The Energy Race: Oil, Nuclear, Renewables Asad Hussain 08 APRIL 2016

It is an industry that dominates news outlets and dictates discourse of the current political environment. We are constantly told that we are in the midst of an oncoming energy crisis: our fossil fuel reserves are limited. Yet, fossil fuels are what we fundamentally rely upon. From major ventures such as electricity generation to our own direct day-to-day dependency on them through cars and gas hobs. We are increasing demand, which results possibly in empowering morally ambiguous rulers due to our dependency on them, and we are also aware that this is not a sustainable avenue.

I, myself, am a Nuclear Fusion scientist. Nuclear Fusion is where we aim to harness the process by which the sun generates its own energy and recreate it on earth. We are very far from achieving this. We are likely to stay this way. I am only a small cog in a global movement to make this possible. And while we have the best scientific minds that have developed a vast array of theoretical approaches to make Nuclear Fusion a reality, we are hindered on a day to day basis.

Science is an interesting field to work in. I am reminded of the documentary “Particle Fever”. In this scene, a scientist is standing at a podium addressing questions, concerns, and queries regarding the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). As expected, one of the questions is regarding the economic benefit of such a venture. The simple and honest answer given; we don’t know and we don’t care. It is to the point. Scientists aim to discover and develop the very fundamental nature of how our universe functions. This is one of the reasons that experiments like the LHC are limited.

We largely live in a capitalist world and a world that has become inherently selfish. We proved that through the nuclear arms and nuclear power race. We rushed to achieve an immediate benefit without thinking through the ramifications. Don’t get me wrong, I think nuclear energy is fantastic. I just think that if we had spent a little while longer actually getting the fundamentals right, not developing it solely as a method to gain hegemony in an ever changing political environment; we might not be beset by myriad difficulties in being able to progress and implement new and alternative technologies at an even more astounding rate than what we could have thought. For instance, we already have the answer (in my opinion) to the current world’s energy crisis in Fast Fission nuclear reactors. These guarantee operation for millennia given current reserves alone! The technology is ready for deployment. Surely it ought to be clear that investment should be directed towards deploying these and guaranteeing safe operation of such. That is so far not the case.

The same is true of Nuclear Fusion. Currently, we are moving towards developing ITER – a fusion reactor based in the south of France. It is a global operation with contributions from multiple states. A venture that has an expected cost of US$ 14-15 billion which is in the region of how much the LHC venture cost. A massive sum, no doubt. Consider however that the 2014 FIFA world cup cost around the same amount and was shouldered by one country! Surely, it shouldn’t be an issue then to invest in a possible source of energy. Yet, we are constantly faced with opposition and questions on its cost.

I will be the first to put my hand up and say that the economic case for Fusion energy is not obvious. It is going to have a high capital cost, the profits (once achieved) remain unclear, and we’re not entirely sure if we’ll actually make it a reality. But the amount of science we have developed as a result already is astounding. We are looking at a next generation of materials that would be capable of being used in very demanding environments, we are enhancing our understanding of material science, we are moving towards understanding how superconductivity works (the significance of this can be understood by realising that every time a superconducting material is discovered, it is a Nobel prize winning discovery), we have made advances in the field of turbulence, and I am fairly certain I am only scratching the surface. Yet a fervent demand for the immediate economic benefit is constantly made and hinders scientific advancement. I can only hope that this attitude does not result in a very tough time for humanity, I already believe that a large portion of the global populace feels its effect.