In a series entitled “Our energy future” that ran April 5-16, the Daily covered a variety of emerging and established green energy technologies that will help reduce harmful emissions from power plants. While many of the technologies that harness natural forces such as solar and wind power have long histories of extensive research in our country, such technologies are not a panacea for all energy crises. This is because of their dependence on climate conditions and high maintenance costs. The real key is not only in expanding current green energy sources, but also investing in new avenues of research for viable, universally applicable clean energy.
Two months ago, the U.S. Department of Energy announced certification of the primary laser at the National Ignition Facility, located at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The project sounds like something taken out of science fiction. Using the world’s largest laser, a powerful beam of light is split into 192 separate beams and then refocused onto a pea-sized amount of hydrogen fuel. The hope is that they can fuse these hydrogen atoms into helium, and in turn release massive amounts of clean energy. But the real trick is making such a system self-sustainable so that it can produce continuous energy for consumers to use.
Fusion reactors like the one at NIF are a safe alternative to reactors using radioactive fuel. Fueling them would require only hydrogen and its isotopes, which can be readily extracted from seawater. The reactors are not limited by safety concerns like nuclear plants, nor are they limited by the amount of sunlight or wind a region gets at certain times, countering the drawbacks of other green energy sources. Even more productive would be the use of Helium-3, an isotope rarely found on Earth but abundant in rocks on the Moon. It could make the trip to space economically viable.
As it stands right now, practical use of the process is a long way off. First tests with the NIF began two months ago. Full “ignition” of the fusion reactor’s fuel is planned for sometime next year.
A project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, another type of fusion reactor, uses magnets to confine a fusion reaction. But this type of reactor is still in development. While it builds off of a long history of experimental data from earlier magnetically confined fusion experiments, this project is a long way from starting its primary research goals.
If tests prove successful at the NIF or the ITER, further research would be required to turn such a system into a viable commercial system capable of running efficiently. Economic conditions make funding such research nearly impossible in the private sector because of the billions of dollars required to lay the groundwork for the science behind a potential commercial undertaking.
Inevitably, such research lies in the hands of government agencies with an eye toward the future. The federal stimulus plan passed a few months ago included significant governmental investments in solar, wind, and other renewable energy technologies. And here in Michigan, Governor Jennifer Granholm has made the green energy industry the cornerstone of her plan to revamp the failing economy. But research on new technology with incredible potential to power large areas cheaply and cleanly — like the NIF fusion reactor — is a type of energy investment the federal government has yet to make. Investments like this would be valuable to ensure the energy security of the United States and the rest of the world.
The increasing prominence and funding of current renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and nuclear power plants in the quest for clean, oil-independent power in the United States and abroad is a positive sign of change. But our country is missing the opportunity to expand its energy portfolio in a way that can keep pace with its exponentially expanding energy demand. The solutions to a greener future do not lie in simply perfecting established ideas. Instead, the future of energy is in pioneering new creations such as the NIF. To make this future a reality, government and industry must invest in researchers and inventors who are dreaming of solutions most people can hardly fathom.
Ben Caleca can be reached at email@example.com.