The Ecumenopolis, ITER, and the road to sustainable energy

“This is going to be the world’s biggest science experiment… to show the scientific feasibility of fusion as a limitless source of energy. It will be huge – the size of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris – and it’ll weigh about the same as a battleship – 36,000 tonnes of metal and instrumentation.” — Neil Calder, ITER head of scientific communication

Imagine a machine that derives its fuel from sea water, that replicates perfectly the conditions in the centre of our Sun at 15 milliion degrees producing more energy than is put in, produces no atmospheric pollutants ,and which is self-sustaining but with the safety net that switches off when things go wrong. Sounds too good to be true? Well, 5 years ago in Moscow on 28 June, 2005, scientists agreed on the location of precisely such a machine – the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). Many people hear the words “thermonuclear” and think of Hiroshima or Nagasaki, or “reactor” and think of Chernobyl or Windscale. But ITER whose name in Latin means “the way”, like “Tao“, may just be the path taken by our grandchildren. What will drive them along this path is Nuclear Fusion.

Fusion is the energy source of the Universe. Over billions of years, gravity gathered the Hydrogen clouds of the early Universe into massive stellar bodies. In these stars, gravitational forces produced the extreme density and temperatures in their cores for fusion to occur. What we see as light and feel as warmth is the result of a fusion reactions in the centre of the Sun where Hydrogen nuclei collide and fuse into heavier Helium atoms, releasing tremendous amounts of energy – 17.6MeV of energy per reaction. Using just 0.5 grammes of hydrogen fuel, ITER is set to produce around half a billion Joules of energy per second (0.5 Giga-Watts).

Image Credit: Michael Taylor

One Joule is the energy required to lift a small apple one meter, the energy released as heat by a person at rest, every hundredth of a second, one hundredth of the energy a person gets by drinking one drop of beer or the electrical energy produced by a rotor arm turned by a tennis ball moving at 23 km/h (14 mph). You can play the energy game for hours. It’s fun but, as the examples for the Joule illustrate, energy can be converted from one form to another. Mechanical to potential, chemical to heat, kinetic to electrical. Imagine 1000 ITERs each producing 0.5GW (one billion Joules per second). They can power the Earth and all our energy needs. Or can they?

These are big numbers, way beyond our decimal digit experience of 10 fingers and toes. Ok, so we all have 50 Watt lightbulbs at home, but just how much energy is a Giga-Watt? Mull over these facts and figures for a second:

  • one square meter of the Earth’s surface area receives about one nano-Watt (1nW=1 billionth of a Watt) from the Sun
  • your computer is consuming about one micro-Watt ( 1μW=1 millionth of a Watt)
  • a typical hearing aid for people consumes less than 1 mili-Watt (1mW=1 thousanth of a Watt)
  • a labourer over the course of an 8-hour day can sustain an average output of about 75 Watts (like a lightbulb)
  • a person having a mass of 100 kilograms who climbs a 3 meter high ladder in 5 seconds is doing work at a rate of about 600 Watts
  • most heating applicances and ever cars use the order of kilo-Watts (1kW=one thousand Watts). 1kW=1.34 horsepower!
  • the Eurostar electric train and most large residential buildings consume several Mega-Watts (1MW=1 million Watts)
  • the total 2009 wind power in Germany was 25 Giga-Watts (1GW=1 billion Watts)
  • your run of the mill lightning stroke peaks at 1 Terra-Watt (1TW=1 thousand billion Watts) but last for only about 30μs
  • the total power used by humans worldwide in 2006 was around 16 TW
  • the total energy of sunlight hitting the Earth’s atmosphere is estimated at 174 Peta-Watts (1PW=1 million billion Watts)

Get the picture? ITER is big Watts. It’s like putting the sun in a box. It is also big Bucks. Considering that we face a Mega-crisis in terms of global energy requirements, ITER is likely to be the Mega-project answer. The US Federal Highway Administration define mega-projects as “major infrastructure projects that cost more than US$1 billion, or projects of a significant cost that attract a high level of public attention or political interest because of substantial direct and indirect impacts on the community, environment, and budgets”. Other mega-projects include the Channel tunnel between France and the UK costing $10 billion. Although the plasma at the center of ITER’s chambers will be in the mega degrees Celcius, it is probably more appropriate to call ITER a Giga-project. ITER will cost several Giga-dollars but it will produce 0.5 Gigawatts of power for 1000 seconds (16.7 minutes) at a time. Some financers are hesitant but, at a time of an increase in demand for energy, rising global pollution levels and fears of Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 Population Bomb we must appeal to reason and common sense:

“The current world energy market is about three trillion US dollars a year and growing. An energy source that can make an impact on that market, even at a few percent, has an annual market of tens of billions of dollars, several times the lifetime cost of the Iter experiment. As for the timescale, fusion certainly wouldn’t be available in the short-term, but the problem of providing viable energy sources is not going to get easier even if conservation, CO2 sequestration, fission and renewables are more widely used, and there are currently no other large-scale options beyond the 20-50-year timeframe. We thus need to pursue fusion to the reactor scale through constructing Iter to see whether and to what extent it can contribute.” —Kaname Ikeda, Iter programme’s Director-General Nominee

Let’s stop and think for a minute. Exactly, what are the predictions for global population growth, energy demand, consumption and provision in the coming years? As it stands, the UN in 2009 estimated the world population  to be 6,800,000,000 (6.8Gpeople) distributed unevely across the globe:

Image Credit: Wikipedia

While it has grown continuously since the end of the Black Death around the year 1400, the highest rate of growth peaked at 2.2% in 1963 and has declined to just 1.10% by 2009. Annual births have reduced to 134 million since their peak at 163 million in the late 1990s, and are expected to remain constant, while deaths number 57 million per year and are expected to increase to 90 million per year by 2050. Current projections show a steady decline in the population growth rate, with the population expected to peak at around 9 billion between the year 2040 and 2050.

Image Credit: Wikipedia (Loren Cobb)

There is no doubt that it is rising but not exponentially or uncontrollably. Statistics of population growth by continent show a slowing down of the increase tending toward a maximum in each case. Population theorists call the number of individuals that can be sustained the carrying capacity.

Image Credit: Wikipedia (based on statistics from the UN World Population Prospects 2008 data)

It is here that we should take note of the inspiring work of city planner, Konstantinos Apostolos Doxiadis who,  in 1942, developed the science of settlements which he called Ekistics. Since then, his predictions are coming true. In 1800, only 3% of the world’s population lived in cities, a figure that has risen to 47% by 2000. In 1950, there were 83 cities with populations exceeding one million; by 2007, this number had risen to 468. Situation has moved on rapidly since then. There are now 25 megacities each having over 10 million inhabitants with Tokyo being the biggest (34.4 million). City mergers and overlaps are now creating population megapolis belts like the Indo-Gangetic Plain, the Pearl River Delta, the Blue Banana, the Yangtze River Delta, and the Taiheiyō Belt housing 918 million betweem them. The UN forecasts that today’s urban population of 3.2 billion will rise to nearly 5 billion by 2030, when three out of five people will live in cities. The trend suggests we are moving toward a global Ecumenopolis. It is the idea that future urban areas and megalopolises will eventually fuse and merge into one continuous worldwide city- like Thomas Lake Harris’s city-planets or Isaac Asimov’s city-planet Trantor. I would like the Ecumenopolis to be rich and not like the sprawling slums that are forming.

It is true that alarm bells are sounding about overpopulation and threats to the ecosystem due to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, global warming, and pollution. In our lifetimes, like it or not, we have to answer one fundamental question: How are we going to deal with the scarcity that already exists (and which will worsen as we approach the carrying capacity)?  The Green Revolution from 1950 to 1984 transformed global agriculture around the world. Grain production increased by over 250% but, despite this, approximately 850 million people suffer from chronic malnutrition according to the UN report of 2005. Shamefully, the figure is rising. For these people, complaint over their use of fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides or hydrocarbon-fueled irrigation are irrelevant. Sky rocketing food prices have been and continue to be to blame for their loss of life in more and more countries. Growing populations, food shortages and falling energy sources, may create an unprecedented human storm by 2030 warn UK government chief scientists in  an article entitled Global crisis to strike by 2030. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) claim that the world will have to produce 70% more food by 2050 to feed a projected extra 2.3 billion people.

Scientists are not politicians. Theirs is the job of distribution, ours is the job of seeking better sources. Despite the applaudible advances in alternative energies like solar, wind, wave, hydroelectric & geomthermal power and biomass fuels, that should be supported and further funded, their combined contribution to the total energy budget is only 10%. The remaining 90% coming from fossil fuels (oil, coal & gas) and nuclear fission:

Image Credit: Wikipedia, (based on data from the International Energy Agency)

While ITER wont provide food, it looks like the not just “the way” but the only way to possibly address the energy crisis and the problem of clean, affordable global energy. I hope for a future Ecumenopolis where we are fed, breath clean air, and where we pay tribute to the sea and all its fruits.

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