By Brian Finlay – The issue of global energy sits at the nexus of the most urgent issues of our time. The importance of clean, cheap, and accessible energy to international security, economic development, global environmental preservation, public health, food production, and virtually every facet of human existence on our planet, make the search for alternative supplies the grand challenge of our time.
A recent report by the Shell Oil Company characterized the current environment with “three hard truths”: namely, that (1) developing nations are entering their most energy-intensive phase of economic growth as they industrialize; that (2) by 2015, growth in the production of fossil fuels will not match the projected rate of demand growth; and that (3) even if it were possible for fossil fuels to respond to increased demand, resulting CO2 emissions could severely threaten humanity.
These facts have yielded renewed interest in civilian nuclear power generation. Some predict that there will be a vast increase in the number of states that will develop or expand nuclear power capacity-an increase from 30 nuclear power-using states to perhaps 50 or 60 by 2050. And although nuclear power has the potential to help bridge the gap between supply and demand, it also has the potential to greatly complicate global security with rampant proliferation.
A “Whole of Society” Approach
The energy challenge is so vast and complex-scientifically, politically, and financially-that neither government nor purely market-based approaches are likely to yield the requisite solutions on reasonable timelines. The technical and financial challenges alone required to develop energy alternatives are bigger than any single institution operating in isolation. As such, we must be as innovative with our approaches to the solution as we are with the scientific solutions themselves.
In the field of energy security, governments, industry, and academia all share common goals, even if their motivations differ. Appropriately incenting each constituency to work together toward a common objective is the formula for success. Public-private partnerships that leverage the best science and the requisite resources will be critical. In Northern California, one group of scientists, philanthropists, environmentalists, and businesspeople has formed The Energy Project Foundation. Their goal is to press for innovative solutions to the global energy and proliferation challenge with a “whole of society” approach to Heavy Ion Fusion (HIF).
HIF is a large-scale energy process discovered a generation ago, yet one that has been missing from today’s national energy conversation. The organization’s strategy is to work with American and international laboratories-as well as government, academic, philanthropic, and capital partners-to accomplish both the design and construction phases of a fusion facility. Although the US government funds HIF programs at Lawrence Berkley National Lab, the Foundation is seeking public/private funding equal to the mission of achieving the first consumer-ready energy plant within urgent timeframes to help solve the energy and environmental crises.
The Fusion Alternative
For decades we have been told that fusion energy could offer a practical, durable, safe solution to the now urgent problems of dwindling fossil fuel, global warming, and proliferation. Since its collaborative development at Lawrence Livermore, Argonne, and Brookhaven national labs in the 1970s, repeated assessments and preliminary point designs have consistently reconfirmed the readiness of HIF technology. HIF emerged at a time when peak oil, the climate crisis, and a destabilizing nuclear arms race were not concerns as they are today. Today, this public-private partnership is convinced that Heavy Ion Fusion energy can provide a solution to this triple threat.
In July, The Energy Project Foundation presented its first scientific HIF Workshop at Stanford University, inviting people in business and technology to learn about HIF from leading developers. The meeting also introduced TEPF’s plan to realize the full benefits of a 100 gigawatt (GW) output by integrating energy-intensive industries in an energy-uses complex surrounding the fusion system. The reviewing scientists at the Stanford Workshop later produced a Findings report concluding that (1) although there are a variety of technical challenges, none appear insurmountable to the present state of knowledge; that (2) to address the urgency of the energy and climate change problems, TEPF should take a build-to-operate approach; and that (3) with commensurate funding, the first HIF plant could produce abundant, clean, and consumer-ready energy in less than a decade.
Understanding the Science
Fusion energy gives ten million times as much energy per pound of fuel than any type of chemical energy. Having unprecedented economies of scale, HIF could produce 100 GW of clean power per site, or the equivalent of burning 125 million tons of coal or 516 million barrels of oil per year, with not a trace of the carbon footprint of these fossil fuels. Using the energy from fusion as heat at varying temperatures, its energy system could economically produce a range of products, including electricity, renewable hydrogen and liquid methanol fuels, freshwater, and excess heat for other industrial uses. And unlike nuclear fission power plants, HIF does not use uranium or plutonium. Iran or North Korea could have HIF energy and threaten no one with it.
Summiting the Mountain: The Energy Project Foundation
As intriguing as the science may be, the innovative public-private approach in pursuit of their objective is an instructive model for addressing a variety of society’s grand challenges-from health, to energy, to nonproliferation.
The challenge of satisfying the global energy needs while remaining sensitive to the environmental and security problems has been compared to the focused effort of the moon shot. But the implications of failure far exceed the risks of the 1960s.
The financial and scientific challenges will require the best minds from a new consortium of government, industry, and academia. The Energy Project Foundation has pioneered an innovative new approach to tapping these constituencies for the common goal of promoting HIF as a scientific and political alternative to fossil fuels.
TEPF is but one approach focused on a single energy alternative. Its importance is not only the viability of HIF, but the Foundation’s pioneering and innovative mechanism to meeting the global energy crisis-one that can serve as a model for addressing the most pressing challenge of our time.
Brian Finlay co-directs the Cooperative Nonproliferation Program, a multifaceted project designed to accelerate existing efforts and design innovative new initiatives aimed at more rapidly and sustainably securing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, materials, and expertise.