Energy: Centre to Edge

Can fusion power live up to expectations?

The big current bet in energy is on batteries. Battery technology has had no shortage of coverage, from grid cable battery tech to the simple and elegant solution of using Norway as a sovereign battery. The drive is to make energy efficient, available and ultra cheap. But how? Cold fusion – nuclear power that’s safe and cheap – could be the answer. Nuclear fusion has been at the top of scientific agendas for years, promising to provide clean, affordable energy for entire urban spaces. We still seem far away from seeing this dream become a reality, but this could all be about to change. . .

Funding fusion

This month, MIT received a $50 million grant from Commonwealth Fusion Systems to build a compact device capable of generating 100 million watts, or 100 megawatts (MW), of fusion power within the next 15 years. That’s enough power to fuel a small city, without the nasty environmental side effects of nuclear fission. So, what’s holding back development? A large part of the problem is the availability of enough fuel. The basic ingredients, like Helium 3, aren’t exactly easy to come by. But while they are rare and therefore expensive on earth, they are abundant on the moon. Ambitious as always, Elon Musk has quickly snapped up the opportunity. The serial disruptor has hinted that he aims to create human colonies on Mars and the moon within the next few years. This, of course, is the first step (or giant leap) towards capitalizing on lucrative lunar resources.

From outer space to your front room

There is a parallel world that offers some hope that nuclear fusion technology will deliver faster than expected, without necessitating a large scale mission to the moon. Quantum computers, for example, were originally forecasted to reach quantum supremacy by around 2030. Google announced a 70 bit quantum computer in 2018, also stating that it would expect to cross the quantum supremacy boundary in that same year – 12 years ahead of schedule. The march of technology continues at an exponential rate, so it’s not entirely unreasonable to expect viable cold fusion to beat its targets as well. So, we could be within 10 to 12 years of having vast amounts of energy generation and large amounts of storage. . . but what do we do with the excess?

One innovative concept has been developed by Qarnot. The French firm has built a householder space heater – in other words, a radiator – that heats rooms using the heat generated from cryptocurrency mining. This model is also being run by the Chinese on a national scale. Due to subsidized energy, 60 per cent of the world’s Bitcoin miners are based in China. Bitcoin mining is incredibly energy intensive, and currently consumes a whopping 0.12 per cent of the world’s entire energy generation. This is excess energy turning a profit at the point of use, potentially turning the home into a profit centre based on cheap energy. Utility companies, take note.

The concept of clean, affordable power via cold fusion almost sounds too good to be true. . . and if we can’t get hold of the right resources, it will be. Luckily, the energy sector is undergoing a mass transition towards more sustainable options that is supported by business tycoons, governments and innovative companies. Now we just need the infrastructure to support it.

Does nuclear fusion provide a tangible answer to the ongoing energy dilemma? What responsibility do governments have to support sustainable power projects? Will fusion exceed or fall short of expectations? Please share your thoughts.

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