The Energy Sector is Changing Radically
Despite the scepticism and reluctance of legacy fossil fuel providers, the energy sector is changing. The exploration of new power sources, namely renewables like solar, wind and biomass, has reduced our dependence on finite resources. SolarCity, First Solar Inc., Vestas Wind Systems and ABB Ltd. are just a handful of businesses working to achieve a sustainable future through clean energy.
It will perhaps come as no surprise that tech giants are getting involved, too. Mike Cassidy, Vice President of Google X, has co-founded a new company called Apollo Fusion. The startup isn’t working on standard renewable options, though. Apollo Fusion is focused on the development of nuclear energy. In light of accidents like the 2011 Fukushima Disaster, when three nuclear reactors melted and caused an emergency, public opinion has been largely negative. Last year, a survey found that over half of Americans opposed it. Is nuclear fusion a viable solution to ongoing energy issues – and can companies like Apollo Fusion turn public opinion around?
Transforming nuclear power
Clean energy and nuclear energy might not sound compatible, but we’re not talking about radioactive waste and giant powerplants. Traditional, non-renewable nuclear technology is called fission, and uses uranium to split particles. An unfortunate side effect of this process is the creation of radioactive waste, which hasn’t done much for nuclear power’s overall image. However, the solution under development at Cassidy’s startup is very different. The team is using hybrid reactor technology alongside fusion power to generate safe, clean and affordable electricity. Instead of splitting atoms with rare uranium, fusion combines them using raw materials which are far more common. All stars, including the sun, are nuclear fusion reactors – but that’s obviously pretty difficult to replicate on Earth. Up until now, fusion has been a commercial disappointment, taking up more energy than it produces. However, advances in supercomputers are making it easier to understand the physics behind the process. Although fusion isn’t strictly renewable, it’s much better in terms of sustainability than fossil fuels or fission. As well as actually getting it to work, Apollo Fusion has the daunting task of convincing people to accept that nuclear energy can be safe. They won’t have to do it alone, though. The startup has competition from the likes of TriAlpha Energy, Helion Energy and General Fusion, which is backed by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Academic institutions like MIT are also playing their part. After six decades of unfulfilled ambitions, it looks like fusion could finally be achieving its aims.
How could nuclear fusion disrupt energy?
Apollo Fusion claims that their technology is emission-free, inexpensive and overall safe. If this is proven and the public begins to accept this, nuclear power can begin to recover from past events and fuel disruption in the industry. For a start, successful fusion uses common raw materials and is therefore cheaper than traditional energy creation. It doesn’t produce harmful by-products either. Ultimately, fusion is a stepping stone towards wider renewable energy, representing progression away from traditional methods through innovation. Its adoption could help to convince legacy providers that their current models are outdated and destined to fail. The growing collaborative trend in business strategy could lead to co-operation instead of competition, further encouraging sustainable development. In short, increased investment, advancements in computer processing and improved public opinion will enable fusion to cause positive disruption in the energy sector. But first, it needs to become commercially feasible, and that’s the challenge that companies like Apollo Fusion are taking on.
In an ideal world, nuclear fusion could provide a feasible solution to energy problems. But the question is, can it really work? With the combined attention and investment of various companies and educational facilities, perhaps it could. . . and with Amazon and MIT’s resources, virtually anything is possible.
Even so, there are still important barriers to overcome. Nuclear technology is still a touchy subject, and it will take a lot for people to see past previous powerplant malfunctions and trust that new plants are safe. Technological ability is also an on-going issue, as fusion relies on advanced supercomputer models. Obstacles aside, Apollo Fusion and other forward-looking energy firms have set the ball rolling. Other innovative businesses in the sector should follow their example, and collaborate together to accelerate development. Perhaps then, after 60 years, fusion can finally deliver on its promises.
Is nuclear fusion a viable solution? Can Apollo Fusion, General Fusion and other companies convince people to accept and adopt nuclear energy? Should energy firms focus entirely on renewable sources instead? Comment below with your thoughts and opinions.