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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

WHAT IS THE STATE OF FUSION POWER?

My interest in fusion I place at the same level of imagination as my forays into the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) with NASA and my current interest in the Blue Revolution.  The odds for success are minimal, but the potential reward would make a real difference for Humanity.  With respect to energy, I've come to a conclusion that the combination of sun-wind-biomass will not be able to adequately replace oil.  We need a whopping next generation energy source that can be quickly  (for a new energy form, this means within half a century) commercialized.  How soon this occurs will determine the state of the world economy and size of our population over the next century.


I've long subscribed to the concept of Occam's Razor, which says, given a choice, the simplest solution is best.  This why I've titled all my books SIMPLE SOLUTIONS.  

Why is fusion, then, the simplest?  For one, this is how our Sun and all the stars create heat and light, from hydrogen, which is the most abundant element in the Universe, making up 75% of all matter.  Solar energy, thus, starts with fusion.  If there is any kind of fate or writing on the wall, what more do you want?  The Sun simply fuses hydrogen atoms into helium, where a small bit of matter is converted into energy.  It is reported that there is sufficient deuterium in our oceans to supply our future fusion power plants for 150 billion years.  Now how did all that hydrogen accumulate into one ball (100 sextillion, if you count all the stars)?  That will be another posting in the future.

Inspired by all the above, after gaining a PhD building a tunable laser, I found myself one summer nearly 40 years ago at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), working in the group led by Edward Teller, the Father of the Hydrogen Bomb.  Yes, another evidence of fusion is this deadly weapon.  He convinced President Truman to develop the H-Bomb and President Reagan about Star Wars.  In fact, the people I most interacted with at Livermore were the ones that drew up this plan.  Teller, however, had a terrible conscious about his bomb, that he dedicated his life to finding a useful application of the idea.

One of my interest areas in a second assignment I spent at Livermore had to do with Operation Plowshare, where we suggested the use of conventional explosives to spur in-situ coal and oil shale gasification.   It has taken nearly a third of century for this early research to lead to fracking and natural gas.  Plowshare, of course, used nuclear weapons and spent nearly a billion dollars until 1977 when it was terminated.  No one talks about it today, but one fantasy thought was to explode hydrogen bombs underground and capture the energy in place.

There are two major types of fusion:  inertial (laser) and magnetic (donut) confinement.  There is a hodgepodge of others, such as cold fusion, and a variation of the former in heavy ion fusion.  I will report on all four technologies in subsequent articles.

Much of science and technology is driven by military priorities.  We sent Armstrong to the Moon because Sputnik embarrassed our country, and we just had to be the first there.  During the Cold War, fusion was an important focus.  Why?  For one, Russia invented the Tokamak reactor, a magnetic confinement scheme that in the 1950's appeared to be the answer to "cheap" energy.  Two years after the laser was invented in 1960, Teller at LLNL announced the inertial confinement counterpoint using this new device.  Not particularly mentioned was an X-Ray laser, the Death Ray, which morphed into the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars.  When the Cold War ended thirty years ago, funding for laser fusion receded.  There was no real need for an ultimate laser weapon.  However, it is noteworthy that in Europe fusion research still gets just about as much as all other non-nuclear (all renewables, etc.) programs, combined, and this does not even include what is expended by ITER.

Interestingly enough, during this period, specifically in 1985, at the Geneva Superpower Summit, General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, proposed to President Ronald Reagan an international project to develop fusion energy for peaceful purposes.  This was the beginning of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, now only known as ITER, and selected the Tokamak.  The U.S. remains a partner, but now seems more interested in our laser focused National Ignition Facility at LLNL.


NEXT:  ITER.

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