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Thermonuclear dream: Will humanity move closer towards cheap energy in 2021?

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The humanity began to dream about cheap energy as it made progress developing arts, crafts and trade. The muscular power of people, animals, wind, water and steam was consistently adjusted to serve human needs. The 19th century saw endemic introduction of electric power. However, given that electric power generation required the force of steam and water just the same, the humanity kept asking itself the same question: is it possible to produce ultra-cheap and eco-friendly energy, which would satisfy the planet’s growing needs for electric power? The more so since  scientists have been sending warnings that oil, gas and coal reserves are limited since late 19th century. Just recall what our great compatriot Mendeleev said – “to heat with oil is the same as heating with banknotes”».

In the 1950s the humanity succeeded in establishing control of nuclear energy. Nuclear energy was born out of the destructive flames of nuclear  explosions and the ardent desire to possess super weapons. However, the successes in uncontrolled thermonuclear reaction gave birth to a new dream – about thermonuclear energy, a dream which has yet to come true.  

As back as in the 1950s fiction writers and futurologists described both the opportunities that came with cheap energy and the dangers to be expected with the arrival of thermonuclear stations. Robert Heinlein gives an account  of this in his “Blowups Happen”. Even though the first magnetic thermonuclear reactor, tokamak, short from Toroidal Chamber Magnetic Coil, was built in the USSR in 1954, thermonuclear power has not become accessible. The optimism of the mid 20th century was replaced by an understanding that although thermonuclear power is theoretically accessible, in reality, humanity has still a long way to go to be able to produce it for commercial needs. While we tend to believe that we are on the verge of putting thermonuclear fusion into commercial use, we are still as far from introducing cheap energy as decades ago.

Professionals are more skeptical about it. Viktor Ilguisonis, a PhD, one of the authors of “Prospects for Thermonuclear Research”, said in an interview published by Rossiiskaya Gazeta on December 8th: “thermonuclear fusion reactors that are built at present have reached the limit of technological capacity”.

In fact, to put it simply, the problem of present-day thermonuclear energy is that there are no cost-effective reactors for its commercial use…..not yet. Meanwhile, Professor Ilguisonis quotes Academician Artzimovich, one of the founders of the Soviet thermonuclear project, as saying that “this issue will definitely be resolved, once thermonuclear energy  becomes indispensable, as there seem to be no obstacles in principle in this direction”. Nearly half a century after the death of Academician Artzimovich, humanity’s economic needs for thermonuclear power has increased dramatically as many experts are asking themselves how this  “skin of uncaught bear” will change the world.

Firstly, fusion energy is many times cheaper than atomic power, particularly generated at thermal power plants. According to experts, two tons of Helium-3, heated in a tokamak or stellarator  (a modernized thermonuclear reactor), can produce the same amount of energy as 30 million tons of oil, burnt in TPP incinerators. In addition, there are no emissions into the atmosphere. As a result, thermonuclear energy generation will lead to a rapid development of cheap electric transport, which will produce a favorable impact on the planet’s climate and atmosphere. By way of example, if all of us switched to electric cars right now, there would not be enough capacities to have all of them charged.

Secondly, thermal nuclear power plants are far safer compared to atomic ones. In case of a malfunction, the small artificial suns just switch off without leading to an explosion or radioactive contamination.  

Thirdly, the potentially small size of fusion reactors of the future and their safety will make it possible to provide densely-populated but economically depressive regions, such as Africa, South East Asian and Latin American countries, with cheap, safe energy. This means an increase in living standards, industrial development and  yet again,  solution of environmental issues.

Accordingly, the arrival of cheap  and safe energy, optimistic experts say, will result in a “golden age”. Cheap and safe power will bring down  most commodity and service prices, increase population mobility, make energy intense productions possible.

Finally, a thermonuclear reaction is closely connected with humanity’s yet another dream – a dream to fly to the stars. Thermonuclear fusion will bring about new types of engines, which will make the solar system easily accessible for mankind. Forbes experts say that given the pace of modern technology the first flights of such spacecraft beyond the boundaries of the solar system could take place by 2100.

What triggered more interest in thermonuclear energy is an annual report by the Danish «Saxo bank». Scandinavian experts publish somewhat shocking forecasts for the year next, of which fewer than 50% come true. Yet, many issues raised by Danish analysts do become relevant in the new year. For the year 2021 they predict that humanity will make a technological breakthrough towards using thermonuclear power. Moreover, Danish experts assume that a number of countries will introduce an unconditional basic income which will revitalize the post-Covid-19 economy and support citizens who lost their jobs. Such an income will apparently become possible due to a dramatic reduction in the cost of energy. Even though these kinds of prophesies have caused healthy skepticism among a number of experts, they initiated a discussion  on the future of controlled thermonuclear fusion. Alas, most top scientists lay hopes on the ITER international reactor in France, expecting substantial breakthroughs not earlier than 2025.  This joint international project, which originated in the 1980s, is being implemented by seven major partners (the European Union, India, China, South Korea, Russia, the United States, Japan) on the French Cote d’Azur. The 60-meter tokamak, weighing more than 23000 tons, will generate energy by fusion reaction with heavy hydrogen isotopes with the temperature of over 100 million degrees. A mere 1 gram of the mixture of deuterium and tritium will give the same amount of energy as 8 tons of oil. But commercial production of such energy is not expected to start until 2040. ITER designers say their research team expect to devise a genuinely cost-effective thermonuclear reactor by 2060. This means that there are at least another 40 years to go before we see cheap energy. The optimistic Chinese rely on brand new technologies and are planning to start a large-scale production of thermonuclear energy 10 years earlier.

Meanwhile, a few successful projects of 2020, along with further work on ITER, are bound to become key to the development of international scientific cooperation in the coming year. On December 4th Chinese physicists launched the HL-2M thermonuclear reactor with plasma temperature reaching 150 million degrees. Russia’s Kurchatov Institute is planning the launch of T-15MD reactor in the near future. After two years of consultations, US scientists presented a 10-year plan for the Federal Consultative Committee for Thermonuclear Energy Studies at the beginning of December. The plan urges the Energy Department to back the construction of a thermal nuclear plant prototype by 2040. Such reports add to the “thermonuclear hype” triggering speculation about the possibility of one state establishing a monopoly over thermonuclear energy. But even though many countries are keen on being the first in the development of cheap energy production technology, unlike the “vaccine race”, the nuclear physics world has long come to the understanding that any impressive results can be achieved only through joint research. This becomes clear from the performance of an international team that worked on the Large Hadron Collider. For this reason, Russia, which boasts unique experience of working on thermonuclear fusion, will undoubtedly have a good chance to continue to promote its image via “scientific diplomacy” in 2021. Though, unfortunately, cheap energy will remain a dream in the years to come.  

From our partner International Affairs

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U.S. Government Likely Perpetrated Biggest-Ever Catastrophic Global-Warming Event

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On September 28th, the AP headlined “Record methane leak flows from damaged Baltic Sea pipelines” and reported that “Methane leaking from the damaged Nord Stream pipelines is likely to be the biggest burst of the potent greenhouse gas on record, by far. … Andrew Baxter, a chemical engineer who formerly worked in the offshore oil and gas industry, and is now at the environmental group EDF …  said, ‘It’s catastrophic for the climate.’” The article pointed out that methane “is 82.5 times more potent than carbon dioxide at absorbing the sun’s heat and warming the Earth.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin had been aiming ultimately (and maybe soon) to get the gas to Europe flowing again, and said to EU nations on September 16th, “Just lift the sanctions on Nord Stream 2, which is 55 billion cubic metres of gas per year, just push the button and everything will get going.”

Here is what U.S. President Joe Biden had already promised about that on February 7th:

If Germany — if Russia invades — that means tanks or troops crossing the — the border of Ukraine again — then there will be — we — there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2.  We will bring an end to it. 

Q    But how will you — how will you do that exactly, since the project and control of the project is within Germany’s control?

PRESIDENT BIDEN:  We will — I promise you, we’ll be able to do it

He had promised to cause permanently the end of Nord Stream if Russia invaded, which it did on February 24th. He fulfilled on that promise on September 27th.

Radek Sikorsky, who is a Member of the European Parliament and had been Poland’s Foreign Minister and is the husband of the famous writer against Russia Anne Applebaum, and has been affiliated with Oxford Universisty, Harvard University, and NATO, tweeted on the day of the explosions, “Thank you, USA.” He also tweeted explanations: “All Ukrainian and Baltic sea states have opposed Nordstream’s construction for 20 years. Now $20 billion of scrap metal lies at the bottom of the sea, another cost to Russia of its criminal decision to invade Ukraine.” And: “Nordstream’s only logic was for Putin to be able to blackmail or wage war on Eastern Europe with impunity.”

Furthermore on September 27th, Germany’s Spiegel magazine reported that, as Reuters put it, “The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had weeks ago warned Germany about possible attacks on gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea” 

On September 28th, SouthFront headlined “No Way Back for Europe” and reported

It is reasonably suspected that the pipeline was blown up by the special services of the United States in order to finally stop the gas supplies to Germany from Russia.

On September 27, a detachment of warships led by the US amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge reported on the completion of their tasks in the area of the alleged sabotage in the Baltic Sea and headed for the North Sea.

Since the beginning of September, suspicious activity by anti-submarine helicopters of the US Navy has been observed in the area. In the last few days, reconnaissance activities of NATO aircraft have significantly intensified in the Baltic Sea area. In particular, a US Boeing E-3 Sentry reconnaissance aircraft was on constant patrol over the Baltic States, and a US Joint STARS was spotted over Germany and Poland.

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Solar Mini Grids Could Power Half a Billion People by 2030 – if Action is Taken Now

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Solar mini grids can provide high-quality uninterrupted electricity to nearly half a billion people in unpowered or underserved communities and be a least-cost solution to close the energy access gap by 2030. But to realize the full potential of solar mini grids, governments and industry must work together to systemically identify mini grid opportunities, continue to drive costs down, and overcome barriers to financing, says a new World Bank report.

Around 733 million people – mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa – still lack access to electricity. The pace of electrification has slowed down in recent years, due to the difficulties in reaching the remotest and most vulnerable populations, as well as the devastating effects of the COVID 19 pandemic. At the current rate of progress, 670 million people will remain without electricity by 2030.

Now more than ever, solar mini grids are a core solution for closing the energy access gap,” said Riccardo Puliti, Infrastructure Vice President at the World Bank. “The World Bank has been scaling up its support to mini grids as part of helping countries develop comprehensive electrification programs. With $1.4 billion across 30 countries, our commitments to mini grids represent about one-quarter of total investment in mini grids by the public and private sector in our client countries. To realize mini grids’ full potential to connect half a billion people by 2030, several actions are needed, such as incorporating mini grids into national electrification plans and devising financing solutions adapted to mini grid projects’ risk profiles.”

The deployment of solar mini grids has seen an important acceleration, from around 50 per country per year in 2018 to more than 150 per country per year today, particularly in countries with the lowest rates of access to electricity. This is the result of falling costs of key components, the introduction of new digital solutions, a large and expanding cohort of highly capable mini grid developers, and growing economies of scale.

Solar mini grids have become the least-cost way to bring high-quality 24/7 electricity to towns and cities off the grid or experiencing regular power cuts. The cost of electricity generated by solar mini grids has gone down from $0.55/kWh in 2018 to $0.38/kWh today. Modern solar mini grids now provide enough electricity for life-changing electric appliances, such as refrigerators, welders, milling machines or e-vehicles. Mini grid operators can manage their systems remotely, and paidsmart meters enable customers to pay as they use the electricity.  Connecting 490 million people to solar mini grids would avoid 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Further acceleration is needed, however, to meet Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7). Powering 490 million people by 2030 will require the construction of more than 217,000 mini grids at a cumulative cost of $127 billion. At current pace, only 44,800 new mini grids serving 80 million people will be built by 2030 at a total investment cost of $37 billion.

Produced by the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP), the new book, Mini Grids for Half a Billion people: Market Outlook and Handbook for Decision Makers, identifies five market drivers to set the mini grid sector on a trajectory to achieve full market potential and universal electrification:

  1.  Reducing the cost of electricity from solar hybrid mini grids to $0.20/kWh by 2030, which would put life-changing power in the hands of half a billion people for just $10 per month
  2. Increasing the pace of deployment to 2,000 mini grids per country per year, by building portfolios of modern mini grids instead of one-off projects
  3. Providing superior-quality service to customers and communities by providing reliable electricity for 3 million income-generating appliances and machines and 200,000 schools and clinics
  4. Leveraging development partner funding and government investment to “crowd in” private-sector finance, raising $127 billion in cumulative investment from all sources for mini grids by 2030.
  5. Establishing enabling mini grid business environments in key access-deficit countries through light-handed and adaptive regulations, supportive policies, and reductions in bureaucratic red tape.

The handbook is the World Bank’s most comprehensive and authoritative publication on mini grids to date.

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Price Cap on Russian Oil: The Mechanism and Its Consequences

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G7 countries are working hard to coordinate a sanctions regime to cap prices on Russian oil and oil products. The United States is already drafting a mechanism for applying these sanctions, which its allies and partners will use as a guideline. The new sanctions in the form of legal arrangements are expected to be formalised very soon. How will this mechanism work, and what consequences can this lead to?

An unprecedented range of economic sanctions has been used against Russia since the beginning of the special military operation in Ukraine in February 2022. Their primary aim was to deal the largest possible economic damage to force Moscow to revise its policy and to undermine its resources provision. Since energy exports are extremely important for funding the Russian economy, sanctions against its oil and gas sector were more than just predictable. However, the United States, the EU and other initiators had to act cautiously, because Russia is a major player on the global market. US restrictions on the export of Iranian oil had little impact on the global market, whereas blocking sanctions against Russian oil companies could lead to uncontrollable price hikes. This could accelerate inflation, which was growing fast on the back of COVID-19 and other factors.

Nevertheless, the sanctions noose on the oil sector was tightening. Some sectoral sanctions have been applied since 2014, such as restrictions on loans and on the supply of products, services, technologies and investment in the Arctic shelf oil projects. Blocking sanctions were adopted against a number of co-owners, owners and top managers in the fuel and energy sector. In March 2022, Washington prohibited the import of Russian energy resources to the United States. Canada acted likewise. The EU started with banning Russian coal imports and later spread the ban, with a few exceptions, to oil and oil products. The bans are to come into force on December 5, 2022, and February 5, 2023, respectively. The UK plans to stop the import of Russian oil this year. Overall, Western countries are working to gradually banish Russian oil and oil products from their markets.

However, Moscow has quickly redirected its deliveries to Asian markets, where Western countries cannot easily impose similar restrictions, especially since Russian companies are selling their products with large discounts. The idea of a price cap has been proposed to be able to influence Russian oil prices outside Western countries.

The essence of the proposed mechanism is very simple. The United States, G7 and any other countries that join the coalition will legally prohibit the provision of services which enable maritime transportation of Russian-origin crude oil and petroleum products that are purchased above the price cap. The US Treasury has issued a Preliminary Guidance to explain the essence of the forthcoming bans, to be formalised in a determination pursuant to Executive Order 14071 of April 6, 2022. Section 1 (ii) of the executive order empowers the US Treasury and the Department of State to prohibit the export or re-export of “any category of services” to Russia. The upcoming Determination will explain the ban for American parties to provide services which enable the transportation of Russian-origin crude oil and petroleum products above the price cap. The US administration plans to enforce the ban on oil on December 5, 2022, and the ban on oil products on February 5, 2023, simultaneously with the EU bans on Russian oil imports.

But what is the exact meaning of the phrase “services which enable maritime transportation”? The US will most likely offer an extended interpretation. In other words, such services will include transportation, related financial transactions, insurance, bunkering, port maintenance and the like. This would allow Washington to influence a broad range of service providers outside the United States. For example, the US administration might consider dollar-denominated transactions on oil transportation to fall under US jurisdiction, so that very many players outside the US will face fines or prosecution. Punishment for avoiding the price cap, as well as for using deceptive shipping practices, have been set out in the new Guidance.

It is another matter how strictly the other coalition countries will implement this guidance and how large this coalition can be. The level of coordination within the initiator countries will likely remain very high, which means that the allied countries will do this in accordance with their national legislations. The coalition will include the countries that have already adopted sanctions against Russia.

The biggest question is whether the countries that have not adopted such sanctions, including Russia-friendly countries, can be convinced to join the coalition. The answer is most probably negative, but this will not settle the problem. Despite the official position of the friendly countries, their businesses could surrender to the US demand to avoid the risk of persecution.

The G7 statement and the new Guidance of the US Treasury imply that the sanctions are being imposed out of concern for the international community rather than solely for the purpose of punishing Russia. They say that the price cap is designed to stop the growth of oil prices that have been artificially inflated by the conflict in Ukraine. However, this “concern” can lead to unpredictable consequences.

To begin with, the latest attempt at the political mandating of prices will increase uncertainty, which will further drive the prices up. Prices can grow on expectations of problems with signing deals on the delivery of Russian oil and oil products over excessive compliance, which will lead to temporary shortages. Another problem is that the other oil producers will have to lower prices as well. They will not like this.

In fact, the sellers’ market is being changed into the buyers’ market by artificial political methods rather than for economic reasons.

And lastly, Russia is being forced to become the leader of dumping. Demand for its oil could be higher than for the products of other suppliers, and Moscow can make up for its profit shortfall by increasing deliveries. If the Western countries that prohibit the import of Russian oil and oil products buy other suppliers’ oil at higher prices while Asian countries continue to buy Russian products, this will artificially increase the competitiveness of Asian economies.

It is time for Russia to start thinking about adjusting to the Western restrictions, including by developing its own tanker fleet and abandoning the US dollar in oil deals. The latter is the prevalent task of Russia’s foreign trade in the new political conditions.

From our partner RIAC

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