Future lies with fusion power

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 2:51am

I refer to Peter Schwartz's excellent article ("Up in smoke", October 26) on the current revolution transforming the world's energy landscape.

Coincidentally, I too touched upon some of the energy and climate change issues raised therein in my lecture, "The Engineer Leading the Future", at the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers on October 24. A few observations may be relevant.

Shale gas is rapidly replacing coal for power generation in the United States.

Its most significant benefit is that it releases up to 50 per cent less CO2, thus effectively cutting down carbon emissions, besides being the cheapest energy source.

Based on data from the US Energy Information Agency, for the first five months of 2012, this year's emissions in the US are expected to decline by 14 per cent from their peak in 2007 because of the unprecedented switch from coal to natural gas.

As a result, the US carbon emissions have dropped by 400 to 500 megatonnes (Mt) a year, that is, 20 per cent per capita - to the lowest level since 1961.

Against this, the annual reduction from America's 30,000 wind turbines account for 50 Mt, biofuels 10 Mt and solar panels 3 Mt. These are heavily subsidised and expensive renewables. Besides, the needed reduction in CO2 from switching to gas is for free. And, though not a panacea, if the gas rage spreads further, as in the US, this, along with a judicious mix of renewables and nuclear, will radically reduce our carbon emissions to the desired levels and the 21st century could be the century of gas.

However, in the longer term, it will be nuclear fusion that will sustain us. This is the same process that powers our sun and other stars and can give us a near-limitless, pollution-free, cheap source of energy.

Hopefully, it will come to fruition before long.

Recently, Professor Stephen Hawking , the world's most famous living scientist, when asked to name the most pressing scientific challenge facing humanity, answered: producing electricity from fusion power. Significantly, the famous National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California (which I once visited), recently reached a critical milestone in its quest for fusion power, achieving some record-breaking results. And once fusion power, for which the world has been waiting for more than five decades, comes into being, it will be the world's greatest bounty.

B. S. Makhija, The Peak