As Canada and the world become more sensitive to climate change, it is undeniable that shifting away from oil and gas will trend for decades. Canadian provinces, like Nova Scotia, which produces about half of its electricity using coal, or Alberta, an economically oil dependent province, should be interested to learn more about an innovative clean energy solution called Nuclear Fusion.
Nuclear Fusion could meet our needs and decrease our reliance on fossil fuel1. It is the fusion of two different hydrogen atoms, Deuterium and Tritium, which produce a heavier element, helium, one neutron, and an insane amount of Ion plasma1. Several countries, including the USA, France and China, have started a Nuclear Fusion project called International Thermal Experiment Reactor (ITER). Though Canada will not contribute financially, it has offered expertise to the project2.
ITER infrastructure is currently being built and an experiment is scheduled to start in December 20251. At the center of this project is an enormous donut shape fusion reactor called Tokamak. Tokamak uses a magnetic field to constrain the Ion plasma and thus constrain heat. Heat of up to 150 million degrees Celsius is generated through the Ion plasma needed to keep the hydrogen isotopes from colliding and fusing, and this creates a continuous collision-fusion cycle. The cycle will continue so long as Helium is removed, and hydrogen isotopes are added. Using the excess heat absorbed by the wall lining, Tokamak can heat water vapour to spin turbines and produce electricity. Electrical output is estimated to be between 1 to 1.7 gigawatts which is enough to power at least 300,000 North American houses1.
Fusion energy has four million times more energy than a chemical reaction such as the burning of coal, oil or gas, and it produces no carbon dioxide emissions1. A facility reactor won’t need replacement for about 100 years and it creates minimal radioactive waste. In a nutshell, ITER is safer by several order of magnitude than nuclear fission energy1.
ITER sounds like an ideal source of carbon free and sustainable energy, but like everything, it has weaknesses that need to be noted. Firstly, it would be expensive. Tritium is costly to produce and is worth about $30,000 per gram1. And second, it is not available in the near term. It will take at least two decades of large-scale fusion experiments before electricity can be produced using this new technology. It will take years and many talented scientists, as it did to develop nuclear or natural gas power1, but I am optimistic ITER has incredible potential for the later half of the century. Remember that producing electricity using any new technology is historically laborious and expensive in the beginning, but with economy of scale costs lower over time.
If substantial, positive global climate changes are to occur the countries responsible for emitting most greenhouse gases would have to heavily invest in this technology, and offer this expertise to less wealthy countries to help shift energy dependence away from fossil fuels. Realistically, many people are not ready to make the necessary personal sacrifices needed to positively effect climate change, and using ITER to produce plentiful, safe and clean energy on a planet with shrinking tolerance for greenhouse gas emissions is a shining possibility for the future amidst the sea of current mitigation and clean-tech approaches.
- 2021. Retrieved from: https://www.iter.org/
- Global Affairs Canada. The ITER Project. 2018 April 17. Retrieved from: https://www.canada.ca/en/global-affairs/news/2018/04/the-iter-project.html