Electronic Product Design

Tuesday, 24 May 2016 00:00 Written by 

Alternative Power Funding

24-05-16 fusion atom 200The world appears to be waking to the dangers of continually pulling fossil fuels out of the ground and burning them for energy. It has been apparent to billions for years that this practice can no longer continue, yet those voices are almost helpless against the powerhouses of the global energy industry.

They protect their interests, valuing profit over our very existence. A succession of global political summits and research papers by leading environmental scientists have confirmed as much. If it doesn't stop, bad things are going happen, are already happening.

All is not lost. Privately funded energy research labs are pushing technologies of the future that much closer to reality. Fusion, the power source that would likely positively alter our existence, has long been seen as a Holy Grail of energy production. But due to the costs involved and understandable reluctance from our global leaders to invest in something with no tangible outcome, research is somewhat slow.

Enter the Private Investors

A number of private fusion research companies have popped up throughout the US. Despite the astronomical numbers involved in the purchase of their equipment, the running costs and maintenance, the largely self-funded labs operate without government intervention. There is no taxpayer funding to account for, meaning the scientists can press ahead with their revolutionary ideas without someone breathing down their backs.

Investors include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, amongst others. And it could be a necessary intervention by these technology giants, with many governments around the world finding their resources entirely stretched, removing the focus from speculative energy projects.

If they can harness fusion power, it would be a breath-taking switch from our current reliance on a mixture of renewables, fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Fusion is the process of smashing atomic nuclei together. The process creates a considerable amount of energy and only harmless helium is created as a by-product.

However, the nuclei don’t want to do that. They are positively repulsed by the prospect, meaning massive amounts of energy are needed to start the reaction. As yet, scientists haven’t discovered a way of getting more energy out than they first put in.

ITER

Researchers are understandably excited about the future. The private funding has massive potential. There is also an equally massive nuclear project underway, nestled in the south of France. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) began construction in 2013 and is due for completion in 2019. Plasma experiments can start the following year, with full deuterium-tritium fusion predicted for 2027. The project is being funded by seven entities – the EU, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the US – and has already cost some $14 billion.

Once finished, it will theoretically produce 10 times as much as energy as it requires to run. But just as it is an amazing prospect, it illustrates the bureaucracy present in any decisions involving government funding. The project is already late and three times over budget.

Suddenly, the private investors look even better. Only constricted by their own funding, resources and the researchers they employ, the investors in private fusion firms really could push us toward the Holy Grail of energy.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / freedigitalphotos.net.

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