The energy crisis

By Manzoor Chandio
Written on Feb 11, 2007

THE world is fast consuming the existing sources of energy, and there seem to be no viable alternatives to the depleting stocks of oil, gas, fossil fuels and uranium.
According to the International Energy Agency, which acts as energy policy adviser to 26 developed countries, the world can only meet its energy needs till 2030 through traditional sources. But beyond that, the picture is a gloomy one. Imagine, for a moment, the future scenario.
What will happen when there will be no energy to run businesses and industrial activities? Without oil, tractors will not plough the fields.
The entire industrialised infrastructure, including the heavy machinery-related ones, will come to a standstill.
Economies will face huge losses. Not only will power breakdowns affect the supply of water and food sources but also cause postponement of hospitals’ functioning. Poverty and hunger will continue haunting humanity.
Realising the gravity of the situation, many countries are taking steps to meet their soaring energy demands.
The emphasis of these countries, including of the United States, is on producing efficient and sustainable energy alternatives without damaging the environment.
In his January 23, 2007 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush said: “We have made a lot of progress, thanks to good policies here in Washington and the strong response of the market. And now even more dramatic advances are within reach. ... Let us build on the work we have done and reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 per cent in the next 10 years."
The next day, the US president issued an executive order which called upon all federal agencies to "improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions of the agency, through reduction of energy intensity by (i) three per cent annually through the end of fiscal year 2015, or (ii) 30 per cent by the end of fiscal year 2015, relative to the baseline of the agency's energy use in fiscal year 2003" … and "ensure that (i) at least half of the statutorily required renewable energy consumed by the agency in a fiscal year comes from new renewable sources, and (ii) to the extent feasible, the agency implements renewable energy generation projects on agency property for agency use."
There are many definitions of renewable energy. The US department of energy describes it as “energy derived from resources that are regenerative or for all practical purposes can not be depleted.”
Types of renewable energy resources are: solar energy, wind power, water power (hydroelectric, tidal power, ocean thermal energy conversion, deep lake water cooling, blue energy), geothermal energy, biofuel, liquid biofuel, solid biomass, biogas and municipal solid waste.
Recent international developments in this regard show that almost all countries, developed or developing, are taking concrete measures to tackle the energy crisis, crafting action plans for renewable energy.Pakistan, to date, depends on conventional sources of producing power. Even the institutions formed to explore renewable energy (non-conventional energy) have not looked beyond hydel and wind energy.
It seems that the present government has become panicky. It recently suggested energy conservation measures such as industrial holidays, closing businesses after the sunset and two weekly holidays.The government’s solution to the energy crisis can be described as the ostrich-like approach to the situation.
We live in an era where we can create energy from what earlier human beings thought useless things, such as deserts, oceans, mountains and solid waste. Since Wapda’s bureaucracy has high stakes in dams, it is a hurdle to alternative energy resources and it only sees erecting dams as the solution to the problem; while the world -- discarding hydel, thermal, solar and nuclear fission energy -- has gone ahead thinking about biomass, nuclear fusion and wind energy. Because of the fact that Wapda’s intentions behind constructing dams are siphoning off money and stealing water, the myopic bureaucrats only talk and think about themselves.Only recently the government identified five hydropower projects in Punjab and termed them renewable energy resources for which a $670m loan will be acquired from the Asian Development Bank. It is being claimed that the renewable energy plan would help save foreign exchange by not importing fuel that’s used in thermal projects. No one knows what the federal government’s Alternative Energy Development Board, set up in 2003 to exploit the renewable energy resources, is doing?
Asean, plus Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand in January said that they would promote development of technologies for alternative energy sources like biofuel. The regional bloc and China and India are working together to carry out research on biofuel standards, and to train biomass energy experts.The European Union and six other nations on November 21, 2006 signed a deal for the construction of a $12.8 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) project in France to face the challenges of the energy crisis. More than 30 Iter countries, representing half of the world’s population, have opted for this ambitious project of nuclear fusion energy. Since the production of solar and wind energy can be suspended, there is a need for uninterruptible production of energy on a larger scale.
That’s why scientists have focused on the sun, this time not to harness solar energy but to create a little sun on the earth to provide uninterrupted energy.
Iter -- a consortium being jointly funded by the European Union, the United States, China, India, Russia, Japan and South Korea -- can be termed science’s quest for making cheap and inexhaustible energy to meet global needs.
The little sun is being created at Cadarache in France where for the first time atoms would be combined, instead of splitting them apart, to generate energy.
India is the latest and ambitious partner of the gigantic Iter project and joined it in December 2005 on the basis of, what the experts say, “its advanced scientific and technological base and its established record of R&D in fusion research as well as from the perspective of a country with enormous energy needs”.“By bringing in India, more than half of the world’s population is represented at Iter,” said Antonia Mochan, the European Commission’s spokeswoman on science and research.
At Iter, for the first time, scientists will work together to produce electrical power by converting seawater into fuel after decades of scientific feasibility research on fusion.
At the opening ceremony of the project, French President Jacques Chirac said: "We have the duty to start research that will prepare energy solutions for our descendants. The growing shortage of resources and the battle against global warming demand a revolution in our ways of production and consumption.”
Iter, the second most expensive scientific project after the International Space Station, would produce environment-friendly fusion energy. The most welcoming feature of producing nuclear fusion is the fact that it cannot be used for military purposes, unlike nuclear fission.


DR Mark Tiele Westra

DR Mark Tiele Westra studied physics and philosophy at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.
In 2001, he obtained his PhD in physics, and in 2002 started working as a public information officer at the FOM-Institute for Plasma Physics Rijnhuizen, the Dutch centre for nuclear fusion studies.
At present, Dr Westra works as head of public information of the European Fusion Development Agreement (EFDA) in Munich and as acting head of public relations of the Iter project in Cadarache, France.
Recently, Dawn's Manzoor Chandio discussed the issue of the energy crisis with himover the internet.
The following are excerpts from his interview:
Q. Are there any viable alternatives, other than producing nuclear fusion energy, to the world’s depleting stocks of oil and gas?
A. The energy problem (depletion of fossil fuels and uranium, energy poverty, energy security, climate change) is one of the largest problems of mankind in the 21st century, and we will need all our ingenuity and resources, and substantial funds, to solve it.What is required is a mix of reducing our energy use in the West by energy conservation measures, investing in available alternatives such as wind power and biomass, and investing in R&D to bring to market cheaper solar cells, carbon sequestration and new technologies such as fusion.We simply do not have the luxury of choice at this moment, as too much is still unclear. That is why we should develop every possibility until it is ready for the market.
Q. Environmentalists, including Greenpeace activists, are opposing the Iter project saying it is not eco-friendly. Have you taken them into confidence?
A. We listen carefully to critical opinions on fusion. In fact, fusion energy was developed from the wish to create a cleaner energy source. Fusion has major advantages: no CO2 emissions, it is inherently safe, almost limitless fuel resources available around the world for everyone. The fusion process itself does not generate any radioactive substances, just the inert gas helium. The neutrons that are produced activate the walls of the fusion plasma vessel, but when appropriate materials are used, the activity could disappear in 100 years or so.If proper materials are used, fusion creates only short-lived waste.While comparing energy sources, the comparison should be fair. Fusion is meant to be a large-scale energy source, surpassing coal, oil and gas, which are all not eco-friendly at all.For fusion, the only waste that would be produced would be managed in a safe and careful way, and would not constitute a burden for future generations. For a large scale energy source, I would consider that pretty eco-friendly.
Q. ‘Titanic would never sink,’ claimed its makers. Despite a flawless record of safety and reliability, the Chernobyl reactor blew up. Have you kept in mind, while dealing with the issue, Titanic and Chernobyl-like accidents?
A. Chernobyl was an extremely unsafe machine. During the accident, all major safety systems were shut down deliberately as part of an experiment. Therefore, it blew up. It was a major human error made in a very unsafe system.
In a modern fission power plant, this could never happen.Although a fusion plasma vessel is large (1,000 cubic meters or so) in size, it only contains around two grammes of fuel, enough for a few tens of seconds of burn. If the fuel supply is closed, the fusion reaction simply stops. If anything goes wrong, such as the plasma touching the walls, the plasma will cool down and fusion will stop. The fusion process takes place when all the systems work exactly right. If there is some deviation from those conditions, the reaction simply stops.There is physically no way that enough energy can be released in the plant to break the containment structures in a fusion power plant.That is not to say that there are no risks. That is why every possible care is taken in the design of a fusion power plant to limit the possibility of an accident. For this, the fusion power plant design profits from the broad expertise gained in making safe fission power plants and many fusion experiments around the world. The design has to be approved by regulatory bodies and have proper licenses, which means that the safety of the design is checked by external experts.
Q. Would Iter prove beneficial to developing countries like Pakistan?
A. Iter would prove beneficial to developing countries more in the long run.We hope, of course, that scientists from developing countries will, in time, join the research programme in Iter, and in other fusion research centres around the world.Many countries already do: India and China, for example, have very active fusion development programmes.In the long run, when Iter has hopefully resulted in fusion power reaching the market, energy will become less of a problem in the world, and climate change can be curbed. But that will be a result of all sustainable energy sources combined. Iter, as a high-tech enterprise, might also have unexpected spin-offs, which are often seen with projects of this kind.
Q. What if Iter fails to work at all?
A. Iter is an extrapolation of a factor 2 from current devices, such as the Joint European Torus JET. It is therefore hardly conceivable that Iter will not work "at all". Its design is based on a very broad basis of experimental results in dozens of fusion devices.
Of course, it might be the case that Iter does not operate as well as expected, or that it proves very difficult to operate.Iter is an experiment, and it needs to be carried out exactly to answer such questions. In that sense, Iter is really putting fusion to the test.

1 comment:

davers said...

Great post. ITER fusion is still theoretical though. Let's hope the math does work and that it can produce electricity beyond unity. For the $12.8 billion put in ITER, you'd think 0.1% of that ($12.8 Million) could be spared for Bussard's Polywell fusion reactor, as in my opinion it seems just as promising and would cost a tiny fraction of the ITER amount.