MWh), the amount of energy a power source generates in a day.
Relying on Renewables
Located in the United Kingdom, Drax Power Station is the world’s largest biomass plant, powered chiefly by burning wood. Originally a coal-fired plant, Drax is expected to fully phase out coal by the year 2025.
Meanwhile, Tengger Desert Solar Park in China was the biggest solar operation until 2018, but it has since been displaced by the Shakti Sthala plant in India. The latter uses only solar panels─no mirrors─to generate energy from the sun.
Overall, solar photovoltaics have experienced the highest growth of all energy source segments, showing 31% annual growth─nearly triple the rate of wind power according to the International Energy Association (IEA).
Currently, 27% of the world’s power comes from renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, biomass, and other similar resources.
However, according to back-of-the-envelope calculations, the potential for renewables is far beyond existing generation capacity. In fact, humans are just using 0.81% of solar’s potential generation capacity, and 0.57% of the potential from wind.
|Potential Energy Generation Capacity||480,000,000 MWh||401,850,000 MWh||86,400,000 MWh||48,767,123 MWh|
|Energy Generated (Current)||3,884,983 MWh||2,304,000 MWh||11,465,753 MWh||201,761 MWh|
|% of Potential Used||0.81%||0.57%||13.3%||0.41%|
Non-renewable Energy Sources
Nuclear power plants have perhaps the strongest stigma against them─largely due to international disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima.
However, nuclear power plants are still the most efficient energy sources, sitting at over 90% average capacity.
The largest nuclear plant (by MW) in the world, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, is currently shut down due to damage from a 2007 earthquake, and awaiting confirmation to restart operations. As a result, the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station in Canada now holds the title of the largest operating reactor in the world. The plant currently generates about 30% of Ontario’s power.
In 2018, coal is still being used to generate roughly 38% of the world’s total electricity, followed by natural gas with a 23% share.
The Future of Energy Potential
Fittingly, the graphic also shows daily energy outputs for Google and Bitcoin usage. This data helps remind us that our online activity also consumes energy─something that will be top of mind as technology continues to advance and humans need to use more energy through our internet-enabled devices.
Understanding humanity’s need for energy is a daunting endeavor, but it’s critical to ensuring our planet has a sustainable source of energy for generations to come.
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