"Fusion will be the energy of the future"
Since September 2018, Carlos Alejaldre leads the public institution specialized in energy research and development, CIEMAT. After many years dedicated to fusion, both in Spain and as director of ITER in France for over a decade, he believes in fusion because he considers it has incredible capacity. “With fusion we will be able to provide energy to humanity for thousands, millions of years”, he assures. Regarding fission, current nuclear power plants and energy transition, he considers that “we should certainly foster renewable energies, but at the world level I do not believe we can manage without nuclear energy if what we really want is to reduce the production of CO2 into the atmosphere in a short time.”
You recently became director of the Center for Energy, Environmental and Technological Research (CIEMAT). What are your goals for this organization?
My main goal is to consolidate CIEMAT as a reference research and development center in any area of energy. What I would really like is that whenever someone thinks of energy or has a question about it in this country, he or she instantly thinks of CIEMAT. After a difficult time [referring to the economic crisis], we must recover many of the elements and resources we had in order to reach that privileged position again. Spain has a R+D+i center like CIEMAT, which is a true privilege. In my opinion there is no other center where technological development is so present, and which can contribute so much to the energy debate in this country.
"We need to recover the competences and budgets we had after a difficult time for R+D in Spain"
Could you go deeper into the challenges you will find in order to reach this goal?
We need to recover the competences and budgets we had after a difficult time for R+D in Spain. We must not forget that in past years we lost about 30% to 35% of the budget from this institution. We need to recover the human resources we lost as well as administrative agility, which is a key element. We compete at the international level, the highest level, but we lack the tools for this competition and over the past few years we have faced restrictions. If we do not revert this situation it will be very difficult for Spain, and especially CIEMAT as a public research organization, to be competitive in R+D+i. However, we are very confident because right now there is a strong ministerial impulse [from the Science, Innovation and Universities Ministry] to recover these competencies and achieve administrative efficiency to allow us, as I said, to compete internationally.
"CIEMAT is one of the few existing centers capable of bringing together hundreds of people in one single goal, one single project, and develop it fromdesign, construction and scientific or technological exploitation"
As a research center, what dimensions are we talking about?
The dimensions are given by the number of people involved, which is around 1,300. This already gives you an idea of the magnitude; plus we are distributed around the entire national territory. We manage the solar platform in Almería, a global reference center in solar technology by concentration. We have a center in Soria, CEDER, for medium- and low-power biomass and wind energy research, which is also an international reference. We have another singular site: Stellarator TJ-II, our fusion here [in Madrid]. CIEMAT is one of the few existing centers capable of bringing together hundreds of people in one single goal, one single project, and develop it fromdesign, construction and scientific or technological exploitation. This is a very important element, not forgetting that we work on related technological developments such as research in high energies. We are promoting technological developments in accelerators, superconducting coils or a new project (complementary to ITER) that we are trying to bring to Spain to make fusion a reality: the neutron source we are trying to install in Granada, driven by CIEMAT. I have not mentioned all the renewable energy projects we have, or the leading-edge biochemical research groups, among others. In summary, at CIEMAT we cover research in all areas of energy—although with great difficulty due to lack of resources.
"There is no other R+D institution with the same technological profile as CIEMAT"
You lead a center that you know well, after having been in other positions. Do you believe this gives you an advantage when it comes to leading teams and having a better knowledge of your work environment?
Yes, it is an advantage; but it is also true that I left CIEMAT in 2004 to spend two years as General Director of Technology Policy at the Ministry during a very good time for R+D. Afterwards I spent nine years at ITER. When I returned I intended to retire, but I started the DONES project, the neutron source in Granada I mentioned before. Now I am general director of CIEMAT. Knowing the organization from the inside is an advantage. We have wonderful organizations, but there is no other R+D institution with the same technological profile as CIEMAT, which can bring together 100 to 200 people into one single project and launch it for the benefit of the entire country.
In recent interviews you also mentioned this project in Granada. Why is it so important?
It is important because without it fusion cannot become a reality. ITER is a great project with exceptional dimensions where everyone participates, but even if its success goes beyond its initial goals we cannot have fusion with ITER alone. We need to technologically develop the materials that will withstand these important energy and particle flows produced in fusion. This cannot be done, we cannot license a fusion machine if we do not have the results from this source of neutrons. This source of neutrons is so important because it is complementary to ITER. The truth is that, without this project, fusion cannot become a reality. These large machines drive technology, not only internationally but also locally. This is how it would benefit Spanish society and particularly society in Andalusia and Granada.
"Spain being the third country with the most contracts for ITER"
Is this what also happened in other projects you mentioned?
With the TJ-II Project [from the National Fusion Laboratory] we saw Spanish companies take the leap to Europe in other designs that needed technologies that were similar to those applied here. Thanks to a large site like TJ-II, which was considered a relatively small project, there was an attempt to bring the ITER Project to Spain. Even though it did not happen, we did manage to set up the Fusion for Energy agency. All this began with a modest project in CIEMAT and led to Spain being the third country with the most contracts for ITER, behind France and Italy but ahead of Germany or the United Kingdom. This means around 800 million Euros in benefits in competitive contracts to Spanish companies. I can say the same about the solar platform in Almería. 80% of companies currently developing solar concentration technologies around the world have gone through this center. This is the technological element I consider so important and which we need to develop.
"With fusion we will be able to provide energy to humanity for thousands, millions of years"
Going back to fusion after your recent time as ITER deputy director, why do you believe in and trust this technology?
From the energy point of view, fusion has incredible capacity. The best proof is that we have a reactor that has been operating for the past 5,000 million years and will continue to produce energy for some million years more. The fusion processes we are trying to reproduce in our planet are the same as in the center of the sun. This power, this capacity can generate energy from basic elements such as hydrogen isotopes, which we can easily obtain from sea water by detecting deuterium as tritium through lithium. With fusion we will be able to provide energy to humanity for thousands, millions of years. It is true that there are many difficulties. But this power, this capacity to generate energy is one of the key elements that move us to seek this holy grail of energy. On the other hand, fusion has very favorable environmental characteristics. It certainly has environmental impact, as does any energy, but I think it is safe to say it is an acceptable impact. With the technologies being developed, we could recycle all the materials that will be used in the fusion center in about 100 years. The other element which makes us believe that fusion is the energy source of the future, at least for baseload energy, is its safety. A fusion reaction is very difficult to achieve; you need very special conditions and, if there is any deviation from that reaction, the only consequence is that it stops. Thus it is intrinsically safe, and this is a very important element. It does not mean that we do not need to have many safeguards in place, many safety controls as corresponds to a large industrial site. But the reaction is intrinsically safe, and this is one of its great advantages.
"Nuclear energy has a global role to play"
While we wait for a future with fusion energy, what do you think of fission?
A few months ago I was asked to give a conference on energy and fusion, and I retrieved some old transparencies I had on energy from the nineties. They showed that 85% of the energy being consumed in the world back then had fossil origins, with its corresponding environmental impact. I updated the data with the information from 2017 and the current use of fossil data around the world is 86%. This means that not only has it not decreased; it has increased. This fact astounded me; it gives a clear view of the problem we face as a planet, as humanity. In my opinion we must react urgently because this is a planetary threat. We must certainly empower renewable energies; if we really want to reduce the production of CO2 to the atmosphere I believe we cannot go without nuclear energy. In this reduction effort nuclear power is of crucial importance. Having a fleet of electric cars will not do any good if the energy we use to produce them emits CO2 at source. Ne need energy sources that do not produce CO2; thus, from that point of view I believe that nuclear energy has a global role to play.
How do you value the energy transition?
The energy transition is certainly a need; we cannot continue to emit CO2 to our atmosphere without absolutely disastrous consequences. If we center on Spain, I see CIEMAT as a key element to achieve this energy transition. It is the institution that can contribute the most, as it is perfectly situated to give technological answers to the challenges that come with energy transition. I think it is a great responsibility for our center. It is absolutely urgent and necessary to do this at the global level and also in our country.