Alberta/Canada fusion energy program

By —— Bio and Archives April 1, 2009

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- Dr. Allan Offenberger, Professor Emeritus, University of Alberta and Dr. Perry Kinkaide, President, Alberta Council of Technologies

Fusion will become a reality in this century and have a profound impact on our energy future—a sustainable, universally available, environmentally desirable energy source.

By comparison, the world’s supply of carbon fuels is finite and suffers from significant environmental issues; by mid-century, there will be an urgent need to utilize renewable energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal) wherever possible and fission energy (though it, too, is finite without fuel breeding).

To meet the growing global demand for power, fusion will become a major supplier of electricity, process heat and hydrogen.

Fusion—the process that powers our sun and all stars—is quite different from the fission process presently used in nuclear reactors around the world. The fuels of fusion are light elements (deuterium, obtained from water and tritium, generated in the fusion plant); the fuels of fission are heavy elements, principally uranium. In contrast to coal or fission, fusion has significantly smaller fuel requirements, generates only helium as the residual “ash” and produces no long-lived radioactive wastes.

The difficulties of fusion lie in the need to achieve two important conditions for practical fusion energy production: 1) heating the fuel to 100 million degrees C and, 2) confining the hot fuel long enough for fusion reactions to take place to produce net energy output.

Historically, magnetic confinement has been the main approach pursued since the 1950s—basically confining the hot ionized fuel with strong magnetic fields in a hollow-doughnut geometry. Currently, the international ITER (“the way forward”) project based in France is the largest undertaking to scale up this technology to achieve fuel ignition and burn.

An alternative approach is inertial confinement. This concept uses short pulse laser beams to quickly heat a fuel pellet to ignition and induce fusion reactions rapidly enough to avoid having to confine the fuel at all, thereby simplifying the reaction chamber design. Inertial fusion research is relatively new, starting after the laser was invented, but has made remarkable progress, due largely to major defence program funding in the United States and France.

Because of the defence link, this approach has remained out of the public eye until recently. But with declassification of the underlying science and technology, and the construction of large laser systems about to be commissioned in the U.S. (National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) and France (Laser MegaJoule in Bordeaux), the world will have facilities capable of demonstrating fuel ignition and burn—the “proof-of-principle” experiments—in the next two years.

Since the science base for inertial fusion is well established, confidence of success is high and this will have a profound effect internationally, driving increased research and development for commercial power production.

An inertial fusion power plant would include: 1) a target factory to produce and inject fuel pellets into the reaction chamber; 2) a laser driver system to ignite the fuel pellets; 3) a reaction chamber to capture the fusion energy and; 4) a steam/turbine power plant to generate electricity.

The fusion energy released in the form of energetic neutrons would be absorbed in a lithium blanket to enable transfer of heat out of the chamber and to generate tritium fuel for pellet fabrication within the plant.

There is no chance of an accident requiring public evacuation in the vicinity of the plant (a consequence of the small fuel quantity present in the plant, plus the fact that a runaway reaction is impossible); no greenhouse gases or air pollution; no radioactive fusion products, and no weapons-grade material.

Fusion will be an ideal energy source for base-load electric power generation; universally available, sustainable and clean. It will have a worldwide impact on energy, environment, social and economic issues.

Canada is the only developed country without a fusion research and development program, but with Alberta’s leadership, we have the chance to change that.

With the strong support of leaders of the major fusion programs in the U.S., Japan and Europe, we have the opportunity to get involved in the next stages of fusion development—an investment that will leverage the much larger investments of international programs.

Timely development of inertial fusion will require strong international co-operation. Participating in the international venture would allow Alberta to build up our research capability, forge necessary long-term collaborations and establish our niche in fusion energy development.

A plausible time frame of 20 years for a test demonstration of fusion power production (more than the equivalent of 300 megawatts of electrical power) is based on: 1) demonstration of “proof-of-principle” fuel ignition in two years; 2) development of the related enabling technologies in approximately 10 years and; 3) design and construction of a major international demonstration facility in the following decade.

A proposal for an Alberta/Canada fusion energy program has been prepared with the support of Alberta industry, government and post-secondary institutions. The program would take advantage of established international working relationships and emphasize development of particular technologies key to achieving eventual power production. This would include novel ignition systems, laser drivers and materials science for reaction chambers, targets and optical systems—technologies that would lay the foundation for a substantial photonics industry in Alberta and stimulate economic diversification.

An Alberta-based fusion program is an exciting prospect—an opportunity to invest some of today’s energy wealth to benefit our future well-being in clean energy, healthy environment, diversified economy and rewarding job growth.

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