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Ramifications for Alberta's energy sector won't become clear for long time after leap forward in fusion research | – Global News

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A scientific breakthrough that could one day lead to more discoveries that would revolutionize the energy sector has people around the world taking notice, including in Alberta.
“By all accounts, the announcement of fusion ignition is a significant milestone in the decades-long pursuit of nuclear fusion,” Jerry Bellikka, the chief of staff for Alberta Energy Minister Peter Guthrie, said in a statement issued to Global News on Tuesday.
Earlier in the day, it was announced that researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California had for the first time ever produced more energy in a fusion reaction than was needed to ignite it. The breakthrough that occurred last week could eventually have significant implications for attempts to find more environmentally-friendly and efficient ways of generating electricity than through coal plants, traditional nuclear power plants, natural gas plants or through wind or solar farms.
READ MORE: What is fusion energy? U.S. scientists hit ‘breakthrough’ with major clean power implications
“The potential payoff is so massive because this is the ultimate solution to our energy problems,” said Jason Myatt, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Alberta.
“It’s not emission-free but it’s got lots of the characteristics you like: no carbon, no nasty nuclear waste — some, but not the kind we worry about — and the fuel is fairly abundant. So it’s the perfect fuel.”
Myatt has previously worked with some of the scientists involved in the breakthrough in California. He said he spent about 16 years in the U.S. working on a laser fusion program and said he considers it to be “quite a remarkable thing” that scientists have been able to accomplish the feat in the time they have, especially given that research in the field only began in the 1970s.
READ MORE: B.C.-based company announces milestone that could lead to commercial fusion energy
While Myatt said Tuesday’s announcement is significant, people should realize “there is a lot that has to happen before this becomes an energy source.”
“This is going to be something that maybe takes a decade or perhaps more just to get a picture of if it’s feasible, what’s it going to look like,” he said.
Jason Donev, an associate professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary, said he believes the discovery announced Tuesday serves as “an encouraging step that says we’re likely to do those other steps.”
“The way I’ve been explaining it to people is fusion’s a hard problem,” he said. “In a world where we’ve sequenced the human genome, we’ve flown to the moon, we rolled out a COVID-19 vaccine in the space of months… fusion is still difficult.
“If you compare it to running a marathon, if you’ve decided to run a marathon, what we’ve just done is found the right pair of shoes. It’s a good step, it’s an important step, it’s an impressive step (and) we’ve worked hard to get to this step, (but) there are a lot of steps still to come unfortunately.”
READ MORE: Is nuclear fusion around the corner? Lockheed Martin says yes.
Donev noted that if there are continuous breakthroughs in the field in the decades to come, fusion power will likely upend the global energy landscape — directly, when it comes to natural gas and coal, and indirectly when it comes to oil.
“When we talk about this being almost limitless energy, what we mean is that the oceans will be able to give us way more than we’ve ever been able to get from oil, coal and natural gas combined,” he said. “One cubic kilometre of ocean water contains more energy for fusion than all of Alberta’s oil, coal and natural gas combined.
“So imagine a world where nobody ever ends up wanting to import natural gas for their electricity. Imagine a world where Russia can’t shut off its natural gas for Europe as a political threat. Imagine a world where electricity becomes… too cheap to meter. Imagine you don’t even have to pay an electricity bill anymore.”
Myatt noted that as electric vehicles play a growing role in the transportation marketplace, the prospect of potentially having an abundance of fusion power available sometime in the next few decades could indirectly impact the oil sector.
“That horizon is pretty far away, and probably so far away that my guess is oil and gas isn’t too concerned at the moment,” he noted. “But the time will probably come, I think… Twenty years ago, well that went pretty quickly.”
READ MORE: Is Alberta entering its last oil boom?
Donev said if or when that time does come, it would not necessarily mean Alberta’s oil is no longer needed, just that the industry may need to reposition itself.
“At the moment, oil is largely used for transportation, (but) it’s (also) a petrochemical feedstock,” he said. “(A world where fusion power is in the marketplace) would allow us as a province to focus on oil as a petrochemical feedstock, which could be financially really good. Because we can make a lot more money from oil as a petrochemical feedstock than oil as something we burn… but we would have to dramatically, dramatically change our infrastructure.”
READ MORE: Alberta launches grant program in bid to turn province into global leader in petrochemical sector
Donev noted that Alberta needs to look at how to eventually move “beyond burning oil.”
“That’s a thing that has to happen,” he said.
READ MORE: Here comes hydrogen: How this abundant element could revolutionize the way we fuel our lives
Bellikka said while the breakthrough announced Tuesday is “a positive step forward, we must remember that years of work remain” before fusion power “could potentially become a feasible option for generating sustainable electricity and other energy.”
“It is far too early to speculate but we look forward to learning more, and will keep monitoring this research in the years ahead,” he said.
“Alberta’s energy sector has always been a leader in innovation, and that will not change.”
READ MORE: Alberta government invests $161M in clean hydrogen
Myatt said investing in fusion power research “is not something that currently resonates with provincial or federal governments.”
“Mostly because of its time frame,” he explained. “It’s quite a challenge politically to attract money and resources to something that is so far away, but the thing about fusion is that the potential payoff is so massive.”
–With files from The Associated Press’ Matthew Daly, Michael Phillis, Jennifer Mcdermott and Maddie Burakoff
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