Looking to find a technology that could become the successor to natural gas-fired power generation, a blue-chip faction of Albertans believes that lasers and fusion power might be the answer. Edmonton's mothballed Rossdale powerhouse could be turned into a home for pioneers of a future generation of electricity technology under a plan developing in senior academic, industry and government circles.
The cathedral-sized structure in the North Saskatchewan River valley stands out as a potential site for a proposed C$200 million Alberta role in an international effort to make dreams of zero-pollution power generation come true.
"This is a signature project for Edmonton," said Allan Offenberger, a retired physicist and engineering professor who leads the team sponsoring an Alberta-Canada Fusion Energy Institute. "This would have a lot of symbolism," he said in an interview.
City-owned Rossdale was an Alberta energy cornerstone, with hot stacks billowing out a winter landmark steam cloud visible from the legislative building for most of the province's 102-year history. When coal was king the powerhouse burned production from mines burrowed into exposed seams on steep slopes of the provincial capital's river valley.
Cleaner natural gas took over after a 1916 pioneer discovery southeast of the city near Wainwright. The flames roared until high gas prices about three years ago snuffed out Rossdale's aging burners and boilers, relegating the old station to the shelf as an emergency backup if power demand hit an extreme peak for an extended time. Designations of historic structures on the site prevented the proprietor, city-owned Epcor Utilities, from doing enough construction to renovate and expand the old powerhouse up to current economic standards.
Next, if Offenberger's plan succeeds, the historic building could house up to 50 researchers working on a reliable laser ignition system for a super furnace, capable of reproducing the sun's energy by fusing hydrogen atoms at 100 million degrees Celsius. The laboratory could in turn make Canada a candidate for construction of the world's first fusion power complex, he predicted.
Offenberger estimated that rapid advances in laser technology make a pilot fusion generating plant possible within 20 to 25 years, or about half the historical standard for putting theoretical science into engineering practice. His group has made no final decision on a location for its proposed institute. Although government and public university money is paying for planning the institute, provincial and federal financial support to establish the agency as a going concern has yet to be nailed down. A formal "white paper," detailing the new agency's structure and research agenda, is scheduled for completion next spring.
Other sites will be considered, such as experimental farm fields owned by the University of Alberta and a proposed industry and business research park on Edmonton's northwestern fringe between St. Albert and Spruce Grove.
But Rossdale's potential gives Offenberger an opening he has sought for decades of advocating his energy science megaproject. He is luring Edmonton civic and elected leaders into roles as political champions for the proposed institute.
He already recruited a long lineup of eminent backers onto a steering committee advancing the plan. The group includes representatives of city hall, Epcor Utilities, power producer TransAlta Corp., pipeline builder Enbridge Inc., engineering mainstay Stantec, the Alberta Chamber of Resources, the University of Alberta, Alberta Ingenuity, the Alberta Research Council, Alberta Energy Research Institute, Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and Alberta Council of Technology.
International supporters are also declaring themselves ready to work with Offenberger's proposed agency. The lineup include a C$1-billion European Union fusion program called HiPER (short for high-power laser energy research), an engineering institute at Japan's Osaka University, Japanese laser manufacturer Hamamatsu, and the University of California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco.
Ottawa dropped out of fusion power research four years ago after an Ontario site promoted by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. lost a bidding war with France to build a C$16-billion pilot plant called Iter (a Latin word for path that also stands for international thermonuclear experimental reactor). The U.S. has supported the European pilot project, although Congress cut American funding in its December budget bill.
But laser technology is a new and improved approach to the field that is bound to rekindle Canadian national interest in fusion energy, said Offenberger. The engineering problem posed by fusion science is to devise ways to control and contain the nuclear fusion inferno loosed on the world half a century ago by rival American and Russian inventions of the hydrogen bomb.
Iter uses a method known as "magnetic confinement," where hydrogen atoms superheated by microwaves or other energy sources are kept together long enough to fuse by super-powerful magnets housed in a super-strong vessel called a tokamak (a manufactured term drawn from Russian-language engineering jargon). The newer alternative pursued by the Albertans employs "inertial confinement," where tiny hydrogen pellets are compressed and heated by pulsing super-potent laser beams so quickly that the atoms fuse before they can fly apart.
Besides eventually replacing the atomic power industry's current fission reactors, and eliminating their radioactive fuel waste, civilian fusion energy supporters expect it to spin off peaceful technology benefits during its research and development stages. Lasers have throughout their history set precedents of their development generating technical bonuses by spreading rapidly in fields from auto manufacturing to telecommunications and surgery as the equipment improved, said Offenberger.
"A lot of science comes along with this," he said, pointing to emerging developments such as new cancer therapy and tools used by utility, energy production and pipeline firms.
Offenberger used lasers to earn a Ph.D. in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1968. He led a team that put the University of Alberta on global laser research maps in the 1980s and tried to create a permanent Edmonton institute for the technology in 1991. The first try failed because poor gas and oil prices dried up Alberta government royalties and research spending, he recalled. Today's high prices and revenues make a science budget revival possible, and instincts of provincial economic self-preservation should make it happen, he added.
"Alberta's petroleum and coal resources have potential to provide for domestic and export use for the entire 21st century," he admits in a briefing he delivers often to provincial leaders. "However, restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions are likely to be applied during the first two decades of this century. It would be prudent for Alberta to diversify and invest some effort into alternative energy sources, to broaden future options and demonstrate it is prepared to contribute to the search for an energy source with less environmental impact."
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