Tag: Fusion power

The Fusion Future … Always the Future

So earlier this week, Lockheed-Martin announced a potential breakthrough in the field of nuclear fusion:

Hidden away in the secret depths of the Skunk Works, a Lockheed Martin research team has been working quietly on a nuclear energy concept they believe has the potential to meet, if not eventually decrease, the world’s insatiable demand for power.

Dubbed the compact fusion reactor (CFR), the device is conceptually safer, cleaner and more powerful than much larger, current nuclear systems that rely on fission, the process of splitting atoms to release energy. Crucially, by being “compact,” Lockheed believes its scalable concept will also be small and practical enough for applications ranging from interplanetary spacecraft and commercial ships to city power stations. It may even revive the concept of large, nuclear-powered aircraft that virtually never require refueling—ideas of which were largely abandoned more than 50 years ago because of the dangers and complexities involved with nuclear fission reactors.

Lockheed says they could have a prototype within five years and be selling the things within ten.

I must admit … I am very skeptical. The Aviation Week articles goes into amazing detail and it … sounds plausible. But I am dubious that it will turn out to be practical, especially that they will have the materials necessary to do it. Still, it’s something to keep in mind for 2024.

I’m not the only one who is skeptical, of course. But what’s surprising is that a huge fraction of the liberal echosphere is not just skeptical, but hostile:

Therefore, I find it frustrating (and only wish I found it surprising) that ThinkProgress, run by people who consider themselves “progressives,” is rushing to pour cold water on the idea because the timeline can’t meet the arbitrary deadline someone in the global-warming PR business has dreamed up. (Really, of course, because cheap non-polluting energy would help reduce the relevance of a bunch of Green ideas about regulating this and subsidizing that, and because at some point after 1973 gloom and fear got to be the official emotions of the progressive movement, when by rights they belongs to conservatives.)

Since there’s no hope in Hell our current set of technical options, working under our current set of political and economic arrangements, are going to stop the rise of GHG levels by 2040, let alone 2020, bellyaching that a game-changing technology might come in a decade or so behind the current unattainable target is plain silly. If all we needed to deal with is a gap of a decade, or even two, there are geoengineering options that could be used to limit the damage in the meantime.

Basically, Think Regress believes that if we don’t cut greenhouse emissions by 2020, the planet is DOOMED. After correctly noting that efficiency has cut energy consumption massively (something that was mostly market-driven) they claim that solar, wind and grid technology could be deployed much faster than this tech could be developed.

As I have noted many times, that’s a liberal fantasy. The cost of switching to alternative energies is estimated to be some $6 trillion per year. That’s assuming you have the capacity to manufacture that tech and the rare earth minerals to build it with. That’s also assuming that you can find some way to store and easily transport energy (and they think fusion is a pipe dream) and that you can cut through the gigantic swathes of red tape.

But I sense more than that. There has always been a whiff of Ludditism in the radical environmental movement. A worship of primitivism and a hatred of modern civilization. In P.J. O’Rourke’s All the Trouble in The World he talks about this trend specifically in the context of nuclear fusion:

People with a mission to save the earth want the earth to seem worse than it is so their mission will look more important. In fact, there’s some evidence that these people want the earth to be worse than it is. Michael Fumento, author of Science Under Siege, has compiled additional damning quotations. Fumento notes that in 1990, when cold-fusion nonsense briefly promised an infinite supply of bargain-priced, ecologically harmless energy, environmental pest Jeremy Rifkin called this, “The worst thing that could happen to our planet.” This is not a new position among the pesky. In a 1977 issue of Mother Earth, Amory Lovins wrote, “it would be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we might do with it.” And in 1978 the inevitable Paul Ehrlich said, in the Federation of American Scientists’ Public Interest Report, “Giving society cheap, abundant energy … would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” (Not a meal, a bath, some toys, and a warm bed or anything like that.)

We’ve seen this split in the environmentalist movement before, over nuclear fission. Sensible environmentalists recognize fission as the lesser of two evils. The luddites oppose it ostensibly for safety but mostly because they don’t really want the problem of global warming to go away. What would they fundraise for and bash Republicans over? And a small faction just don’t want human society to exist at all, or at least not in its current state.

The odds that Lockheed’s breakthrough will work are very low. Even assuming the theory is right, it is likely to trip up on some impossible technical detail. If you want to make the case that we should plan as if nuclear fusion will never happen, go ahead. But to make the argument that nuclear fusion isn’t good enough boggles the mind.

Is it for real this time?

What do you ask? Well, the claim that we have finally mastered Fusion:

From the other side of a wide glass window on the third story of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), the world’s largest laser array looks an awful lot like the world’s largest plumbing project. Row after row of 16-inch-diameter pipes are packed into a room like cigarettes in a box—only the box is the size of three football fields. A catwalk thick with miles of cable runs through the center. Large metal ducts snake overhead and along the walls. I have to take it on faith that the pipes, called beam tubes, don’t contain water or gas, but 192 separate laser beams zipping back and forth. When the beams finally exit the room, their strength amplified more than a quadrillion times, they will converge on a pencil-eraser-size target in one short, powerful pulse. And in those 20-billionths of a second, I’m told, atoms of hydrogen will smash together with such force that they’ll essentially create a star.

It sounds impressive—and certainly looks imposing—but society has been taking promises of fusion on faith for more than five decades. If fusion works as proponents claim, it could produce enough clean energy to power the world for hundreds and hundreds of years to come. One of the first hurdles is the tiniest component, the fuel: Hydrogen isotopes, such as deuterium and tritium, adamantly resist uniting, regardless of the amount of heat and steel and funding thrown into the effort.

But this past fall, physicists at NIF, based at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, made an important advance with their elaborate building and enormous laser: They fired 121 kilojoules of ultraviolet light into the $3.5 billion facility’s target chamber, causing deuterium and tritium nuclei to fuse into helium atoms, releasing 300 trillion high-energy neutrons. Even though NIF and other labs have created fusion before, the achievement brings researchers a step closer to conquering the ultimate challenge: a fusion reaction that produces more energy than is required to start it.

Expensive megaprograms such as NIF aren’t the only ventures making progress. At the other end of the funding spectrum, a number of innovative startups have also begun to yield promising results. After decades of frustratingly slow research, the emergence of real, practical fusion power may come down to a race between these entrepreneurial Davids and the government-run Goliaths.

Hope this pans out, because we need that energy and will need a lot more of it as more people start enjoying the wonders of a modern society, because just like those that point out teaching abstinence doesn’t work too well, the advice of some crazy guy about how people should just not reproduce isn’t the answer. Now if I could just figure out how much energy those 300 trillion high-energy neutrons really equate to…..