Science in the service of energy

Meetings on the subject of energy have marked the past two weeks at CERN. The first was on how we use energy, the second on how we might generate it in the future. Both are important, not just for CERN, but for society as a whole.


Let’s take a look at the first of those gatherings. It was the second in a series of workshops on energy for sustainable science, organised by CERN in collaboration with the European Spallation Source (ESS), which hosted the first, and ERF, the European association of national research facilities. The way we use energy is increasingly important, and constitutes a substantial fraction of CERN's operating budget. We consume 1.2 TeraWatt-hours (TWh) of energy per year. To put that in to context, the canton of Geneva consumes 3TWh per year. It is therefore incumbent on a laboratory like CERN to ensure that we use energy in the most efficient, responsible and sustainable way possible. Since the first workshop in 2011, much progress has been made in terms of improvements in efficiency, both planned and implemented, ideas to make use of waste heat, and efforts to apply CERN technologies to energy supply, transport and storage.

No sooner had that workshop ended than the second meeting began. It was the fourth in a new series, looking at the science, technology and policies of thorium-cycle fission. Using thorium, rather than uranium, as a fuel has many advantages. Runaway is impossible, the waste products are much shorter lived and the process does not produce material that could be used in weapons. Furthermore, the technology for thorium cycle reactors could also be used to break down existing nuclear waste, and produce isotopes for medical use. This is a field that is rapidly emerging, and it’s one in which CERN can claim a strong stake. One of its pioneers is former Director General Carlo Rubbia, and CERN carried out some of the early proof-of-principle tests at the TARC experiment in the mid-90s. It was therefore natural that the thorium energy conference, ThEC13, should be hosted here.

CERN enjoys considerable visibility and a very positive reputation in the public sphere for its contribution to fundamental science. Events like this allow us to build on that reputation to promote the vital importance of science more generally. Energy generation and supply are among the biggest challenges facing humankind today. Meetings such as these form an important part of the debate, showing how science is essential in ensuring a bright future for us all.

Rolf Heuer