Seizing energy

Bangkok Post 29 Jun 2016

It’s expensive, complicated and risky, but Park Jaeyong knows that nuclear fusion is one of the only long-term hopes our planet has

Park Jaeyoung in the nuclear-fusion-reactor research facility. photo Courtesy of Park Jaeyoung/ EMC2

‘What if we can capture the sun and put it in a box?” Park Jaeyoung, an astrophysicist who once worked at the nuclear research centre Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, told students and guests at Khon Kaen University, his eyes reflecting his enthusiasm as passion lit up the room.

“What if we can have nuclear energy that’s environmentally safe, no greenhouse-gas emission, no radioactive waste to be used as weapon and lead to nuclear proliferation. What if we can have nuclear energy that has no meltdown? No Chernobyl, no Fukushima!”

For Thailand, where villagers still protest against coal-fired power plants and the most common environmental topic concerns fatal leakage of radioactive Cobalt-60, the mention of nuclear-fusion energy sounds like something from sci-fi. But Park, who worked with the US Navy after obtaining his PhD from Princeton University, meant every word he said.

Park is now president and chief scientist at Energy Matter Conversion Corporation (EMC2), a company that researches nuclear-fusion energy. He came to Thailand last month to give a lecture at Khon Kaen University Park, and to find out whether governments and energy companies in this part of the world are interested in nuclear-fusion energy.

EMC2 has been funded to research and develop fusion technology for the US Navy during the past two decades. The company this year just obtained an approval to export its patent “Polywell Fusion reactor” technology.

Casual and eloquent, Park is a scientist who tries to bring cutting-edge inventions to daily use. He explained that nuclear fusion, an extremely complicated physics, has always been an elusive dream of scientists trying to create a clean, safe, affordable and sustainable form of energy. Scientists have been researching the technology for several decades, and a breakthrough is on the way, as laboratories and scientists have started inventing new prototypes and trying to find ways to commercialise.

“The technology [of nuclear fusion] transforms much faster than was once projected, about two decades ahead. Now we have a smaller, more competitive and faster route to a clean, safe source of energy.”

Fusion reaction is another form of nuclear energy, and it’s the same reaction that powers the sun and the stars — and also the hydrogen bomb. It’s different from nuclear fission, another atomic-reaction technology currently used in commercial nuclear-power plants. In terms of science, the fusion process is based on the merging of two elements to produce energy, while mainstream nuclear-fission energy stems from the atom-splitting process.

National governments have been working on nuclear-fusion power. A large research project called ITER, in the south of France, is funded by the European Union, Japan, Russia, China, South Korea, and the US, with an aim to develop a large-scale safe and carbon-free energy reactor. It cost over US$14 billion (12.65 trillion baht), and is expected to test-run in 2025. At the same time, governments and financial institutions have funded smaller nuclear-fusion-reactor projects.

Lockheed Martin, for example, has developed a compact fusion reactor that can fit in the back of a large truck, which, according to the company’s claims, can power a city of 100,000 people. Tri-alpha Energy gets funding from the Russian government, Goldman Sachs, and the Vulcan venture-capital fund. founder Jeff Bezos and the Malaysian government are financing a Canadian fusion-energy-reactor project

“It needs leadership to see its potential,” says Park, adding that the nuclear technology only need a few more years to test-run. Climate-change-induced environmental woe are highly detrimental to the economy of the region.

“Rising sea levels in Thailand are a serious treat. Meanwhile, coal-mining in Indonesia is environmentally devastative. On the regional level, the Mekong River drought cost US$10 billion. Obviously, Asean and Thailand are facing environmental threats.

At this stage, investment in nuclear-fusion technology is needed because the world might need cleaner and safer energy to cope with climate change. But Park says the transformation of the energy industry needs vision, not quick-profit decision.

“We still face difficulty in the transition to renewable energy. But even though we see increased deployment of solar and wind, market prediction indicates coal and natural gas will still account for 60% of electricity generation in 204,0 and that reflects continuing technical challenges for sustainable energy.” Investing in carbon-free energy is urgent, as Thailand is highly vulnerable to the (climate-change-induced) rising sea level. Despite Thailand’s ambitions to have nuclear-fission power plants, the public is still alarmed by the potential for accident, and by the risks of disposing radioactive waste. Fusion has a lower risk of radioactive waste, and fuel — mainly deuterium and tritium — can be derived from rock and water.

Nuclear fusion might sound complex, but it’s closer to reality than we often imagine. Indeed, the Malaysian government has invested US$27 million researching nuclear-fusion technology.

In order to catch up with this new technology, Park says Thailand might start to groom manpower.

“It must start with people. Thailand might lack nuclear physicists, but it has pretty good engineers.”

According to the Thai Ministry of Energy’s Integrated Blueprint, up to 5% of the country’s energy requirements will be met by nuclear power, obtained from fission technology, by 2036. However, the country still acknowledges that mainstream nuclear energy poses safety concerns about radioactive-waste management.

“As a leader among G77 nations, Thailand has a job to look out for what is happening in the world of technology. We think it’s good for Thailand at least to know about technology.”