A scientific breakthrough that could one day lead to more discoveries that will revolutionize the energy sector is getting people around the world to take notice, including in Alberta.
“By all accounts, the announcement of fusion ignition is an important milestone in the decades-long pursuit of nuclear fusion,” said Jerry Bellikka, chief of staff to Alberta Energy Minister Peter Guthrie, in a statement provided to Global News on Tuesday has been issued.
Earlier in the day, it was announced that for the first time ever, researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California had produced more energy in a fusion reaction than was needed to ignite it. The breakthrough that occurred last week could ultimately have significant implications for efforts to find more environmentally friendly and efficient ways to generate electricity than through coal plants, traditional nuclear power plants, natural gas plants or through wind or solar farms.
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“The potential payoff is so massive because this is the ultimate solution to our energy problems,” said Jason Myatt, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Alberta.
“It’s not free of emissions, but it has a lot of the qualities you like: no carbon, no nasty nuclear waste – some, but not the kind we’re worried about – and the fuel is pretty plentiful. So it’s the perfect fuel.”
Myatt previously worked with some of the scientists involved in the breakthrough in California. He said he had spent about 16 years working on a laser fusion program in the US and said he considered it “quite a remarkable thing” that scientists were able to achieve the feat in the time they had, especially given that research in the field only began in the 1970s.
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While Myatt said Tuesday’s announcement is significant, people need to realize “there’s a lot that needs to happen before it becomes an energy source.”
“It’s going to be something that maybe takes a decade or maybe more just to get a picture of if it’s feasible, what it’s going to look like,” he said.
American scientists announce the breakthrough of nuclear fusion energy
Jason Donev, an associate professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary, said he believes the discovery announced Tuesday serves as “an encouraging step that says we’re likely to take those other steps.”
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“The way I’ve explained it to people is merger is a difficult problem,” he said. “In a world where we’re sequencing the human genome, we’ve flown to the moon, we’ve rolled out a COVID-19 vaccine in the space of months… fusion is still difficult.
“If you compare it to running a marathon, if you’ve decided to run a marathon, what we’ve just done is find the right pair of shoes. It’s a good step, it’s an important step, it’s an impressive step (and) we’ve worked hard to get to this step, (but) unfortunately there are still many steps ahead.”
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Donev noted that if there are continued breakthroughs in the field in the coming decades, fusion power is likely to upend the global energy landscape — directly, when it comes to natural gas and coal, and indirectly, when it comes to oil.
“When we talk about it being almost limitless energy, we mean that the oceans will be able to give us more than we could ever get from oil, coal and natural gas combined,” he said. “One cubic kilometer of seawater contains more energy for fusion than all of Alberta’s oil, coal and natural gas combined.
“So imagine a world where no one ever ends up importing natural gas for their electricity. Imagine a world where Russia cannot shut off its natural gas to Europe as a political threat. Imagine a world where electricity becomes… too cheap to meter. Imagine not even having to pay an electricity bill anymore.”
‘My guess is that oil and gas are not too concerned at the moment’
Myatt noted that as electric vehicles play a growing role in the transportation market, the prospect of potentially having an abundance of fusion power available sometime in the next few decades could indirectly affect the oil sector.
“That horizon is pretty far away, and probably so far away that I suspect oil and gas is not too concerned at the moment,” he noted. “But the time will probably come, I think… Twenty years ago, well, it went pretty quickly.”
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Donev said if or when that time does come, it won’t necessarily mean Alberta’s oil is no longer needed, just that the industry may need to reposition itself.
“Right now, oil is largely used for transportation, (but) it is (also) a petrochemical feedstock,” he said. “(A world where fusion power is in the market) will allow us as a province to focus on oil as a petrochemical feedstock, which can be very good financially. Because we can make a lot more money from oil as a petrochemical feedstock than from oil as something that we burn … but we will have to change our infrastructure dramatically and dramatically.”
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Donev noted that Alberta needs to look at how to finally move “beyond burning oil.”
“It’s a thing that has to happen,” he said.
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Bellikka said that while the breakthrough announced Tuesday is “a positive step forward, we must remember that there are years of work left” before fusion power “could possibly become a viable option for generating sustainable electricity and other energy.”
“It is far too early to speculate, but we look forward to learning more, and will continue to monitor this research in the coming years,” he said.
“Alberta’s energy sector has always been a leader in innovation, and that will not change.”
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Myatt said investing in fusion power research “is not something that appeals to provincial or federal governments right now.”
“Mostly because of its time frame,” he explained. “It’s quite a challenge politically to attract money and resources to something that’s so far away, but the thing about mergers is that the potential payoff is so massive.”
– With files from Matthew Daly, Michael Phillis, Jennifer Mcdermott and Maddie Burakoff of The Associated Press