With growing concerns about both reliable access to energy supplies and the ever looming presence of climate change, the US Navy has risen to the challenge, officially lodging a patent for a next-generation fusion reactor, which if successful would further reshape the balance of global power and re-establish the US as the pre-eminent global energy powerhouse.
As many nations and governments around the world race to secure their domestic energy supplies while limiting the harmful effects on the global environment, the US under the rambunctious President Donald Trump has been quietly seeking a way to "unleash American Energy Dominance".
While the US, like much of the developed world, has long been dependent on foreign, largely Middle East oil, public support and groundswell for alternative energy sources, namely renewables like solar, wind and hydroelectricity, have garnered much support despite the difficulty faced in providing complete grid coverage – presenting a unique national security conundrum for political, economic, scientific and strategic leaders.
Nuclear energy has long served as a powerful, albeit contentious alternative to meet the voracious energy demands of the global economy, with frequent critics citing the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima incidents as largely emotionally-driven counter arguments against the wide spread implementation of traditional, fission-based nuclear power production.
Each of these different energy sources play an important role in any nation's energy equation. However, not to be outdone, the US seems to have made progress in what has colloquially be known as "the energy source of the future" since the birth of the Atomic Age – fusion energy.
Lodged on behalf of the US Secretary of the Navy, the US Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division filed a patent on a design by US Navy researcher Salvatore Cezar Pais for what it defines as a 'compact fusion reactor' or CFR, which could be used to successfully, reliably and efficiently generate virtually limitless amounts of clean energy.
Game, set, match - energy security equals national security
While it is often joked about, fusion energy has proven elusive for many researchers and organisations, with companies like Lockheed Martin recently filing patents for their own versions of a fusion reactor, Pais' concept allegedly addresses the shortfalls of the Lockheed Martin Skunkworks CFR originally lodged in mid-2018.
Fusion, or thermonuclear fusion, involves the forcing together of light nuclei in order to form a heavier nucleus, which due to the mass defect occurs with the generation of energy – this is perfectly incapsulated in Albert Einstein's famous E=mc2 equation. Fusion occurs at extremely high temperatures, exceeding the core temperature of the sun, which is approximately 15 million degrees.
The complex containment and heat requirements, combined with limitations on computational processing, have all served as traditional hindrances to the successful implementation of fusion energy, something which Pais' patent hopes to overcome through a net energy gain (more energy is emitted than enters the system).
Should it be successful, Pais' concept could produce upwards of one gigawatt (one billion watts) to one terawatt (one trillion watts) of power from a single megawatt (one million watts) of energy input – in order to understand the scale and orders of magnitude, a single, large nuclear power plant produces approximately a gigawatt of power, or enough to supply roughly 700,000 homes.
The US Navy is no stranger to the use of fission-based nuclear power for its largest and most strategically significant warships, namely its fleet of Nimitz and Ford Class supercarriers and its fleet of Los Angeles, Seawolf, Virginia and Columbia Class submarines, respectively – if it works, Pais' CFR would effectively replace the reactors currently used in the nuclear fleet, most of which operate under the 100 megawatt range.
Further supporting the broad appeal of such a system is the compact nature of the reactor, expected to measure 0.3 to two metres in diameter, or the size of a small car, which would enable the system to be installed on vehicles ranging from ships to fighter and strategic airlift aircraft through to main battle tanks or used to effectively power remote facilities or population centres – effortlessly.
Fission, fusion and limiting Australia's energy dependence
While the widespread roll-out of the fusion reactor is still some time away, the increasing reliability and modularity of advanced fission reactors, particularly Generation III and IV reactors, present an interesting and attractive opportunity to respond to the nation's energy security situation.
Australia's dependence on foreign energy, both oil and increasingly natural gas as a result of Australia's focus on exporting vast quantities of its domestically produced natural gas – the increasingly precarious energy security situation of the nation has become a focal point for policy makers, with nuclear energy emerging as a potential answer despite the inherently emotional responses the suggestion has elicited in the past.
Despite the overwhelmingly emotional response to nuclear energy in Australia, the nation's position as one of the largest fissile material exporters in the world, combined with world-leading standards, environmental protection legislation and voracious demand for reliable, 'clean' and 'safe' energy, positions Australian policy makers at a cross roads where logic and reason need to trump emotion.
The advent of SMR technology and the similar vSMR platforms was a key focus of the terms of reference outlined by Energy Minister Angus Taylor – with the ABC recently reporting the growing focus of SMR developers, stating their key objective as "aiming to lower the typical construction costs associated with nuclear plants through serial fabrication at an off-site facility, with components brought together at the operational site for final assembly".
SMR technology is one such example of modernisation and technological breakthroughs in the nuclear industry, with the US Army 'Mobile Nuclear Power Plants for Ground Operations' study highlighting the growing importance of energy on the modern battlefield, saying, "Energy is a cross-cutting enabler of military power and nuclear fuel provides the densest form of energy able to generate the electrical power necessary at forward and remote locations without the need for continuous fuel resupply."
Enter the development of vSMRs, designed to deliver between one and 10 megawatts (MW) for years without refuelling in a rapidly-deployable (road and/or air) package. Both the US Department of Defense and NASA have collaborated on the development of such reactors for use in military and space exploration contingencies.
Additionally, the US Army study identified a series of performance and design considerations for the development and operation of such a system, including:
- Sized for transport by different strategic, operational and tactical military platforms (C-17 aircraft, ships, Army watercraft and military truck);
- Designed to enable multiple movements in austere locations, throughout its operating life (e.g. passively or actively vibration-resistant during transport);
- Once installed, provides stationary 'load-following' and conditioned electric power as well as possibly process heat. Capable of meeting a camp’s variable electrical base power load demand;
- Provides electrical power for mission systems (e.g. sensing, computing and communications), life support (heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting etc) quality-of-life functions, and other future applications (e.g. electric weapons, manufacturing, water or fuel production) during contingency operations in remote locations;
- Must have characteristics enabling minimum downtime for periodic instrumentation and sensor replacement or refurbishing, without requiring direct exposure to the nuclear fuel system;
- Must be simple in design and operation. Reactor design and fuel must be inherently safe and accident-forgiving; and
- Factory fuelled with system operating life of 10-20 years without refuelling.
The HOLOS reactor in particular has been designed to support deployed military requirements, with full-power tested successfully in 2018. The HOLOS reactor uses a form of low-enriched uranium known as 'high-assay low-enriched uranium' or HALEU, which is neither weapons-grade nor useful in dirty bombs, and satisfies all nuclear non-proliferation requirements.
A clean energy future and reinvigorated, green Australian heavy industries
Professor Emma Aisbett and Professor Mark Howden of the Australian National University (ANU) echoed the growing focus of the economic, political and strategic policy communities, with the Asia-Pacific region recognised as playing a pivotal role in Australia's transition towards a clean energy economy and position as an energy superpower, as well as the global community's response to climate change.
With the Indo/Asia-Pacific region expected to be responsible for 65 per cent of projected energy growth in the coming decades, Australia has a unique opportunity to capitalise on its proximity to the emerging markets of the region, build on the vast investment in human capital that establishes the nation as a high-wage, educated labour force, and the ease of investment.
"Australia is very well positioned to become a renewable energy superpower, or power house, if you wish to be less controversial," Professor Aisbett explained to an audience of existing and future ADF leaders at ADFA.
She articulated that the nation's transition towards renewable energy also provides opportunities for the nation's traditional 'brown' industries, like steel manufacturing, with the abundance of both wind and solar energy in north-western Australia, combined with the proximity to vast deposits of iron ore and iron concentrates in the area providing a chance for the nation to re-establish its comparative advantage in the market.
"It just so happens that in the north-west of Australia, where that fantastic solar resource is, there is also some of Australia's best wind resources and the world's largest iron ore deposits, so the co-location could have real benefits here and provide Australia with the opportunity to regain its comparative advantage and produce green steel," Professor Aisbett explained.
As part of the ANU's Grand Challenge, five interlocking projects have been identified to support the nation's transition towards a renewable energy future, supporting a reinvigorated national industrial base with a range of flow on effects for Australia's traditional strengths and emerging sectors. These include:
- Renewable-energy systems;
- Hydrogen fuels;
- Renewable refining of metal ores;
- Indigenous community engagement; and
- Energy policy and governance.
Professor Aisbett added, "For example, if we can turn Australia's iron ore into 'green steel' in Australia, there are huge economic benefits for the nation, as well as huge environmental benefits as a result of avoided emissions overseas."
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.
Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.