Tag Archives: Renewables

Thailand’s massive floating solar farm lays the foundation for its emission-free future

The Kingdom of Thailand wants to seal its commitment to green energy with its new hybrid solar-hydropower generation facility that covers a water reservoir in the northeast of the country.

The installation covers an immense 720,000 square meters of the reservoir’s surface and produces clean electricity around the clock: solar power during the day, hydropower at night. Christened the Sirindhorn dam farm, this is the “world’s largest floating hydro-solar farm”, and the first of 15 such farms planned to be built by Thailand by 2037. They are a linchpin in the kingdom’s pledge for carbon neutrality by 2050.

Floating towards the future

“We can claim that through 45 megawatts combined with hydropower and energy management system for solar and hydro powers, this is the first and biggest project in the world,” Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) deputy governor Prasertsak Cherngchawano told AFP.

At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) last year, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha officially announced his country’s goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, and a net-zero greenhouse emissions target by 2065. Thailand also aims to produce 30% of its energy from renewables by 2037 as an interim goal.

The Sirindhorn dam farm project, which went into operation last October, is the cornerstone of that pledge. The farm contains over 144,000 solar cells and can output 45 MW of electricity. This is enough to reduce Thailand’s carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 47,000 tons per year.

Thailand’s energy grids continue to rely heavily on fossil fuel; some 55% of the country’s power generation as of October last year was derived from such fuels, while only 11% came from renewable sources such as solar or hydropower, according to Thailand’s Energy Policy and Planning Office, a department of the ministry of energy. Still, projects such as Sirindhorn show that progress is being made.

The $35 million project took two years to build, with repeated delays caused by the pandemic, which saw technicians falling sick and deliveries of solar panels being repeatedly delayed. EGAT plans to install floating hydro-solar farms in 15 more dams across Thailand by 2037, which would total an estimated 2,725 MW of power.

Currently, power generated at Sirindhorn is being distributed mainly to domestic and commercial users in the lower northeastern region of the country.

Thailand is also betting that its floating solar farms will be of interest to tourists, as well. Sirindhorn comes with a 415-meter (1,360-foot) long “Nature Walkway” which will give a breathtaking view of the reservoir and the solar cells floating across its surface. Locals are already flocking to see the solar farm, and time will tell if international travelers will be drawn here as well.

Local communities report that with the solar floats installed, catches of fish in the reservoir have decreased — but they seem to be positive about it. State authorities say that the project will not affect agriculture, fishing, or other community activities in the long term, and are committed to taking any steps necessary towards this goal.

“The number of fish caught has reduced, so we have less income,” village headman Thongphon Mobmai, 64, told AFP. “But locals have to accept this mandate for community development envisioned by the state.”

“We’ve used only 0.2 to 0.3 percent of the dam’s surface area. People can make use of lands for agriculture, residency, and other purposes,” said EGAT’s Prasertsak.

Solar is set to become “the king” of electricity markets, says the International Energy Agency

Led by solar power, renewable energy could account for 80% of the growth in electricity generation over the next decade, according to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). It’s now consistently cheaper to generate electricity from the sun than by burning coal or natural gas in most countries, IEA said.

Credit Flickr Minoru

Maturing technologies and policies have significantly reduced the cost of solar power investments, making photovoltaic cells one of the cheapest sources of electricity. These energy systems can be used not only in large-scale solar parks but also in homes or businesses across the world.

In its annual report, the EIA presented three scenarios for the future development of global energy markets, which have been disturbed by the coronavirus pandemic. The prospect for non-conventional renewable energy goes from strong to spectacular, with solar leading the way. Meanwhile, fossil fuels face a precarious future.

The IEA, an intergovernmental organization, said electricity costs from large-scale solar photovoltaic installations have fallen from roughly 38 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2010, to a global average of 6.8 cents per kilowatt-hour last year. This means solar could become “the new king” of the world’s electricity markets, IEA head Fatih Birol said.

One of the scenarios explored by the report involves bringing the pandemic under control and global energy returning to its previous levels by early 2023. If this happens, the number of solar power systems would grow rapidly, increasing solar capacity by about 12% a year until 2030. This would lead to renewables meeting 80% of the growth in global electricity generation over the same period, overtaking coal by 2025 as the primary means of producing electricity. Even in a scenario in which the pandemic continues, affecting the economy and the energy demand, solar power still remains a cost-effective choice.

Solar performed even better in the “Sustainable Development” scenario. This would imply a surge in clean energy policies and investment that puts the world on track to reach the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. If this happens, the combined share of solar and wind rises from 8% globally in 2019 to almost 30% in 2030.

The IEA called governments and investors to step up their clean energy efforts to achieve an even larger growth in renewables. In fact, some governments have included environmental goals as part of their coronavirus recovery plans. Even oil companies such as BP and Shell have unveiled shifts towards low-carbon energy.

While solar seems to have a bright future, coal has a dark one, according to IEA’s report. The lower economic activity and electricity demand due to the pandemic have caused a “structural fall in global coal demand”, with the IEA expecting 275 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity to be retired by 2025. That’s 13% of total coal capacity of last year.

“The rise of renewables, combined with cheap natural gas and coal phase-out policies, means that coal demand in advanced economies drops by almost half to 2030,” the report said. Growth in coal use in developing economies in Asia is much lower than previously expected and is not enough to offset declines elsewhere.

Wind power.

Gov. Brown doubles-down on California’s already ambitious pledge — it will be carbon-neutral by 2045

Earlier this month, we were telling you how California’s pledge to generate 100% green energy for its grid by 2045 made it past the state’s Senate. All it needed to be enshrined into law was Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. I’m very pleased to announce that Gov. Brown went above and beyond the signature of duty.

Wind power.

Image credits Peter Wiegel.

After approving the bill (on Monday), today Brown went on to issue an executive order by which he required the state to become carbon-neutral by 2045. The move essentially takes California’s pledge to the next level  — whereas, originally, the goal was to power the grid exclusively through renewable energy, the golden state now has to remove as much greenhouse gas as it pumps out in the atmosphere.

Brown’s green push

“The achievement of carbon neutrality will require both significant reductions in carbon pollution and removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, including sequestration in forests, soils, and other natural landscapes,” Brown’s executive order states.

The move definitely propels California to the forefront of decarbonization efforts. It is the second U.S. state to formally include such a pledge in its legislation (the first one was Hawaii). It’s also one of the most populous U.S. states and the most powerful economy in the world to embark on such a dramatic ecological campaign to date.

Still, that’s not to say it’s going to be a walk in the park. Although California has phased coal out of its statewide energy mix, it still draws massively on natural gas plants for its electricity needs. For it to have any chance of achieving the desired target by 2045, the state will need to draw heavily on wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric power. Seeing as the state recently moved to close its last nuclear power plant, it’s unlikely atom-splitting will help power California.

On the other hand, it will also have to increase its energy capacity and design incentive schemes to improve energy efficiency at all levels — industrial, commercial, as well as residential.

The exact wording of the original bill also leaves officials a much-needed fallback space. It states that electricity production has to be zero-emissions so, in theory, it could use carbon capture technologies to still reach that goal should the state run into any problems decommissioning its natural gas plants. Despite leaving them some room to maneuver, the bill doesn’t leave officials any room to cheat — the bill specifically forbids California from increasing the carbon emissions of another state to get cheap energy.

So, for example, the state could buy power from a coal plant based in Nevada if that electricity had been supplied prior to the bill’s passing, but not from a new gas-powered source in Arizona.

Needless to say, it’s a mammoth undertaking from an economy larger than the UK‘s. Gov. Brown’s executive order only makes it that more ambitious. Pile the order’s express requirement that “all policies and programs undertaken to achieve carbon neutrality shall seek to improve air quality and support the health and economic resiliency of urban and rural communities, particularly low-income and disadvantaged communities,” on top, and you get a seemingly insurmountable task.

And yet, it feels like the right thing to do, doesn’t it?

Middelgrunden offshore.

Germany, Belgium, Denmark, pledge to quintuple the EU’s offshore wind in a decade

Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and a body of 25 energy companies have signed a pledge to increase Europe’s offshore wind capacity by a whopping five times over the next decade. This unprecedented push should not only supply the continent with ample clean energy, but also drive the price of offshore wind down in the future, making it more than competitive with fossil fuels.

Middelgrunden offshore.

Middelgrunden offshore wind farm off the shore of Copenhagen, Denmark.
Image credits Lars Plougmann / Flickr.

Although offshore wind is about twice as expensive as onshore wind, its competitive position in the market is improving every year. Prices are falling down and the technology is proving more and more attractive as the best onshore places for exploiting wind resources are taken. While still controversial in the US, offshore wind has its roots firmly set down in Europe and many countries on the old continent are aggressively developing the technology. Because of this, offshore wind became one of the most efficient and fastest growing energy markets — and it’s only going to get better.

That’s because Germany, Belgium, and Denmark have joined 25 high profile European energy companies, such as Dong Energy and Siemens Gamesa, to up offshore wind generation to a huge 60 gigawatts in the next decade — to put things into perspective, Europe’s current total offshore wind capacity totals roughly 13 gigawatts. That’s 4 gigawatts a year, amounting to an almost fivefold increase over the next ten years.

But unlike the power these turbines will churn out, the announcement doesn’t come out of the blue. The pledge comes hot on the heels of plans to construct an artificial island with some 7,000 offshore turbines in the North Sea by 2050. Such ambitious projects are hoped to start a domino effect, as the experience and efficiency gained from the works will slash installation prices around the world, making offshore turbines even more attractive (and more importantly, affordable) for other countries.

Existing European offshore wind projects have already lowered costs by 48% over the last two years, and the technology is projected to become very competitive with new fossil fuel generators (such as natural gas power) by 2030.

“With this Joint Statement,” said Giles Dickson, chief executive officer of industry group WindEurope, “leading businesses and governments are taking the next step by committing to cooperate on the deployment of big volumes for offshore wind energy.”

The project ties into Europe’s efforts to develop low-carbon electricity generation systems to meet its emission reduction targets — a 40% slash compared with 1990 levels by 2030 — and its leaders are gambling that if they pave the way, other countries will follow suit in a bid to reach their own Paris pledges.

And given that WindEurope estimates that about one quarter of the EU’s electricity demand could be supplied via offshore wind for an average cost of 54 euros/megawatt hour “in the most favorable locations”, we’re likely going to see a lot more of these turbines in the future.

Europeans don’t believe climate change deniers and want governments to take action, huge poll reveals

Europeans say that the effects of shifting climate can already be felt and show strong support in favor of economic policy measures to cope with and mitigate climate change, a major polling study reveals.

Image credits David Mark.

A big part of ‘doubt-mongering‘ is to push the narrative that a particular subject is still open for debate: “the science isn’t in yet”, “people don’t agree,” or “it’s a matter of personal choice”. We’ve seen it with tobacco, the food industry, and most recently the energy industry — with politicians and paid scientific papers perpetuating bogus data to polarize public opinion towards internal arguments rather than action.

But there isn’t as much of a debate as some would like you to believe, at least not in Europe, a new poll study has found. Citizens of four major cities don’t view climate change as a future problem, saying that its effects can already be felt in severe floods or storms. There’s also huge support for action against climate change, such as subsidizing clean energy and imposing financial penalties on nations that refuse to honor the Paris climate deal signed in 2015 — and the US might be on that list.

The poll is the first in-depth measurement of the perception of climate change in countries throughout the EU, and involved more than 1,000 people each in UK, Germany, France, and Norway, with the results weighted to be nationally representative.

Most people agreed on one point: that climate change is caused at least in part by human activity, particularly through the burning of fossil fuels. Some 60% of respondents further consider that its effects can already be felt. Two-thirds of respondents supported their country’s commitment to the Paris deal and a similar percentage said that countries who did not honor the agreement should be penalized, for example through the border carbon taxes some French officials have suggested.

Old world, new energy

Windmills at Denmark’s Bønnerup Strand helped the country run exclusively on wind power on several occasions.
Image credits Dirk Goldhahn.

 

Renewables also enjoyed a lot of support and were viewed very positively by the public, with 70% of people expressing support for using public money to subsidize clean industries the UK and Germany, 75% in France, and 87% in Norway. Fracking and nuclear power didn’t enjoy the same popularity, with just 20% of people expressing a positive view of fracking in the UK, 15% in Germany, and 9% in France, while nuclear power was only seen with favorable eyes by 23% of Frenchmen — although it supplies the lion’s share of the country’s electrical energy.

“It is encouraging to see that most people in this very large study recognise that climate change is happening, and that support for the need to tackle it remains high amongst the people we surveyed,” said Prof Nick Pidgeon at Cardiff University, who led the international project.

This solid public backing could be monumental in light of political uncertainties throughout the world, with some leaders, such as the US president Donald Trump, openly opposing climate action.

“With the recently shifting political mood in some countries, climate policy is now entering a critical phase. It is therefore even more important that the public’s clear support for the Paris agreement is carried through by policymakers across Europe and worldwide.”

“People see that if there are free riders, that is not a very good thing,” he added.

Still, there remain some differences of opinion between the countries. A proposal to increase taxes levied on fossil fuels saw support in Norway, an even split in the UK, and a two-to-one opposition in France and Germany. Another was in the public’s trust in the EU, national, and local governments to shift energy systems towards cleaner sources. Germans were generally positive, while people in the UK were loath to trust in any of the institutions.

One worrying find is that while people have formed something of a consensus on these issues, the effect of doubt-mongering is very visible — while climate change is for all intents and purposes a scientific consensus by now, people believe that only about a third of scientists agree it’s happening.

The polling took place in June 2016, before the Brexit referendum. The full report is available online here.

 

China’s new Five Year Plan calls for environmental protection, more clean energy

The Chinese government has announced that its next Five Year Plan will aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve air and water quality, as well as increase the use of non-fossil power sources.

Image credits Jonathan Kos-Read / Flickr.

China has taken a leading role in renewable energy production, investment, and installation in recent years. The country, however, remains one of the most heavily polluted in the world, a result of rampant, decades-long industrial growth. Although China has repeatedly tried to break away from coal use, decoupling their economy from fossil fuel has proven problematic. It remains the single biggest consumer of coal in the world, making up just shy of half the global consumption. Even after declaring a “war on pollution” (which is definitely better than a war on drugs), hundreds of coal power plants were approved for construction in 2015 by local governments eager to strengthen their economies.

All this can be seen in the country’s notoriously poor air quality.

Speaking to the Chinese National People’s Congress on March 5, Premier Li Keqiang called for “heavy blows” against the country’s air and water pollution crisis. While he talked about measures which would improve environmental conditions across the board, Li focused in particular on those dealing with urban smog — the goal being to ensure “good air quality” day readings for 80% of the year. These targets will be part of China’s 13th Five Year Plan (FYP), which will guide the nation’s policy and economics up to 2021.

“Achieving green growth means reducing energy and resource intensity and decoupling the emissions of key pollutants from economic growth and urbanisation,” Li said.

He added that since the implementation of the previous Five-Year Plan, the service industry has grown considerably in China’s economy. This is reflected in a 18,2% drop in energy intensity per unit of GDP. By 2020, officials expect a further 15% decrease in this figure. So, economic planners decided to put a halt on new approvals for coal plants. Last month, the National Energy Administration froze construction works on several partly built plants across a dozen provinces.

Under the new FYP, coal consumption will be capped at 4.7 billion tons, with non-fossil fuel energy set to grow to 15% of China’s total capacity. The country will also guarantee that emissions peak no later than 2030, as per the Paris pact. An official nationwide carbon trading market is planned to launch next year.

The Premier also said that China is looking into limiting over-production in the most energy-hungry industries (such as construction and manufacturing) through corporate restructuring, but has not disclosed any details. Efforts in the last three years have led to the closure of “inefficient firms“, removing 90 million tonnes of steel production, 230 million tonnes of concrete production, over 76 million tonnes of plate glass, and 1 million tonnes of aluminium from China’s manufacturing sector — along with their energy needs.

Apart from the energy sector, Li said that water use per unit of GDP is predicted to fall by 23% and carbon intensity by 18% by 2020. The new plan will also provide local governments with the tools and targets to insure environmental protection in addition to their traditional roles of regulating markets, managing public services, and providing social welfare.

Along with the new targets set in the FYP, this could be the foundation of a cleaner, healthier China. The plan’s full details haven’t yet been fully fleshed out, but here is what we know so far:

[panel style=”panel-success” title=”Panel title” footer=””]

  • Li’s speech indicated that the government will limit PM2.5 (tiny, harmful particulate matter), a major driver of air pollution, down by 25% from present standards. This is the first time PM2.5 standards have been included in a FYP.
  • A reduction in emissions from coal burning and vehicles.
  • Implementing cleaner and more efficient coal burning methods.
  • Replacing coal with electricity and natural gas when possible.
  • An increase in electrical energy production, with increased support for wind, solar, and bio power sectors.
  • Promoting the use of waste straw as a resource.
  • A reduction in field burning.
  • Implementing control measures to deal with air pollution.

[/panel]

 

China covered all its new energy demand with renewables in 2015 — and there was still plenty left to spare

China is drawing more and more power from renewables — in fact, new data collected by Greenpeace shows that in 2015 the country’s growth in wind and solar energy more than exceeded its increase in electricity demand.

Ningxia Wind Farm in Northern China.
Image credits Land Rover Our Planet / Flickr.

“Eco-friendly” probably isn’t the first word most people would use when describing China. But for all the smog and pollution, the country is actually putting a lot of effort into going green. Greenpeace reported that China’s electricity consumption rose by half a percent last year, from 5522 TWh (terawatt hours) to 5550 TWh. All this new demand was easily met by wind and solar power, which produced 186.3 TWh and 38.8 TWh of power in 2015, compared to 153.4 TWh and 23.3 TWh the year before — that’s an increase of 21% and 64%, respectively.

To put these numbers into perspective, China installed half of the world’s new solar and wind capacity last year. Its wind farms alone could have met half of the UK’s needs in 2015 (304 TWh.) According to the data, the extra 48 TWh of solar and wind China installed in 2015 alone could have powered two Irelands (24 TWh consumption) for the whole of 2015.

Image credits Greenpeace.

But the Chinese aren’t just beefing up their renewable capacity, they’re also cutting down on coal. The new clean energy plants being installed along with a shift away from heavy industry means that coal use in China has been dropping for three years in a row.

China, however, remains the biggest emitter of CO2 in the world, but they’re working on that too — last week, the country announced that it was ratifying the Paris climate agreement, alongside the United States.

So hats off to the Chinese! Hopefully, their achievements will spur the United States to catch up in the race to lead the post-fossil fuels global economy.

New solar fuel generator makes hydrogen fuel out of water with unprecedented efficiency

Recently humanity has passed a very encouraging threshold – we’ve started adding more clean, renewable energy sources than fossil for the first time in recorded history.

“The electricity system is shifting to clean,” founder of BNEF, Michael Liebreich, said in his keynote address. “Despite the change in oil and gas prices there is going to be a substantial build-out of renewable energy that is likely to be an order of magnitude larger than the build-out of coal and gas.”

We’re growing up, and we’re learning to clean up after ourselves, and for once i look at the energy industry and think “damn, i wish my roommates were more like you.” And research work performed down under promises to create a whole new area of green power to help make energy cheaper and cleaner.

Scientists working at Monash University in Melbourne have developed the most energy-efficient ‘artificial photosynthesis’ method to date. The process relies on running an electrical current through water to separate it into oxygen and hydrogen, and the team behind it say it could be used to power our home on the cheap in just a few years.

A simple diagram of the process of electrolysis.
Image via wikipedia

“Electrochemical splitting of water could provide a cheap, clean and renewable source of hydrogen as the ultimately sustainable fuel,” said Leone Spiccia, lead author of the research, in a statement to the press. “This latest breakthrough is significant in that it takes us one step further towards this becoming a reality.”

Energy gained from solar generators is considered feasible if the output hydrogen is equivalent to at least 10% of the absorbed sunlight. The previous record stood at 18 percent. The team achieved a ratio of 22.4 percent and while that is not a particularly massive gain over the previous findings, the Monash team’s breakthrough is using nickel as a catalyst. Previous methods required using precious metals, whereas nickel is inexpensive, abundant, and offers great stability.

A lumpy chunk of nickel metal.
Image via Wikipedia

“There are many catalysts that are considerably more sophisticated than nickel and often involving obscure and expensive precious metals,” said Doug MacFarlane, co-author of the research, in an interview with at the ABC. “So nickel is a rather ordinary catalyst in many respects expect for one thing, which is that it’s cheap. It’s an inexpensive metal and it produces a very, very stable action in its water electrolysis cell. So it’s an ideal choice purely and simply because of the cost.”

The system can also run on river water, allowing it to be installed in a wide variety of geographic locations, and giving great versatility to installations running on it’s principles. It’s main product, hydrogen, can be used to power a wide variety of technologies.

“Hydrogen can be used to generate electricity directly in fuel cells,” said MacFarlane. “Cars driven by fuel cell electric engines are becoming available from a number of car manufacturers. Hydrogen could even be used as an inexpensive energy storage technology at the household level to store energy from roof-top solar cells.”

Thomas Faunce, an expert on artificial photosynthesis from the Australian National University in Canberra, was not involved in the Monash study but says the potential of this research could radically change the way modern society derives its power.

“If we can convert all the human-made structures on the surface of Earth, every road and house and bridge into a structure that does photosynthesis better than plants, then we can take the pressure off nature and we can have distributed food and fuel across the planet,” he said in an interview at the ABC.

The UK plans to build the world’s largest wood-burning power plant

The United Kingdom has announced plans to build the world’s largest biomass powerplant. The Tees Renewable Energy Plant (REP) will be located in the Port of Teesside, Middlesbrough and it will have a capacity of 299 MW. While the plant is designed to be able to function on a wide range of biofuels, its main intended power sources are wood pellets and chips, of which the plant is expected to use more than 2.4mt a year. The feedstock will be sourced from certified sustainable forestry projects developed by the MGT team and partners in North and South America, and the Baltic States, and supplied to the project site by means of ships.

Wood pellets, which are low in sulphur and chlorine, will be primarily used to fuel the plant.
Image via power-technology

A biomass power plant of this type is referred to as a combined heat and power (or CHP) plant. It will generate enough renewable energy to supply its own operations and commercial and residential utility customers in the area.

Investment in the renewable project is estimated to reach £650m ($1bn), which will be partly funded through aids from the European Commission, and construction works would create around 1,100 jobs. Environmental technology firm Abengoa, based in Spain, along with Japanese industry giant Toshiba will be leading the project for their client, MGT Teesside, subsidiary to the British utility MGT Power.

The feedstock will be burned to generate steam at 565°C that will drive a steam turbine, which will rotate the generator to produce electricity. The generated power will be conveyed to the National Grid.The exhaust steam generated by the steam turbine plant will be condensed by the ACCs and re-used, whereas the flue gases from the CFB boiler will be discharged via the exhaust stack.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions will be minimized by using capture technology, fabric filters will reduce emission of particulate matter or dust and check the sulphur content of the fuel feed, while sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions will be reduced through limestone injection into the boiler.

Artist’s rendering of the biomass-fired power plant at Teesside.
Image via inhabitat

The energy output of the plant is anticipated to be equivalent to the power consumed by 600,000 households in the UK. MGT’s website says the plant will help meet the UK’s nationwide renewable energy goal of 15 percent of all energy consumed by 2020 by accounting for around 1 percent of the target. Further, the company projects that the plant will save approximately 1.2 million tonnes of CO2 each year.

MGT reports the project is expected to break ground as soon as funding is secured, hopefully by early 2016, and the plant will be operational by 2019 – just in time to help offset coal and gas usage and contribute to the UK’s 2020 energy goals.

 

Advances in magnet technology could bring cheaper, modular fusion reactors from sci-fi to sci-reality in less than a decade

Advances in magnet technology have allowed MIT scientists to design a cheaper, more compact, modular and highly efficient fusion reactor that is efficient enough to use commercially. The era of clean, practically inexhaustible energy may be upon us in as little as a decade, scientists report.

MIT PhD candidate Brandon Sorbom holds REBCO superconducting tapes (left), enabling technology behind the ARC reactor.
When cooled to liquid nitrogen temperature, the superconducting tape can carry as much current as the large copper conductor on the right, enabling the construction of extremely high‑field magnets, which consume minimal amounts of power.
Photo: Jose‑Luis Olivares/MIT

The team used newly available rare-earth barium copper oxide (REBCO) superconducting tapes to produce high-magnetic field coils.

“[The implementation of these magnets] just ripples through the whole design,” says Dennis Whyte, professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and director of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center. “It changes the whole thing.”

Bigger bang for your magnet

But how do magnets help us build a mini-star? Well, fusion reactors generate electricity by using the same physical process that powers stars. In such a reactor, two lighter atoms are mushed together to create heavier elements. And just like natural stars, they generate immensely hot plasma – a state of matter similar to an electrically charged gas.

The stronger magnets and the stronger magnetic fields they generate allow the plasma to be contained in a much smaller space than previously possible. This translates to less materials and space necessary to build the reactor, and less hours of work, meaning a cheaper, more affordable reactor.

The proposed reactor, using a tokamak (donut-ish) geometry is described in a paper in the journal Fusion Engineering and Design, co-authored by Whyte, PhD candidate Brandon Sorbom, and 11 others at MIT.

A cutaway view of the proposed ARC reactor. Thanks to powerful new magnet technology, the much smaller, less-expensive ARC reactor would deliver the same power output as a much larger reactor.
Illustration credits to the MIT ARC team

Power plant prototype

The basic concept of the reactor and its associated elements rely on well-tested and proven principles that have been developed over decades of study.

The new reactor is intended to allow basic research on fusion and to potentially function as a prototype power plant – that could produce significant quantities of power.

“The much higher magnetic field,” Sorbom says, “allows you to achieve much higher performance.”

The reactor uses hydrogen fusion to form helium, with enormous releases of energy. To sustain the reaction and make it energy efficient (to release more energy than the reaction consumes) the plasma has to be heated to temperatures hotter than the cores of stars. And here is where the new magnets come in handy – they trap the heated particles in the center of the tokamak.

Cutaway of the inner workings of the ITER reactor. Not much difference structurally in the tokamak, the increase in power comes from the magnets. Notice the solid cover over the reactor.
Image via nature

“Any increase in the magnetic field gives you a huge win,” Sorbom says.

This is because in a fusion reactor, changing the strength of the magnetic field has a dramatic effect on the reaction: available fusion power increases to the fourth power of the increase in the magnetic field. Doubling the field would thus produce a 16-fold increase in the power generated by the device.

Ten times more power

The new magnets do not quite produce a doubling of the field strength, but they are strong enough to increase the power generation of the reactor ten times over previously used superconducting technology, the study says. This opens up the path for a series of improvements to be done to the standard design of the reactor.

The world’s most powerful planned fusion reactor, a huge device under construction in France called ITER, is expected to cost around US$ 40 billion. This device was designed and put into production before the new superconductors became available. Sorbom and the MIT team believe that their new design would produce about the same power as the french reactor, while being only half the diameter, cost but a fraction of its price and being faster to construct.

But despite the difference in size and magnetic field strength, the proposed reactor, called ARC, is based on “exactly the same physics” as ITER, Whyte says.

“We’re not extrapolating to some brand-new regime,” he adds.

The team also plans to include a method for removing the fusion core from the reactor without having to dismantle the entire device. Being able to do this would lend well to research aimed at further improving the system by using different materials or designs of its core to improve performance.

In addition, as with ITER, the new superconducting magnets would enable the reactor to operate in a sustained way, producing a steady power output, unlike today’s experimental reactors that can only operate for a few seconds at a time without overheating of copper coils.

Molten core and liquid cover

Another key breakthrough the design of the reactor brings is that it replaces the blanket of solid materials that surrounds the fusion chamber with a liquid material, that can be easily circulated and replaced. This curbs operating costs associated with replacement of the materials that degrade over time.

“It’s an extremely harsh environment for [solid] materials,” Whyte says, so replacing those materials with a liquid could be a major advantage.

In its current state, the reactor should be capable of producing about three times as much electricity as is needed to keep the reaction going. Sorbom says that the design could probably be improved and fine-tuned to crank up to about five or six times that much power. So far, no completed fusion reactor has produced energy (well they did, but they use more juice than they make) so the kind of net energy production ARC is expected to deliver would be a major breakthrough in fusion technology, the team says. They estimate that the design should be able to produce electricity for about 100,000 people.

“Fusion energy is certain to be the most important source of electricity on earth in the 22nd century, but we need it much sooner than that to avoid catastrophic global warming,” says David Kingham, CEO of Tokamak Energy Ltd. in the UK, who was not connected with this research. “This paper shows a good way to make quicker progress,” he says.

The MIT research, Kingham says, “shows that going to higher magnetic fields, an MIT speciality, can lead to much smaller (and hence cheaper and quicker-to-build) devices.” The work is of “exceptional quality,” he says; “the next step … would be to refine the design and work out more of the engineering details, but already the work should be catching the attention of policy makers, philanthropists and private investors.”

The research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.