Boris Johnson’s gung-ho claims may be wide of the mark, but scientists pursuing the holy grail of energy generation are taking giant steps. They are on the verge of creating commercially viable miniature fusion reactors for sale around the world,” Boris Johnson told the Conservative party conference earlier this month – “they” apparently being UK scientists. It was, at best, a rash promise for how nuclear fusion might make the UK carbon-neutral by the middle of the century – the target recommended by the Committee on Climate Change, which advises the government. “I know they have been on the verge for some time,” Johnson hedged. “It is a pretty spacious kind of verge.” But now, he assured his audience, “we are on the verge of the verge”. It’s a familiar and bitter joke about nuclear fusion as an energy source that, ever since it was first mooted in the 1950s, it has been 30 years away. Johnson’s comments had the extra irony that Brexit could merely add to that distance. It’s not clear what “commercially viable miniature fusion reactors” the prime minister had in mind. There are no such things either existing or planned at the main British centre for fusion research, the Joint European Torus (Jet) at Culham in Oxfordshire, which Johnson visited in August. Experiments at Jet, conducted by all partners within the 28-state Eurofusion consortium, aim to make the nuclear fusion of hydrogen – the process that powers the sun and other stars – viable for energy generation by collecting the heat released to drive turbines for electricity. When Jet is running, the temperature inside is more than 100m C, making it “the hottest place in the solar system” according to Jet’s director, Ian Chapman. No one believes that fusion will solve the immediate climate crisis. It’s not expected to come online until 2050, by which time many scientists say carbon emissions will already need to have fallen to zero to avoid the most serious climate impacts. But neither can renewables such as wind and solar power solve the problem on their own – their intermittency and low power density means, for example, that you couldn’t power large cities that way. Fusion will be perfect in that situation, says Donné, and he predicts it will be a major component of global energy generation in the second half of this century.
Observer 27th Oct 2019 read more »