Global warming and the promise of nuclear fusion

Fusion energy could be a carbon-free source of power, but would take decades of work before commercial benefits

Shahid Javed Burki December 26, 2022
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank


As discussed in the article in this space last week, the developed world is prepared to put a large amount of money at the disposal of the developing world to help fight the consequences of global warming. Most of the damage poor nations are now confronting was caused by centuries of fossil fuel burning by today’s developed world. Global warming has caused faster melting of mountain ice which is causing floods in countries downstream. Warmer air also carries more water which brings heavy rains. Pakistan saw both consequences of global warming in the summer 2022 which caused loss of some $30 to $40 billion to the economy. This is equivalent to about a tenth of the current GDP. While the past cannot be fixed, the future can be handled. One way of doing this is to use fusion to generate power. There is good news from the scientific community in the US about the possibility of going on this route.

As some commentators wrote for an American newspaper, “Fusion energy is the ultimate clean-energy dream. It’s what powers the sun. Researchers have been trying for decades to mimic that process. But creating what amounts to a mini star that can be hooked up to the electrical grid has been an expensive, grindingly slow, often frustrating process, with electricity from fusion always seemingly at least couple of decades ago.” That notwithstanding the news that a laboratory had brought the Sun to the Earth was exciting enough for politicians to take note of it. Senator Charles Schumer of New York, a Democrat, declared the scientists’ and engineers’ work propitious enough to make a statement full of excitement. “This astonishing scientific advance puts us on the precipice of a future no longer reliant on fossil fuels but instead powered by new clean fusion energy,” said the senator.

What excited the majority leader in the US Senate was the news that came on December 5, 2022 from the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California that used lasers to fire a synchronised shot at a golden cylinder about the size of a jelly bean. The bean had hydrogen which was bombarded with exquisite precision on a capsule containing the frozen grain of the gas.

What made this an exciting news was that for a fraction of a second, the temperature in the hydrogen capsule exceeded that in the core of the sun, bringing about a merger of hydrogen atoms into atoms of helium. This is the process that keeps the sun incredibly hot with inexhaustible supply of heat. The amount of heat that was used was less than what was generated. This was the first time this deed had been achieved in a controlled experiment. There was a net gain when 2.05 megajoules of energy fired by a team of lasers produced 3.15 megajoules. However, it required a facility the size of a sports stadium to operate one of the most powerful laser arrays in the world.

This could become a carbon-free source of power, but it would take decades of work before the commercial benefits are fully realized. Lasers for the moment are very inefficient. Those used in the California laboratory required about 300 megajoules — enough to power an average home for three days. For the technology to become commercially viable, the reaction involving the fusion of hydrogen atoms would have to be repeated at rapid sequence and targets will need to be manufactured at low cost in large numbers.

As Sabine Hossenfelder, a physicist, put it in a newspaper article, “The decision to ramp up investment into fusion in the wake of the breakthrough is ultimately a question of how much we value the lives of future generations. Wind and solar energy often require large installations that take up huge swathes of land (with exception of offshore wind). Moreover, solar and wind work better in some parts of the world than in others. Much of Europe is farther north than the United States and gets less sunlight during the winter. Most of Europeans don’t live on islands that can be surround with wind farms.” Various parts of Britain are close to the sea and massive investments are being made by several cities that are on the coast to develop wind farms. Nuclear power — eventually sourced from fusion operations at the moment at the experimental stage — is a way to generate huge amount of power from a small space. If space is scarce as is the case in many countries — in particular in the crowded parts of Africa and Asia — nuclear is the way to go. This breakthrough may bring about a revolutionary change in the way energy is produced in the developed world but it won’t matter much for poor nations such as Pakistan.

With billions of dollars of additional development funds on their way to the developing world through institutions such as the IMF and the development banks such as the World Bank Group, Pakistan should set up a mechanism to determine how this money can be put to use to deal with the consequences of global warming. Here the country has a precedence it can use to solve a problem of water availability when the flows in the rivers that had sources in the ice-covered mountains declines. This will happen when the ice cover in the mountains loses thickness. The precedence is the Indus Water Replacement Works that were based on the Indus Water Treat signed in Karachi in 1960 by President Ayub Khan of Pakistan and the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

The anticipated change in the amount of water into the Indus River system — first a lot and then little as the ice melts — would need to be dealt with by constructing massive storage dams in the rivers on the Indus as well as on its tributaries that came to Pakistan’s share as a result of the 1960 Water Treaty. In a study done by the World Bank’s engineering department some years ago, 12 sites on the Indus and its system of rivers were suggested that could create large water storage facilities that would provide water in the rivers when the flows begin to decline. This scheme was termed the ‘Indus Cascade’ and would need billions of dollars to construct. The under-construction Dasu dam is one such operation.

Some such work has been done in Pakistan under what is called the ‘Water Vision 2025’ which will be undertaken by WAPDA in three phases. Pakistan should set up a working group that would give operational meaning to the ‘cascade’ idea. This was done in the case of the Indus Water Replacement Works and could be done again. While fusion may eventually provide countries such as the US with carbon-free energy, Pakistan has different needs. These too would need large amounts of financial resources as was the case with the Indus works in the 1960s and 1970. Large amounts of new money may become available once the promise made by the rich nations at Sharm el-Sheikh is fulfilled. Pakistan should prepare itself to use this capital resource.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 26th, 2022.

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