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From the editor's desk: Clean and endless fuel

April 2023 News


Kim Roberts, Deputy Editor

Welcome to another edition of I&C.; I feel very privileged to be the interim editor of such a high-quality publication. We have some top drawer contributors − like Michael Brown, Gavin Halse and Lance Turner. I was having a look through Lance’s contribution and I couldn’t help laughing about his buzzwords. His latest one ‘single pane of glass’ (SPOG) gave me a chuckle and so I thought I would have a further look. This led me to a competition for ‘the worst marketing buzzword you’ve seen: 2022’. Forget ballcourt, deep dive, pain points, futureproof, new normal and low hanging fruit. We now have SPOG. Apparently SPOG is a management strategy that “manages a complex digital system from a single executive dashboard and helps employees quickly understand the big picture, while providing them with the ability to drill down and run reports”. Ja-well-no-fine.

Down at the factory where the real world happens we have a great case study from Sasol, where Omniflex upgraded 21 000 safety-critical alarm points. Having been in the chemical industry for over 20 years, I have to admit that I have a soft spot for it. I used to hang out with the chemical engineers on the plant. There was a guy who tripped a switch by mistake and the whole ammonia plant went clunk and then it was silent. In those days they called it a ‘monument’ and they still talk about it, and I still remember it. But it makes me think that we all have our monuments. A couple of mine I still sweat about, but some are really funny. More years later than I will admit, something like that would be unthinkable in our energy-efficient automation world.

Energy is on our minds right now. I am captivated by the sheer scale of a new technology also involving chemistry. On the horizon is the promise of something way bigger than renewable energy – nuclear fusion – with the vision of a clean and endless source of fuel.

In fusion, the nuclei of hydrogen isotopes are forced together, liberating a massive amount of light and heat. The idea is to take hydrogen gas, superheat it to more than 100 million degrees K – hotter than the sun – until it forms a plasma, and then compress it with powerful magnets to force the hydrogen isotopes together, producing helium and high-speed neutrons. The energy released is harnessed to heat water, create steam and spin a turbine, producing electricity. In fact we experience this every day; the sun and stars are giant self-sustaining fusion reactors where huge gravitational forces compress matter, forcing atoms to fuse, and generating vast amounts of energy.

This is the opposite of the nuclear fission that we all know, which breaks atoms apart. Fission is expensive, it generates dangerous radioactive waste, and it raises serious issues about safety and the threat of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, fusion doesn’t produce greenhouse gases or generate radioactive pollutants. And the fuel for fusion, hydrogen, is plentiful enough to meet our energy needs for millions of years. Fusion is difficult, and commercial scale fusion is an engineering challenge rather than a scientific one. The reactor needs to be built out of material that can withstand the intense heat of the plasma, under huge pressure. It’s a huge undertaking.

However things are happening. Over 35 countries have started a major international cooperative effort called Iter. The Iter fusion reactor in France is 70% built and is expected to achieve its first plasma in 2025, providing 500 megawatts of fusion power – about the production of an average coal-fired plant. In another project, the UK aims to build a commercially viable fusion power plant by 2040. The compact design will mean that the magnets can be much smaller, saving many millions. One possibility is to use part of an existing power plant, with the old power generation system replaced with the new reactor. The benefit of this is that the back-end process of converting energy to electricity remains the same. Utilising a site with an existing turbine building makes the project more feasible.

It’s when, not if

What I find exciting is the private fusion companies. They are smaller and nimbler, and they develop by making mistakes and learning fast. There are dozens of them around the world, raising funds and bringing different approaches – just as there are in the space race. Looking at what our world has achieved over time when down to the wire, I am thinking that maybe nuclear fusion is going to be the next giant leap.


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