Although it is 93 million miles from Earth, in just 15 minutes, the sun radiates as much energy as people use in all forms in an entire year. Now, scientists have found a way to replicate certain conditions found on the sun to generate massive amounts of energy, and oil producers are right to be nervous.
On December 13, scientists in the United States announced that for the first time they produced more energy in a fusion reaction than was used to ignite it, a breakthrough in the quest to harness the energy from the process that powers the sun.
Fusion advocates hope that it may one day displace fossil fuels and other traditional energy sources. The energy produced is supposed to be carbon-free, unlike dirty fossils, and could power homes and factories.
Skeptics believe it’s still the stuff of science fiction, perhaps decades from now, but the big announcement marks a major leap forward.
“It’s almost like the starting gun is fired,” said Dennis Whyte, professor, director of the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a leader in fusion research. “We should be pushing to make fusion power systems available to address climate change and energy security.”
Instructively, many dismissed the shale oil announcement as a fantasy. However, it sounded the death knell for Nigerian oil in the US market.
How does it work
The sun and stars are powered by nuclear fusion reactions. In the core of the sun, hydrogen is converted to helium. This is called nuclear fusion. It takes four hydrogen atoms to fuse into each helium atom. During the process, part of the mass is converted into energy.
In reality, however, the process is much more complex. According to a Western Washington University article, the sun has different layers with different properties. These layers are made up of material that is about 75 percent hydrogen and 25 percent helium by mass.
The sun is essentially a big ball of gas, hot enough to shine at all levels. In the innermost part of the Sun, called the core, the temperature is about 15 million Kelvin, the density is 150 times that of water, and the pressure is more than 200 billion times the atmospheric pressure here on Earth. Land. This heavy, sweltering place is where energy from the Sun is produced through a process known as thermonuclear fusion.
These conditions are difficult to replicate on Earth because temperatures are not high enough for hydrogen nuclei to crush into helium nuclei, releasing large amounts of energy in various forms. The intense heat of the sun, estimated at millions of degrees Celsius, and the pressure exerted by its gravity that allows atoms to fuse that would otherwise repel each other.
It is in replicating this condition that makes the discovery a breakthrough after decades of failed attempts. Current efforts are focused on fusing a pair of isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium and tritium, according to the Department of Energy, which says that particular combination releases “far more energy than most fusion reactions” and requires less heat to do so. .
The reaction occurs when two light nuclei fuse to form a single heavier nucleus. Because the total mass of that single nucleus is less than the mass of the two original nuclei, the leftover mass is energy released in the process, according to the Department of Energy.
Scientists have long known how nuclear fusion has worked and have been trying to duplicate the process on Earth since the 1930s. In 2022, they finally found a way.
Fusion works by pressing hydrogen atoms together with such force that they combine into helium, releasing enormous amounts of energy and heat. Unlike other nuclear reactions, it does not generate radioactive waste.
While it may still be a long way to go to turn fusion into a usable energy source, the researchers say the lab’s achievement makes them optimistic that one day, fusion could be the ideal zero-carbon energy source. and runs on an abundant form of hydrogen. that can be extracted from seawater.
One approach to fusion converts hydrogen into plasma, an electrically charged gas, which is then controlled by huge magnets. This method is being explored in France in a 35-country collaboration called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, as well as by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a private company.
The future of oil
Shortly after the announcement of the nuclear fusion breakthrough, memes appeared on Twitter satirizing panicked oil executives. Others began sharing conspiracy theories about possible moves by the oil lobby to win back funding for nuclear fusion research.
If history is any guide, the potential for nuclear fusion to disrupt today’s energy market cannot be discounted. In the 1970s, the US Department of Energy (DOE) invested $92 million in research to stimulate the development of domestic natural gas from shale.
Aided by technological developments brought about by this investment, US shale gas production has increased and now accounts for more than 8 billion cubic feet per day, or approximately 14 percent of total US production. dry natural gas in the country.
By 2035, the Energy Information Administration (EIA), a division of the DOE, predicts that the share of shale gas in US natural gas production will increase to 45 percent. Additionally, according to the EIA, 827 trillion cubic feet of natural gas can now be extracted from US shale deposits using technology already in use, an increase of nearly 500 trillion cubic feet from previous projections.
For now, analysts interviewed for this article do not see an immediate threat to oil markets, but noted that the current shift toward cleaner energy transition spurred by climate concerns will attract funding for nuclear fusion and could reduce development time. of the commercial application of the technology.
“For oil producers, the concern is whether nuclear power will continue to shine as a major force in the energy transition,” said Etulan Adu, an oil and gas production engineer. gas to give energy to society”.
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Some analysts say Nigeria and other producers, especially in Africa, whose natural resources have not translated into much value for their people, should focus on extracting the best possible value before the age of fossil fuels passes.
“Nigeria and other African nations need to increase their oil and gas production (using energy sources in which they have a comparative advantage) in order to meet the growing energy demand in Africa and to improve the standard of living of its people,” he said. Olufola Wusu, partner and head of oil and gas at Megathos Law Practice.
This is the strategy employed by some of the world’s largest oil producers such as Saudi Arabia. The oil-rich kingdom is investing massively in petrochemicals, renewable energy and technology to hedge against the risk of a world drifting inexorably away from crude oil.