Energy - Nuclear power, geothermal and more
Disclaimer: I'm a physics noob, and just curious, getting started and sharing my thoughts and readings here
Energy is one of the most important factors that drive human progress and flourishing! Especially extremely clean and cheap energy would really benefit humanity and help us against climate change.
One related problem is that science and energy has become increasingly politicized, being pro or against nuclear becomes a political statement, without most people properly understanding energy, as well as nuclear energy in particular. Lets get into the science.
Nuclear fusion occurs when two atoms join together to form one larger atom. This process releases a large amount of energy. The sun is powered by nuclear fusion. Nuclear fission occurs when one atom splits into smaller atoms. This process also releases a large amount of energy. Nuclear fission is used to power nuclear reactors. The future potential lies in fusion achieving net energy gain, meaning the amount of usable energy produced by the fusion reaction exceeds the amount of energy needed to initiate the reaction.
Ultimately energy is the fundamental factor driving human progress and will continue to do so into the future. Finding ways to increase the efficiency of energy usage and transition to cleaner and cheaper energy sources is critical for progress.
“J. Storrs Hall argues that we do not realize how much our diminished energy ambitions have cost us. Across the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, the energy humanity could harness grew at about 7 percent annually. Humanity’s compounding energetic force, he writes, powered “the optimism and constant improvement of life in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.” - The Dystopia We Fear Is Keeping Us From the Utopia We Deserve
Nuclear Power by Wikipedia
“Nuclear power is the use of nuclear reactions to produce electricity. Nuclear power can be obtained from nuclear fission, nuclear decay and nuclear fusion reactions. Presently, the vast majority of electricity from nuclear power is produced by nuclear fission of uranium and plutonium in nuclear power plants. Nuclear decay processes are used in niche applications such as radioisotope thermoelectric generators in some space probes such as Voyager 2. Generating electricity from fusion power remains the focus of international research.
Civilian nuclear power supplied (..) a tenth of the sum of all global electricity generation, and was the second-largest low-carbon power source after hydroelectricity, which supplied 28% of global power demands in 2019. (..).
Nuclear power is the safest energy source. Coal, petroleum, natural gas and hydroelectricity each have caused more fatalities per unit of energy due to air pollution and accidents. Accidents in nuclear power plants include the Chernobyl explosion in the Soviet Union in 1986, the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, and the more contained Three Mile Island accident in the United States in 1979.
There is a debate about nuclear power. Proponents, such as the World Nuclear Association and Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy, contend that nuclear power is a safe, sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions.”
Fusion energy is the energy released when two atoms are forced together to form a single, heavier atom. This process is called nuclear fusion. Fusion is the process that powers the sun and stars.
Nuclear fusion occurs when the strong nuclear force pulls two nuclei together. This overcomes the electrostatic force, which would normally repel the nuclei. When the nuclei come close enough, they fuse into a single nucleus. This fusion process releases a large amount of energy.
The process of fusion can be harnessed to generate power. In a fusion reactor, energy is used to heat a plasma to extremely high temperatures. The high temperatures create conditions where nuclear fusion can take place. The resulting energy from the fusion reaction can be used to generate electricity.
Fusion energy has the potential to be a clean and safe source of power. Fusion reactions produce very little radioactive waste. The waste from fusion is mostly in the form of helium, which is not harmful to the environment. Fusion reactors also have the potential to be much safer than traditional nuclear fission reactors.
Fusion energy is still in the development stage. The first fusion reactors are not expected to be operational until the 2030s.
Brief video explainers: Nuclear Reactions, Radioactivity, Fission and Fusion
MYTH: We don't have a solution to nuclear's "waste problem"— Madi Hilly (@MadiHilly) July 21, 2022
REALITY: Nuclear waste isn't a problem. In fact, it’s the best solution we have to meeting our energy needs while protecting the natural environment!
Here's what you need to know:
Developing new technologies that can make fusion energy more feasible and cost-effective. Some of the key areas of R&D that should be prioritized in fusion energy include:
- Plasma physics and fusion technology: A key challenge in fusion energy is the ability to create and sustain a plasma, which is the state of matter that is necessary for fusion to occur. Research in this area is focused on developing advanced plasma physics and fusion technology, including new ways to create and sustain plasma and new materials that can withstand the extreme conditions of a fusion reactor.
- Nuclear materials and engineering: Another important area of R&D in fusion energy is the development of advanced nuclear materials and engineering. This includes the development of new materials that can withstand the extreme temperatures and radiation levels of a fusion reactor, as well as the design and construction of fusion reactors that can be safely and efficiently operated.
- Fusion power plant design and integration: A third key area of R&D in fusion energy is the design and integration of fusion power plants. This includes the development of advanced control systems and safety systems that can ensure the safe and reliable operation of fusion reactors, as well as the integration of fusion power plants into the electricity grid.
Overall, R&D in fusion energy is essential for making this technology a viable and cost-effective source of clean, sustainable energy. By prioritizing these key areas of R&D, we can accelerate the development of fusion energy and unlock its full potential.
DeepMind: “Magnetic control of tokamak plasmas through deep reinforcement learning
- Progress in nuclear energy by José Ricon
- The race to Q>1: Lowercarbon is funding fusion’s biggest breakthroughs
- US scientists boost clean power hopes with fusion energy breakthrough: Net energy gain indicates technology could provide an abundant zero-carbon alternative to fossil fuels by FT
- Nuclear fusion: why the race to harness the power of the sun just sped up by FT
- The Trouble With Fusion by Lawrence M. Lidsky
- Book: The Star Builders: Nuclear Fusion and the Race to Power the Planet
Eli making the case for aneutronic fusion
Does this mean we should not invest in fusion? No.— Eli Dourado (@elidourado) December 12, 2022
It means it would be wise to place most of our bets on aneutronic fusion. That is, fusion reactions that don't produce heat with neutrons and where energy is harnessed without conversion via steam turbines.
Some interesting startups
“Zap is building a seriously cheap, compact, scalable fusion reactor with potentially the shortest path to commercially viable fusion and orders of magnitude less capital than traditional approaches. The breakthrough technology conﬁnes and compresses plasma without costly and complex magnetic coils.”
Commonwealth Fusion Systems
HTS Magnets by Commonwealth Fusion “CFS has developed a revolutionary magnet that will enable the fastest path to commercial fusion energy. (..) Tokamaks use magnets to confine a plasma in which fusion occurs. In the past, tokamaks used low temperature superconducting magnets that required the magnets to be enormous in size to achieve the magnetic field needed to achieve net energy. CFS is using new high temperature superconductors (HTS) to build these groundbreaking magnets that allow for significantly stronger magnetic fields that can be built much smaller and at dramatically lower cost than the traditional approach.”
“Helion uses “pulsed magnetic fusion” (not a tokamak as traditional), they use aluminum magnets to compress its fuel and then expand it to get electricity out directly. Extremely high temperatures are needed to create and maintain the delicate state of matter called plasma, where electrons are separated from nuclei, and where fusion can occur.
Kirtley compares Helion’s fusion machine to a diesel engine, while older technologies are more like a campfire. With a campfire, you stoke the fire to generate heat. In a diesel engine, you inject the fuel into a container, then compress and heat the fuel until it begins to burn. “And then you use the expansion of it to directly do useful work,” said Kirtley.
By taking this new fresh approach and some of the old physics, we can we can move forward and do it fast,” Kirtley said. “The systems end up being a lot smaller, a lot faster to iterate, and then that gets us to commercially useful electricity, which is solving the climate change problem, as soon as possible.”
Helion Energy is using aneutronic fusion, meaning “they don’t have a lot high energy neutrons present in their fusion reaction”
“An aneutronic approach, like Helion Energy is pursuing, could have potential benefits that other approaches do not, but could also have different downsides and challenges to achieving commercial fusion energy production”
Geothermal energy is a clean, sustainable source of energy that is derived from the heat of the Earth’s crust. It is a relatively mature technology that has been used for decades to generate electricity and provide heating and cooling to buildings. Despite its potential, however, the use of geothermal energy is still limited, and there is significant room for growth and development in this field.
One of the key areas of geothermal energy research is the development of advanced drilling technologies. Traditional geothermal energy production involves drilling deep wells into the Earth to access the hot, pressurized water and steam that can be used to generate electricity. However, these wells are expensive and time-consuming to drill, which can limit the potential for geothermal energy production.
To overcome this challenge, researchers are developing new drilling technologies that can access geothermal resources more quickly and cost-effectively. These technologies include advanced drilling systems that can drill deeper and faster, as well as new drilling fluids and materials that can improve the efficiency and safety of geothermal drilling. By improving the efficiency of geothermal drilling, we can reduce the cost of geothermal energy production and make it more economically viable.
Another area of geothermal energy research is the development of new geothermal energy generation technologies. Traditional geothermal energy production relies on the use of steam turbines to generate electricity. However, this technology is limited by the availability of steam, which is not always present in geothermal reservoirs. To overcome this limitation, researchers are developing new technologies that can generate electricity from geothermal resources without the need for steam.
One example of these technologies is the use of geothermal heat pumps, which use the heat of the Earth to provide heating and cooling to buildings. Another example is the use of geothermal binary power plants, which use the heat of the Earth to generate electricity using a closed-loop system of fluids. By developing these technologies, we can expand the potential for geothermal energy production and make it more versatile and flexible.
Overall, geothermal energy research has the potential to unlock the full potential of this clean, sustainable source of energy. By developing advanced drilling technologies and new geothermal energy generation technologies, we can reduce the cost of geothermal energy production and make it more widely available. This will be essential for creating a more sustainable energy future and addressing the challenges of climate change.
Some of the key areas of R&D that should be prioritized in geothermal energy include:
- Advanced drilling technologies: A key challenge in geothermal energy production is the cost and time required to drill deep wells into the Earth to access geothermal resources. Research in this area is focused on developing advanced drilling technologies that can drill deeper and faster, as well as new drilling fluids and materials that can improve the efficiency and safety of geothermal drilling.
- Geothermal energy generation technologies: Another important area of R&D in geothermal energy is the development of new geothermal energy generation technologies. Traditional geothermal energy production relies on the use of steam turbines, which are limited by the availability of steam. Research in this area is focused on developing new technologies that can generate electricity from geothermal resources without the need for steam, such as geothermal heat pumps and binary power plants.
- Geothermal resource assessment and mapping: A third key area of R&D in geothermal energy is the assessment and mapping of geothermal resources. This includes the development of advanced geophysical and geochemical techniques that can identify and characterize geothermal reservoirs, as well as the development of new tools and software that can help to evaluate the potential for geothermal energy production in a given area.
Overall, R&D in geothermal energy is essential for making this technology a viable and cost-effective source of clean, sustainable energy. By prioritizing these key areas of R&D, we can accelerate the development of geothermal energy and unlock its full potential.