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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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How Azerbaijan changed the energy map of the Caspian Sea

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image source: azertag.az

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, crude oil and natural gas have been playing a key role in the geopolitics of the Caspian region. Hydrocarbon revenues became an important source of economic growth for the Caspian Basin countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. Shortly after gaining independence in the early 1990s, the Caspian states implemented energy policies that protect their national interests. According to the BP 2020Statistical Review of World Energy total proved energy reserves of the Caspian states are: Kazakhstan has30.00 billion barrels of oil and 2.7 trillion cubic meters of gas, Azerbaijan 7.00billion barrels of oil and 2.8 trillion cubic meters of gas, and Turkmenistan 0.6billion barrels of oil and 19.5 trillion cubic meters of gas.

Such rich hydrocodone reserves allowed the Caspian states to contribute significantly to the global energy markets. Today, the Caspian states are supplying oil and natural gas to various energy markets, and they are interested in increasing export volume and diversification of export routes. In comparison with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, which supply energy sources mainly to China and Russia, Azerbaijan established a backbone to export energy sources to Europe and Transatlantic space. As the Caspian Sea is landlocked, and its hydrocarbon resources located at a great distance from the world’s major energy consumers, building up energy infrastructure was very important to export oil and gas.

To this end, Azerbaijan created the milestone for delivery of the first Caspian oil and natural gas by implementing mega energy projects such as Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and Southern Gas Corridor (SGC).Now, one can say that both energy projects resulted from successful energy policy implemented by Azerbaijan. Despite the COVID-19 recession, the supply of the Azerbaijani oil to the world energy markets continued. In general, the BTC pipeline carries mainly Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli (ACG) crude oil and Shah Deniz condensate from Azerbaijan. Also, other volumes of crude oil and condensate continue to be transported via BTC, including volumes from Turkmenistan, Russia and Kazakhstan. As it is clear, the BTC pipeline linked directly the Caspian oil resources to the Western energy markets. The BTC pipeline exported over 27.8 million tons of crude oil loaded on 278 tankers at Ceyhan terminal in 2020. The European and the Asian countries became the major buyers of the Azerbaijani oil, and Italy (26.2%) and China (14%) became two major oil importers from Azerbaijan.

The successful completion of the SGC also strengthened Azerbaijani position in the Caspian region. The first Caspian natural gas to the European energy markets has been already supplied via Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) in December 2020, which is the European segment of the SGC. According to TAP AG consortium,a total of one billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas from Azerbaijan has now entered Europe via the Greek interconnection point of Kipoi, where TAP connects to the Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP). The TAP project contributes significantly to diversification of supply sources and routes in Europe.

Another historical event that affected the Caspian region was the rapprochement between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. The MoU on joint exploration of “Dostluk/Friendship” (previously called Kapaz in Azerbaijani and Sardar in Turkmen) offshore field between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan was an important event that will cause positive changes in the energy map of the Caspian Sea.

The Assembly of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan Parliament have already approved the agreed Memorandumon joint exploration, development, and deployment of hydrocarbon resources at the “Dostluq” field. It should be noted that for the first time two Caspian states agreed to cooperate in the energy sector, which opens a window for the future Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP) from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan. Such cooperation and the future transit of Turkmen oil and gas via the existing energy infrastructure of Azerbaijan will be a milestone for trans-regional cooperation.

The supply of the Caspian and Central Asian natural gas to European energy markets was always attractive. Therefore, the TCP is a strategic energy project for the US and EU. After the signing of the Caspian Convention, the EU officials resumed talks with Turkmenistan regarding the TCP. The May 2019 visit of the Turkmen delegation headed by the Advisor of the President of Turkmenistan on oil and gas issues was aimed at holding technical consultations between Turkmenistan and the EU. Turkmen delegation met with the representatives of the General Directorate on Energy of the European Commission and with the representatives of “British Petroleum,” “Shell” and “Total” companies. TCP is a project which supports diversification of gas sources and routes for the EU, and the gas pipeline to the EU from Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan via Georgia and Turkey, known as the combination of “Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline” (TCP), “South-Caucasus Pipeline Future Expansion” (SCPFX) became the “Project of Common Interest” for the EU.

Conclusively, Azerbaijan is a key energy player in the region. Mega energy projects of the country play an important role to deliver Caspian oil and gas to global energy markets. However, the Second Karabakh War has revealed the importance of peace and security in the region. The BTC pipeline and the Southern Gas Corridor linking directly the Caspian energy to Western energy markets were under Armenian constant threat. As noted by Hikmat Hajiyev, the Foreign Policy Advisor to the President, “Armenia fired cluster rocket to BTC pipeline in Yevlak region”. Fortunately, during the Second Karabakh War, Azerbaijan protected its strategic infrastructure, and there was no energy disruption. But attacks on critical energy infrastructure revealed that instability in the region would cause damages to the interests of many states.

In the end, Azerbaijan changed the energy map of the Caspian Sea by completing mega energy projects, as well as creating the milestone for energy cooperation in the Caspian region. After Azerbaijan’s victory in the Second Karabakh War, the country supports full regional economic integration by opening all transport and communication links. Now, the importance of the Caspian region became much more important, and Azerbaijan supports the idea of the exportation of natural gas from Turkmenistan and the Mediterranean via SGC. Such cooperation will further increase the geostrategic importance of the SGC, as well as Azerbaijan’s role as a transit country.

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The Silk Road of Gas: Energy Business from Central Asia to Europe

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Central Asia possesses a significant role within the global geopolitical balance since it comprises numerous trade channels that link many businesses with millions of target customers from China to Portugal and vice-versa. Withal, by having abundant hydrocarbon potentials, the region offers tremendous opportunities to the global and local players.

Throughout the recent period, the preponderance of the energy-based plans and policies triggered the emergence of mega projects in the region, such as the Southern Gas Corridor, Central Asia–China gas pipeline, TAPI, and a possible Trans-Caspian pipeline in the upcoming years. Albeit these intense investment activities are foreshadowing new regional perspectives for economic development, it also generates additional alternatives and realities for the European policymakers.

The new business in the traditional routes

Anciently, the region was home to the legendary Silk Road, which was shaping the vivid economic landscape of the planet. Today, the region’s erstwhile role in trade seems to be revitalized to some extent by the projects such as the Road and Belt Initiative. In contradistinction to the past, energy forms the backbone of modern trade in Central Asia despite some cardinal difficulties of marketing and transportation.

In the last decade, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan had some attempts to increase their presence in the sector via their involvement in Central Asia–China gas pipeline. Notwithstanding, none of them was able to establish a comprehensive framework of cooperation with the EU as Azerbaijan. Through its unique Southern Gas Corridor project, which enables the transfer of the natural gas from the Shah Deniz field of the Caspian Sea to South Europe, Azerbaijan had radically transformed the pipeline mappings at the Caspian region. Concomitantly this channel provides a tremendous chance to the other landlocked Central Asian countries to be able to meet the rising demand in the European market.

Europe’s apprehension

From the European Union perspective, energy can be categorized as a strategic sector since the European economy increasingly relies on international suppliers. Currently, 54% of the energy consumption within the EU is imported mainly from Russia. More specifically, in 2019, Russian stake in the EU’s natural gas import was 44%, and the dependency of EU countries on Russian gas in 2013 as follows: Estonia 100%, Finland 100%, Latvia 100%, Lithuania 100%, Slovakia 100%, Bulgaria 97%, Hungary 83%, Slovenia 72%, Greece 66%, Czech Republic 63%, Austria 62%, Poland 57%, and Germany 46%. These substantial factors are forming the backdrop of the EU’s diversification policy in the concerning field through the establishment of intense diplomatic and economic ties to ensure the sustainability of energy security.

During the anticipated turbulent periods, especially considering the latest exacerbation between Russia and the Western bloc over the Ukraine dispute, the European economy might inevitably face some severe hurdles. Since there is a possibility that the process might be accompanied by the risk of the blockage of the Russian gas by the transit countries.

The viable solution

Geopolitical escalations undoubtedly hasten the energy diversification process within the European Union. Therefore, the essence of the energy policy of the EU can be categorized as a combination of liberal and realist approaches. Although the union intends to achieve its economic goals via the market mechanisms, it also adopts a realist standpoint in International Relations, specifically in the energy context.

As stated by the British Petroleum data published in 2019, proved gas reserves of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan totaled26,2 trillion cubic meters or 13,1% of the world’s known reserve. Undoubtedly, such an enormous potential would significantly contribute to the energy security of the EU.

Given the current situation in the European energy market and the global political climate, the EU cannot ignore its energy security concept, which is the fundamental aim of energy policy. In this sense, Southern Gas Corridor appears like the most convenient alternative by considering the future possibility of the construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline that would dramatically facilitate the direct transfer of the Central Asian gas to South Europe.

As long as the EU is dependent on the imports of fossil fuels, the necessity of the balance in the energy sector will remain topical. Hence the formulation of a rational approach towards cooperation with potential suppliers, particularly key countries such as Azerbaijan, is essential. Otherwise, the energy notion will remain a risky and problematic political and economic instrument.

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China, biomarine energy and its players

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In the future, China and Europe will compete and cooperate in the field of ocean energy and green hydrogen energy production. This is why this aspect is crucial in building a bridge of cooperation and friendship between China and Europe.

Wave energy in China is generally low and accounts for only one seventh of wave energy in Europe. Fujian Smart Energy Technology Co., Ltd. has a new patented technology that can increase wave energy in the operating area by over 10 times, causing negligible changes to the environment. It is an environmentally friendly technology that does not affect the free movement of marine life, and can increase wave power generation by over 100 MW. It is certainly innovative, ingenious and daring. It will require strong support from the Ministry of Natural Resources.

The “National Independent Contributions” are non-binding national plans outlining climate actions, including climate-related targets, policies and measures that governments intend to implement in response to climate change and as a contribution to achieving the global goals set out in the Paris Agreement of December 12, 2015.

In these projects China has proposed that carbon dioxide emissions should peak around 2030, striving – as a stakeholder – to achieve this target as soon as possible. In 2030, carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP will be reduced by 60-65% compared to 2005 and primary energy consumption will focus on non-fossil energy.

The percentage has reached about 20% and the volume of forest stock has increased by about 4.5 billion cubic metres compared to 2005. Support for this project may enable China to reach this target earlier.

Shenzhen (a sub-provincial centre of the People’s Republic of China belonging to the Guangdong Province) is positioned as a global oceanic central city. China plans to initiate wave hydrogen production projects in Shenzhen and establish headquarters there.

In this regard, the European Union will invest 470 billion euros in clean energy over the next 25 years, with a focus on the hydrogen energy sector. The European Union has already launched its Hydrogen Energy Strategy in summer 2020. By the end of 2024, the European Union will build a batch of renewable hydrogen electrolysis equipment with a single capacity of 100 megawatts and annual production across Europe will exceed one million tonnes.

The aim is to promote this technology in Europe and later in the world through the Belt and Road Initiative, i.e. the New Silk Road called for by President Xi Jinping. There are plans to build one hundred 600-MW wave power plants and one hundred wave hydrogen production projects with an annual output of 100,000 tonnes over the next 15 years.

China’s Roadmap 2.0 for Energy Saving Technology and New Energy Vehicles foresees that by the end of 2035 the number of fuel cell vehicles will amount to one million and the demand for hydrogen will reach two million tonnes. The International World Group’s 600-MW wave power project will produce 103,000 tonnes of green hydrogen per year.

The project can meet China’s hydrogen demand until 2035 and will provide energy from green and renewable hydrogen.

The China Hydrogen Energy Industry Development Report 2020 forecasts that, by the end of 2050, hydrogen energy will account for 10 per cent of final energy consumption, the number of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will be 30 million and hydrogen demand will be equal to 60 million tonnes.

The International World Group’s project can provide a steady flow of green hydrogen energy for 30 million vehicles. The related Sino-European Strategic Cooperation Agreement for Ocean Energy Development has a first and a second phase. The first will see the establishment of a global ocean energy technology research and development centre and then a Sino-European ocean energy technology research and development centre in Shenzhen.

At the same time, the ocean energy technology will be focused on its generation: from wave motion, from tidal power without dams, from offshore wind systems and also from offshore solar energy.

The cost of producing hydrogen from non-fresh seawater is lower than the cost of producing hydrogen from oceans and pertains to an advanced technology.

Zhisheng Energy currently holds invention patents for 100-MW wave power generation, as well as for environmentally friendly tidal power generation, and 10-MW wind power generation.

On the afternoon of April 16, President Xi Jinping held a video-conference-in Beijing with French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel. The leaders of the three countries held an in-depth exchange of views on cooperation for tackling climate change, China-EU relations, anti-epidemic cooperation and major international and regional issues.

President Xi Jinping stated that China would strive to achieve peak carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. This means that China, as the largest developing country on the planet, will complete the world’s highest carbon intensity reduction in a shorter timeframe than any third party. This stands in contrast to other powers that in Presidential candidates’ election speeches promise respect for the environment, but in fact do nothing more than confirm old energy production systems.

The President said China decided to accept the Kigali Amendment of October 15, 2016 to the Montreal Protocol of August 26, 1987 to strengthen the control of greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide such as HFCs (refrigerant gases containing hydrofluorocarbons).

He argued that responding to climate change should be the common cause of all mankind and should not be a bargaining chip for geopolitics, a target to attack other countries or an excuse to erect trade barriers.

During the video-conference the President also said China would adhere to the principles of equity, common responsibilities and responsibilities differentiated by the respective capabilities, as well as promote the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change of June 4, 1992 and the Paris Agreement and actively carry out South-South cooperation on climate change.

He added he hoped that developed economies would lead by example in reducing emissions and take the lead in meeting their climate financial commitments, so as to provide adequate technical and capacity-building support to developing countries to tackle these epoch-making energy changes.

A few words are now appropriate about Xi Jingping’s most important collaborator on environmental issues: Ministers Lu Hao and Huang Runqiu.

The Minister of Natural Resources, Lu Hao (born in 1967), was the youngest provincial Governor in China, ruling Heilongjiang Province (population: 38,312,224 inhabitants in 2010) from 2013 to 2018. Lu Hao also served as First Secretary of the Communist Youth League and vice-mayor of Beijing. At the age of 20, he was elected Head of the University Students’ Union, becoming the first student union President, elected by popular vote since the Cultural Revolution. He holds a degree in Economics and Business from Peking University.

Lu Hao became Head of the Zhongguancun Administrative Office in 1999, thus beginning his career in the Public Administration. The area is known as China’s Silicon Valley, rich in technology start-ups.

He also served ex officio as President of the China Youth University for Political Sciences. Prior to Lu Hao, several political heavyweights, including former party leaders Hu Yaobang and Hu Jintao, as well as Premier Li Keqiang, had served in that position.

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