There are two main reasons why a great deal of research and investment is being made into finding alternative sources of energy:
1. The environmental cumulative cost of the exponential growth in energy demand has long been unsustainable.
2. Cost and security of supply: western governments have long profited from the monopolisation of energy suppliers, but wildly fluctuating prices for all commodities and international conflicts and tensions have led to an international marketplace with no certain future.
Given the scale and ever-increasing seriousness of both these problems, the need to diversify the energy mix, and to transition in a controlled way to a sustainable energy paradigm, has become a primary goal of all governments. In addition to their own domestics needs, developed nations have also become aware of the need to encourage and enable emerging and developing countries to choose a development path that forecloses traditional, dirty energy options as much as possible.
The solutions governments individually and collectively propose vary widely, but they are all united in the hope for a techno-fix to magic-wand away the environmental, economic, social and political problems beleaguering them all.
The environment involves local, regional and global issues. Local pollution from vehicle emissions and heating can cause smog, and generate pollutants which are a serious health hazard. Regional pollution from power stations can produce environmental problems such as acid rain. Global issues include climate change due to the production of CO2 and the release of methane during electricity and mobility production.
The availability of fossil fuels is causing the cost to fluctuate, which undermines security of supply. Diversification is one way to hedge against shortfalls or sudden interruptions to supply. this has been happening ever since the oil crises of the 1970s. For example, the world's dependence on oil for electricity production has fallen from 43% in 1978 to 23% in 2010.
The search for alternatives falls into two categories: 1. mobility, or fuel for vehicles; 2. electricity generation.
Fusion is a nuclear reaction which, as the name suggests, fuses two atomic nuclei together, rather than splits one large one, as is the case with fission.
Fusion is the reaction which occurs in stars, including our Sun, and which results in the enormous amount of energy we experience as heat and light. Most fusion in our Sun is the formation of helium (atomic weight 4) from hydrogen (atomic weight 1). However, there are two isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium (atomic weight 2) and tritium (atomic weight 3). These heavier isotopes are used in the fusion experiments.
Physicists have invested a great deal of effort and money in the attempt to make fusion a viable source of energy, for the production of electricity. The main problem is not how to cause the fusion to occur, but how to contain the enormous heat it generates. This is the containment problem.
Many designs of containment chambers have been proposed. The first successful controlled release of fusion energy was achieved in 1991, at the Joint European Torus facility (JET), England: the Preliminary Tritium Experiment.
Current experimental designs in the tokamak and the inertial confinement fusion laser. These experiments are still not producing enough energy to be commercially viable.
A helium nucleus has a lower mass than the composite lighter nuclei. The missing mass has been converted to energy, according to Einstein's famous equation: $E = mc^2$
However, to get the hydrogen protons to join together to form a helium nucleus, requires the electrostatic forces (like charges repel) of the two postive protons to be overcome, so that the strong nuclear force can hold the protons together. The stron nuclear force is much more powerful than the electrostatic forces, but only operates over very short distances. Beyond its effective range, the electrostatic force is dominant, and forms a Coulomb barrier.
Therefore, a large amount of energy is needed to cause fusion. This energy can be kinetic, such as can be obtained by a particle accelerator, like the LHC at CERN. Or it can be provided by heat. The heat strips off the single electron from the hydrogen atom, ionising it. The cloud of ions, with separated electrons, is the plasma. Now the ions are controllable, because they are positive. By placing them in a magnetic field, they can be positioned and held in place as they are heated under pressure.
NEDO, New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, is a research and development organization, established by the Japanese government to promote the development and use of industrial, energy and environmental technologies. Amongst its projects are a smart grid research facility (LANL) and smart house demonstration projects.
Icelandic New Energy Ltd was established in 1999, to develop hydrogen fuel from renewable energy for vehicle and ship use. Geothermal power is the primary energy intended to be used for the electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen gas. The hydrogen can be used in various ways: in non-combustion fuel cells, combustion, and in an alternative form, such as methanol or ethanol.
North Atlantic Hydrogen Association: formed from SEV (power producer and distributor on the Faroe Islands), Faroe Islands authorities, and the Icelandic New Energy Ltd., to investigate hydrogen technologies.
The Hydrogen Economy is a concept for the replacement of fossil fuels (hydrocarbon economy) by hydrogen, obtained by the electrolysis of water, using electricity generated by renewable energy.
Hydrogen may be used as a fuel of vehicles, and for mobile electricity generators, such as on boats. It may also be used as an energy storage medium.
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