TIME energy

Is Fusion Power Closer Than We Thought?

The UW reactor’s size means it needs fewer ingredients to create fusion

This post originally appeared on OilPrice.com.

The promise of generating energy with nuclear fusion is tantalizing because it would be free of toxic emissions and nuclear waste, and would have a virtually infinite fuel supply. On the downside, though, it is extremely costly compared with fossil fuels like natural gas and coal.

Now engineers at the University of Washington (UW) have developed a design for a fusion reactor that could be even less expensive than a coal-fired plant but boast similar generating capacity. The current design is for a reactor too small to generate much electricity, but the team is confident it can be scaled up to the size of a large power plant.

“Right now, this design has the greatest potential of producing economical fusion power of any current concept,” Thomas Jarboe, professor of aeronautics and astronautics and an adjunct professor in physics, told the UW news department.

Related: Breakthrough in Fusion Research Brings New Nuclear Power Source Closer

The engineers already have published the design, along with a cost-analysis study, in the journal Fusion Engineering and Design, and are scheduled present their findings at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 25th Fusion Energy Conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Oct. 17.

The dynomak, as the reactor is called, began in 2012 as a mere student project for a class taught by Jarboe. Later Jarboe and a doctoral student, Derek Sutherland, worked to refine the concept.

Their plan was to create a magnetic field within a closed space to contain plasma – hydrogen gas rich in electrically-charged atoms – long enough to heat the plasma to the extreme temperatures needed to maintain thermonuclear conditions. This intense heat then would be transferred to a coolant fluid that would spin a turbine to generate electricity.

The UW power generator’s design, called a spheromak, also generates most of its magnetic fields by impelling electrical currents into the plasma itself, reducing the amounts of materials needed to generate and maintain thermonuclear fusion and thereby reducing the size of the reactor altogether.

Jarboe’s team says their reactor is an improvement on previous designs for fusion reactors, including one called Iter that’s now being built in Cadarache, France. Iter needs to be larger than the UW reactor because it needs superconducting conduits that coil around the exterior of the reactor to generate its magnetic field.

Related: The Ten Reasons Why Intermittency is a Problem for Renewable Energy

And because of the UW reactor’s size and its need for fewer ingredients to create fusion, it would cost one-tenth as much as the French reactor, yet produce five times more energy.

As for cost analysis, the UW team compared the amount of money needed to build a coal-fired plant and a fusion power plant based on their design, each capable of the same electrical output. The coal plant would cost $2.8 billion, and the fusion plant would cost a little less, $2.7 billion.

“If we do invest in this type of fusion, we could be rewarded because the commercial reactor unit already looks economical,” Sutherland said. “It’s very exciting.”

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TIME energy

Dropping Oil Prices Threaten Moscow’s Budget

Oil refinery in Ufa, Russia, seen in April 2014.
Oil refinery in Ufa, Russia, seen in April 2014. Andrey Rudakov—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Russia has seen its economy boom with the price of oil. But if the cost of crude falls, Moscow could struggle to make ends meet

This article originally appeared on OilPrice.com

Oil and gas are at the heart of the Russian economy and are largely responsible for keeping Moscow’s government budget in balance. But the recent decline in the price of oil from the North Sea and Texas has now spread to Urals crude, giving President Vladimir Putin one more economic headache.

The price of Urals crude fell just below $100 per barrel on Aug. 18, an 18-month low. On Aug. 19, it dropped to less than $97 per barrel. These declines coincided with similar drops in the price of Brent crude from the North Sea and U.S. oil.

The reasons are fairly easy to recognize. First, the United States has been on a drilling tear, extracting oil at record levels to increase its supply at a time when demand is waning. Second, though more tentative, is that conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East are so far not interfering with oil production in these regions.

This oil production boom raises problems for Moscow. Two-thirds of Russia’s exports are oil and gas, accounting for fully half of the central government’s revenues. That means that so far this year, every dollar drop in the price of Russian oil means a cut of about $1.4 billion in revenues.

This comes as Russia’s oil industry joins its defense and finance sectors as targets of sanctions by the European Union and the United States over Moscow’s unilateral annexation of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine and its suspected role in the fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Some analysts say the effects of the lower oil prices may not be lasting unless the drop in oil prices fall further in coming years. Vladimir Kolychev, the chief economist at VTB Capital, a global investment firm with headquarters in Moscow, says brief dips have less of an impact on Russia’s budget than the average cost of oil over an entire year.

“The first thing to remember is that the oil price projected by the finance ministry is … $104 average for the year – that still looks conservative,” Kolychev told Reuters. “Even if the oil price falls to $90, we’ll still have $105 average.”

As an example, Kolychev calculates that Russia’s budget would balance if oil’s average price fell to $103 per barrel.

Even if Moscow can tame its budget, it seems clear that Russia’s oil sector will feel the pain from the one-two punch of Western sanctions and lower prices. Vedomosti, a Russian financial journal, reported Aug. 14 that government-owned Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company, has asked Moscow for more than $40 billion in debt relief because of the sanctions.

That’s a sharp reversal from just a month ago. Western sanctions were imposed on July 15, and three days later, Rosneft officials shrugged them off, saying the company would continue to pursue its plans and reap profits. In fact, a week after that statement, Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin boasted that the company’s revenues were soaring.

 

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