Energy’s Holy Grail One Step Closer


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The recent announcement by scientists of a major breakthrough in fusion research has gone largely unnoticed or with jaded acknowledgement among energy analysts. A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center obtained a ten-fold increase in energy output from the Alcator (ALto CAmpo TORo, High Field Torus) C-Mod tokamak in an experimental run last year. The results were so exciting that researchers at the Joint European Torus in Britain decided to replicate them. Success has raised hopes that the first commercial fusion reactors might be on the horizon by the 2030s.

Nuclear fusion is considered by many to be the holy grail of energy, promising limitless clean energy with little to no waste production. Unlike fission, which splits atoms and releases excess binding energy from the daughter products, fusion combines atoms and uses energy left over from a more efficient atomic configuration. However, it has substantial challenges and promises made from optimism than engineering grounding in the early days of the nuclear age – such as Lewis Strauss’ famous 1954 declaration that electricity will become too cheap to meter in the future – have not yet panned out, causing scepticism among lay observers.

One challenge is that it is not easy to induce atoms into undergoing fusion. Incredibly high temperatures – at least 100 million degrees Celsius – and pressures are required to achieve it and scientists have often described the process as igniting a small sun on earth. This is achieved most commonly in one of two ways – inertial (ICF) and magnetic (MCF) confinement fusion. In the former, a high energy laser targets a pellet the size of a pinhead to heat and compress the fuel; in the latter, radio-frequency heating is used and the fuel is contained in a torus-shaped device known as a tokamak. The famous International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, France, is an example of the latter.

Generating such temperatures is no easy feat but to contain it within the confines of a small reactor is even more challenging. The ICF design bypasses this need by focusing a very powerful laser onto a few atoms of fuel for ten billionths of a second; the high energy and short time frame means that the fuel pellet reacts before it can explode. MCF, however, confines the plasma in a tokamak with helical magnetic field geometry, usually achieved by using superconducting magnets to contain the fuel.

The most common fuel for fusion is protium and deuterium, two isotopes of hydrogen, or deuterium and another isotope of hydrogen, tritium. Scientists focus on the lower total density portion of the mixture that is usually 95 percent deuterium because it can heat up to much higher energies. The researchers at MIT, however, decided to create a three-ion mixture with trace amounts, less than one percent, of helium-3 in the fuel. The energy output, in the realm of mega electron volts, has allowed scientists to study how such high energy ions behave under fusion conditions and how they might best be contained.

Despite decades of experimentation, it is still difficult to maintain plasma at sufficient temperatures for long enough to achieve efficient energy output. However, the tri-fuel is an exciting step in that direction. The results will allow researchers to make predictions about other fuel ratios and combinations that might yield even better energy output at lower energies.

Nonetheless, nuclear fusion is a technology that has always been around the corner for decades and present optimism regarding commercial fusion reactors within the next two decades should also be considered with caution. The Alcator C-Mod, for example, was mothballed soon after the successful testing of the helium-doped fuel. Substantial financial commitments will need to be made and results are still a long way from commercially viable.

Second, as scientists begin to maintain plasma in a high energy stage for longer periods (the longest period so far is six and half minutes by the French Tore Supra tokamak), new demands might be made on technology to withstand such intense heat and pressure for commercially viable duration. It is important to note that even with the latest energy output breakthrough, no fusion reaction has yet produced more energy than was required to initiate a reaction – the Joint European Torus (JET) holds the record for this at 70 percent of input power. ITER hopes to push these boundaries of time and energy further.

Third, a regulatory framework will have to be created for safe operation. This will take time for a new technology and the cost of an insufficient safety environment could be high. Four, with so many unknowns about technology and regulations, it is as yet difficult to ascertain the economic viability of fusion reactors.

This is not to say that nuclear fusion is impractical or unviable. However, much like renewable energy and energy storage, it is a promise of times to come rather than an offer of immediate solutions to climate change and energy scarcity. That part of the nuclear spectrum remains the Gen III+ reactors and Gen IV designs such as molten salt reactors, thorium fuel, and small modular reactors that are awaiting only market confidence.

Fusion research is very promising and must be pursued with earnest. As one scientist explained it, fusion plasma performance has increased by a factor of 10,000 over 50 years; research is now less than a factor of 10 away from producing the core of a fusion power plant. However, it cannot be an excuse for inaction towards cleaner energy now. This is not a complicated concept – like in any other industry, current products must be optimised until new designs enter the market. The MIT experiment takes us that much closer to achieving limitless clean energy with virtually no toxic byproduct.


The Emperor’s New Words


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President Donald Trump’s speech on Monday in which he declared a new American policy towards Afghanistan and South Asia is a postmodern masterpiece – you can choose beforehand how you want to respond and find something in the address to validate your decision. The announcement was awaited with some trepidation by US and South Asia observers, accustomed by now to the 45th US president’s unceasing social and policy gaffes, but there was ultimately little need for concern at the end of the night.

The new US policy jettisons the previous administration’s phased withdrawal that was beholden to the calendar and instead replaces it with a withdrawal policy that considers local political and security conditions. This is exactly what regional observers had stressed to Washington over the years but had been disregarded by a weary Foggy Bottom that was eager to extricate itself from a war that did not seem to have any end in sight. “The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” Trump declared, reminding everyone of the American experience in Iraq where too rapid a US withdrawal precipitated in part the resurgence of terrorism and the birth of ISIS; scheduled US withdrawal from Afghanistan had caused a similar upswing in the Taliban’s fortunes.

While the Obama administration was willing to saddle the region with America’s mess, Trump has gone back to the thinking of George W Bush: a secure, stable Afghanistan and US withdrawal were desirable but in that order. In that sense, Trump’s new direction is actually a return to an old plan that had been abandoned by his predecessor, Barack Obama. The reasoning, Trump said, was that the security threats in the region were immense and the United States sought an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the sacrifices made.

Trump’s words will be met with approval in Afghanistan and India but with frustration back home. Despite near-total support among US parliamentarians (Senate: 98 ayes, 0 nays, 2 abstentions; House: 420 ayes, 1 nay, 10 abstentions), involvement in Afghanistan has steadily lost support among ordinary Americans over the years. Now, many would rather wash their hands off and forget about the whole misadventure than see it to an unforeseeable conclusion. The fundamental premise of Trump’s strategy – the use of military force to create a favorable political situation – was felt wanting by many the last time around.

Reminiscent of the George W Bush years, Trump emphasised that the United States was not there to “dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society” but as “a partner and a friend.” Afghans would be ultimately responsible for their own future, the United States did not want to build nations but kill terrorists.

More frustrating for many analysts was the lack of detail in the president’s Monday night address. Trump did not suggest what success in Afghanistan might look like nor did he mention any other details of how his administration was going to tame Afghanistan. To Delhi’s certain chagrin, who has consistently railed against the American concept of good and bad terrorists, the US president did not close the door on a negotiated settlement with the Taliban: “Someday,” Trump said, “after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban.” India can only hope that US estimation of what “effective military effort” entails would be maximal.

Trump’s address comes in the wake of news that the United States is redeploying 4,000 additional soldiers to join the 8,400 already present in the country. This number will be seen as insufficient in some quarters and as unnecessary in others.

What has probably attracted most comments about Trump’s Afghan policy is his statements on Pakistan. Calling out Pakistan’s practice of providing safe havens for terrorist activity on its soil while taking billions in US aid, the president warned that the United States can no longer remain passive on such perfidy. The threat is worse, Trump warned, because Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons and its actions cause tense relations in the neighbourhood that may well spiral into conflict. With uncharacteristic grace, Trump softened his rebuke by recollecting the Islamic republic’s contributions and sacrifices to the mission in Afghanistan.

Trump’s public rebuke to Pakistan has no doubt gladdened hearts in Afghanistan and India, where the afterbirth of Indian independence is seen as the greatest instigator of terrorism in its neighbouring realms. Peace in Afghanistan, many academics, bureaucrats, and politicians – from the United States as well as India and Afghanistan – have repeatedly stressed, can be achieved only after Pakistan has been effectively dealt with.

There is no cause for optimism, however. Trump is not the first US president to criticise Pakistan – and there have been countless other officials and analysts – for its links to terrorism and extremism and will unlikely be the last. Obama did the same – multiple times – and Bush ’43, Bill Clinton, and George HW Bush were all troubled about Islamabad’s ties to the Taliban and its support for terrorists in Kashmir. None of this concern manifested itself in any concrete manner and the United States continued to call Pakistan an ally in the global war on terror. Trump’s own flip-flop on China from campaign to presidency gives little reassurance that this time will be different.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Trump’s speech was his call upon India to do more in Afghanistan economically. In the past, the United States has usually sought a greater Indian military role in Central Asia but Trump’s call is a rare exception. Delhi’s military aloofness from Afghanistan has been criticised by many, myself included, in the past but it has been active in Afghanistan’s social and political recovery. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, India has extended over $3 billion in aid to Afghanistan, making it the fifth-largest donor to the country. Delhi has built roads, schools, hospitals, dams, and other vital infrastructure in its war-ravaged neighbour. The US president’s criticism of India in this regard is therefore puzzling.

What has jarred some observers, at least on Twitter, is Trump’s blatant and crass linking of Indian economic contributions to Afghanistan to the trade surplus it runs with the United States. The US president’s penchant of seeing the world through a prism of economic transactionality notwithstanding, it is unclear what the Trump administration’s larger economic role for India in Afghanistan specifically entails beyond the South Asian country’s already generous efforts.

What was left out of the Trump blueprint for Afghanistan is as interesting as what was said. One word the president did not mention at all is Islam, either as provocation or as platitude. The omission is striking because one of the first moves of this new US presidency was to restrict the entry of Muslims from certain countries into the United States. Although Pakistan was not in that original list, US visas have become harder to obtain even for legitimate visitors such as the Afghan robotics team in July.

A more consequential absence is China, widely accepted as Pakistan’s new godfather. Although the Trump White House is yet to publicly formulate how it intends to win Islamabad’s cooperation, it is unlikely that any coercion will succeed without some assistance from Beijing. And succour will not be coming from China, who has already proven unhelpful over North Korea, and feels threatened by Washington’s build-up of India and challenged by American proxies in the South China Sea. Although Beltway wisdom has been keen on impressing upon the president the seriousness of the Russian threat, China appears to be the one stuck in America’s craw.

Trump’s speech on Monday marks no new direction for American policy towards Afghanistan though it might still be celebrated as slightly more sensible than the earlier one to hie. As with all US presidents, it will be interesting to watch how Trump squares the Pakistani circle, especially now with China on stage. While success is doubtful, India and Afghanistan can at least hope that US policies will increase the pressure on Pakistan – a better alternative to sitting back and doing nothing.

Heartburn over Hugs and Hummus


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Indo-Israeli relations have been all hugs and hummus of late, a point that neither Jerusalem nor Delhi seem to be tired of reiterating. Narendra Modi’s trip to Israel without even a perfunctory drop-in at Ramallah has been portrayed as historic by most observers, although there have been some doubts about how much of a departure this really is from India’s previous policy given the three-day visit by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas just a couple of weeks earlier.

Whether there really is a shift in Indian policy or not, the perception certainly exists that there has been one and this has caused much heartburn among the ossified grand daddies of entrenched interests. The crux of a string of critiques that have appeared in the Indian press is that the Modi government has made the morally odious choice of abandoning Palestine and in doing so descended into the realm of ordinary states, and that this desertion is but another manifestation of the prime minister’s anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism that has found resonance in Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s equally anti-Islamic Zionism.

In Foreign Affairs, Michal Ben-Josef Hirsch and Manjari Chatterjee Miller argue that “India’s and Israel’s historic perceptions of colonial ideology and religious nationalism are at the root of their longstanding divergence.” According to them, India’s experience as a colony and of bloody Partition created in Indian leaders an aversion to colonialism and religious nationalism; Jewish ambitions in the Levant was, therefore, anathema to them on both counts.

Although Hirsch and Miller are correct in how the Congress leadership viewed Israel and this view did shape Indian policy towards the Jewish state for decades, their article does not grapple with the fact that this was a highly ignorant and erroneous held by Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. To denounce Zionism as a “child of British imperialism” as Nehru did is laughable, and Gandhi admitted to some of his interlocutors sent by the Jewish Agency to inform and persuade the Indian leader of their worthiness of their cause that he did not know enough about Jewish history. Gandhi thought that Israel was being created “under the shadow of the British gun,” a sentiment difficult to arrive at despite the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917. His simplification of “Palestine for the Arabs” also indicates a severe lack of understanding of the convoluted history of the Levant.

Today, whatever else may motivate the Bharatiya Janata Party’s course correction, it also reflects an acknowledgement of these mistaken views. Old dilemmata over identity will not, contrary to what the article argues, hinder relations but more mundane aspects of economics, regulations, and logistics take time to be streamlined. Additionally, the focus on non-defence matters was a deliberate move by both governments to highlight the civilisation-to-civilisation connections being fostered rather than a purely transactional one – which has been blooming on the sidelines, too.

A churlish piece by Manini Chatterjee in The Telegraph betrays ignorance of Israeli culture as well as any deep engagement with European history or political philosophy. Playing on the tired trope of ethnonationalism, Chatterjee wants to draw attention to the “fusion of religious and cultural identity with a ‘holy’ geographical entity common to both Hindutva and Zionism.” This has, in fact, spared the world of the limitless expansion of more universalist (imperialist) creeds. Chatterjee also takes a swipe at MS Golwalkar for his racial weltanshauung. However, it bears note that Golwalker’s understanding of race was substantially different from the European definition and that Zionism did grow as a response to the liberal European project that sought to dilute and destroy Jewish identity. Instead, Chatterjee prefers to further the myth – as the Dreyfus Affair proved – of civic nationalism.

Rajeesh Kumar’s plea that foreign policy be based on principles rather than on interests (though he sees the two as coterminous) in Outlook is naive at best. His attempt to rescue Nehruvian thinking on Israel, however, is an exceptional attempt at fiction writing. His claim that “India’s support to the Palestinian cause was not determined by the policy of appeasing the Muslim minority population at home” falls flat simply by virtue of Nehru’s own words to the effect that he did not wish to vex Indian Muslims so soon after Partition by cosying up to the Jewish state. Kumar does not explain how Indian policy was pragmatic and not idealistic as he claims but goes on to make another incredulous argument that Israel must be seen as India’s junior partner because of its desire to help the South Asian nation despite being rebuked so often. While Kumar’s point raises an interesting point for further research into Israeli attitudes and thinking towards India, the casting of the receiver of aid as the senior partner is bewildering.

There is no denying of the benefits of better relations with Israel for Kumar, though he warns that this should not mean that India should give Tel Aviv (?) a blank cheque. Kumar’s solution is to extract benefits from Israel via trade and scientific cooperation yet continue to condemn it as has been India’s hypocritical custom in the past. Given Indo-Israeli history, Kumar’s suggestion might work but it will not foster warmer relations.

Finally, he appeals to dharma as a guiding principle of Indian culture and policy. That dharma is not constant but depends on place, time, and situation is entirely lost on Kumar. In a specific circumstance, Krishna advises the Pandavas to go to war even against their own kith and kin. Additionally, Kumar’s appeal to ethics, while noble, has served no purpose in the past. India’s bid to join the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation as a country with one of the highest Muslim populations was rejected and Arab states have historically sided with Pakistan politically as well as economically and militarily in its conflict with India.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi tries to resurrect the flawed Indian historical understanding of yesteryear in his article in The Wire. Amusingly, he states that “India’s position has been appreciated, respected by all for its honesty and integrity,” probably referring to only Arab states and the coterie of non-aligned irrelevants. He clings to the old custom of Indian prime ministers abstaining from visiting Israel on principle without addressing the errors of the past or the changes since in the geopolitical climate. Ignoring his preposterous claims of a Palestinian genocide in 1948 for the moment, Gandhi fails to explain why Palestine ought to matter more to Delhi than its own interests. In his selective history, he omits the Egyptian wall along its border with Gaza or the Jordanian action against Palestinians during Black September, not to mention the occupation of “Palestine” by Jordan and Egypt prior to the stunning Israeli victory in the Six-Day War in 1967.

Modi’s visit, according Gandhi, gives legitimacy to the “occupation and brutal suppression” of Palestinians by Israel. This conveniently overlooks the Indian statement of support for the Palestinian cause just two weeks ahead of Modi’s trip to Israel. Gandhi goes on to argue that India’s policy now is “wholly political, ideological,” implying, one only assumes from the tone, what his cohort has expressed more explicitly about the BJP being anti-Muslim. This ever-ready, lazy label may have some superficial truth to it but ignores a strong undercurrent of historical grievances and political minoritarian discrimination that has now run its fuse.

It is not so much that the caviling is premised on faulty understandings of Hindutva, Zionism, and the Palestinian Question – sometimes by Gandhi or Nehru – but its ornery nature that makes any genuine debate moot. Nehru’s fundamental failure was that he, as a modern Liberal, approached society – India – as tabula rasa upon which he could put down his doodles. Communities, however, do not work like that – they are a brown field project with all its attendant baggage. More importantly, the debate never moves forward because opponents of Israel in India never tire of repeating their worn out and fallacious mantras rather than responding to a counter that has been put forward decades ago. In this climate, there is no argument – only an attempt to overpower the public sphere by sheer volume.