Monday, October 24, 2011

A game-changing energy solution: The Laser Inertial Fusion Energy Project

50 years ago, people said fusion energy was 50 years away. John Post of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore thinks they were right. As he explained at our October Green Project Management Seminar, that means we’re on the brink of an exciting new chapter in energy generation.

And not a moment too soon. Energy demands are increasing as our supply of non-renewable energy sources is dwindling. And our current energy supply is about 90% carbon based. Renewables are important but for now a thin wedge of the power we’re using, and transmission and distribution are challenges.

Post feels that our solution to this energy situation needs to be:
  • Affordable
  • Environmentally clean, safe, sustainable
  • Nearly inexhaustible
  • Possible with technologies and materials available today
  • Non-geopolitical
  • Non-proliferant – that is, not conducive to creating and proliferating weapons
  • Compatible with the existing grid infrastructure
  • Timely enough to make a difference and meet the energy demands of 2030 – 2060
Sometimes, it turns out, the answer is right in front of you. Fusion is what powers the cosmos, so we know it works — it’s just a matter of getting it to work in the lab, a challenge akin to putting rubber bands around water.

How does this work? It involves taking some hydrogen from water, filtering out the heavy water (water with an extra neutron), baking it for a few billionths of a second at 200 million degrees F, and converting mass to energy. We’re talking a lot of energy -- one liter of heavy water has the energy of more than 2 million gallons of gas. Each fusion energy plant would prevent 7 million tons of CO2 from being released into the air.

To succeed, the NIF Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (LIFE) project has to get more energy out of the reaction than is put in – or achieve ignition. Currently the process is at the break-even stage. But Post believes we’re looking at NIF ignition in 2012, a first-of-a-kind plant in the early 2020s, and significant market penetration in the 2030s. Although it’s been a long road, and there have been some crackpots on the journey, Post is not alone in thinking we’re close to achieving the goal. In fact, some are starting to see the LIFE project as competition, a good sign. And Secretary of Energy Steven Chu says we will get to the goal and should be planning for that.

At the seminar, Post involved attendees in a lively discussion of the project’s challenges, many of which are familiar to project managers:
  • Perceptions and change management: Most people aren’t aware of fusion energy or how close we are to achieving it, especially since the LIFE project has been declassified for just a short time. Many people have negative associations with fusion energy and mistakenly compare it to our current nuclear energy. So public education and outreach will be important to the project.
  • Competition: We can mitigate this by working with other countries, as we have done with such projects as an international space station.
  • Cost of market entry and timeliness of commercial deployment: Post believes there’s an opportunity for public-private partnership, and while government sponsorship is important, fusion energy should not be funded by the government. The current economy is an issue, but only $5 - $8 billion is needed to build the first plant -- not a lot of money for this sort of endeavor. And we might be able to repurpose existing sites, such as Three Mile Island, which already has the necessary infrastructure and heat source and is nearing its end of life.
  • Stakeholder engagement and competing stakeholder interests: It’s important to determine what motivates different stakeholder populations and appeal to that to get their support for the project.
  • Staying within budget and on schedule -- an issue for any project.
The list goes on -- but being aware of challenges goes a long way toward addressing them, and the October seminar attendees were privileged to participate in helping identify potential issues for this project from a fresh perspective.

For more on the LIFE project, visit the LIFE website.


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