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Thursday, February 27, 2014


The ultimate energy is fusion, a process which combines hydrogen or its isotopes to produce energy and helium.  All the stars in the Universe use this mechanism.  Depending on the parameter, hydrogen is from 70 to 90% of known matter.  However, this might not mean much, for scientists have determined that only 4% of what we see and can measure is known:  dark energy and matter take up 96% of the Universe.

Nevertheless, I was so intrigued about the prospects of man-made fusion that, soon after gaining my PhD building a tunable laser, forty years ago, I found myself working for Edward Teller at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNR) on laser fusion.  Alas, I was disappointed that the type of laser to accomplish the commercialization of fusion was way beyond the capability of science, and I wrote this option off as a real prospect during my lifetime.

As some background, there are two types of fusion:
  • Magnetic confinement schemes generally use a torus or donut.  This is the design of the 500 MW ITER (once known as the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), an $18 billion partnership of 35 nations (the USA contributes $200 million/year) to build such a facility at Cadarache, France for initial testing in 2027.  This concept was selected because in 1997 the British Joint European Torus produced 16 MW from an input of 24 MW, 65% of the way to net positive.  Nothing like some optimism, for the European Union already is planning for DEMO, a 2000 MW fusion facility to produce continuous power by 2040 for commercialization by 2050.  From what I've seen, don't hold your breath for this particular system to make it.
  • Inertial confinement, usually using a laser, as is being developed by LLNR National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Livermore, California.  The cost is coasting to $5 billion, using 192 lasers to compress a BB-sized capsule of deuterium-tritium (the two isotopes of hydrogen):

Three years ago I posted on Star Power for the Huffington Post.  Last year, it was reported that the NIF produced almost twice the amount of energy as was inputted, and ignition was attained.  Breakthrough?  Well, good, but not terrific, as the laser shot represented only 1% of the energy that was used to produce the beam.  Thus, the ratio remained under one, or, something close to 2% efficiency.  Remember that the 1997 European donut produced 65% of net positive.

There is another pathway:  Heavy Ion Fusion.  Read the details by the president of Fusion Power Corporation, Charles Helsley:

So where are we on man-made fusion power?  Sixty years ago, controlled fusion was 30-40 years away...or we should have gotten there by the year 1995.  Today, the prospects for commercialization remain 30-40 years away.  The ITER option is further along because more money is being spent for that option than at Livermore.  Much more.

What about Cold Fusion?   It remains on the fringe, with little real government interest, but there are a few opportunities.   Intriguing stories now and then pop up, like Italian Leonardo Rossi's Energy Catalyzer (E-Cat).  The concept appears to be losing support, and Forbes last week leaned in the clownerie direction.  Read the Cold Fusion Times.  This mechanism is now referred to as Low Energy Nuclear Reactions.


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