Korea well positioned for “knowledge-based” fusion energy

Posted on 14 October 2013

A leading researcher into nuclear fusion as a potential energy source says the drive to develop fusion energy is both “important and urgent,” especially for South Korea.

Lee  Gyung-Su, Research Fellow at South Korea’s National Fusion Research Institute (NFRI), told attendees at the World Energy Congress on 14 October that “fusion is knowledge-based energy, not resource-based.” Lee said such a potential source of energy is crucial for his country because “Korea just has innovation – we have no national resources, but we have to live.”

South Korea is part of a seven member fusion consortium, ITER, which also includes the EU, China, Japan, India, the US, and Russia. The group, which represents 50% of the world’s population and 80% of global GDP, began construction three years ago on the site of a planned fusion reactor in Provence, France. Project leaders say ITER will be complete by 2020 – and say the site will produce 500 megawatts of power by 2027. “It will also create a new collaborative culture,” said Osamu Motojima, ITER’s Director General, based in France. “Peace, energy, and environmental progress” will be key benefits of the project, he said. Panelists expressed a general agreement that fusion would be commercially available by the middle of the 21st century.

Nuclear fusion is the exact opposite of nuclear fission as energy is generated by joining rather than splitting atoms. Its commercial viability remains mainly theoretical for now. However, the pressures of providing energy to a growing exploding world population, an increase in greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuels, and concerns over the potential hazards of nuclear power following the Fukushima accident have drawn renewed attention to the potential of fusion. “It’s about the taming of the stars,” said Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Deputy Director & Deputy CEO of Austria’s International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). “The fusion challenge is much bigger than Apollo … it’s like a mission to Mars, or like jumping from the Wright brothers airplane to the jet engine,” he said.

The technological challenges in harnessing fusion power are daunting. Fusion power plants, which are extremely complex to build, require temperatures of 150 million °C to take place. Large quantities of the element lithium are also required for fusion reactions. South Korea’s POSCO has taken a lead in harvesting lithium from ordinary salt water, with two plants in South Korea and Chile that harvest a combined 30 tons per year. Lithium recover from used batteries is also an emerging industry.

The panelists said that above all, global leaders need to demonstrate the will to push fusion forward. They cite the example of the US President John F. Kennedy’s drive to put a man on the moon. “We need a commitment from political leaders,” said Minh Quang Tran, Director General of the Centre for Plasma Physics in Switzerland. “With a firm commitment, the private sector will jump in.”

This news story is based on the What does it take? session, “Fusion: Betting on a different future?”,  at the 2013 World Energy Congress.