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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

WHAT IN THE WORLD IS HAPPENING TO FUSION?

I regularly report on fusion for sentimental reasons.  The stars and our Sun produce energy through fusion:


I call it Star Power.  My posting yesterday mentioned the fusion concept of Fusion Power Corporation, using heavy ions.

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is furthest ahead in gaining net positive energy through the use of a laser, actually, 192 of them, in the process of inertial confinement.  Their latest experiment succeeded in releasing more energy than absorbed by the hydrogen isotope fuel.  However, they need to do a hundred times better to gain real net positive.  This National Ignition Facility became operational in 2009 at a cost of $4 billion, and is now spending around $300 million/year.  The system has produced 100 trillion watts of power (more than 1000 time more than the average power used in the USA), a hundred times more powerful than any other laser.  I guess one of the better decisions I made was in 1974 when I left the project at Livermore.  I suspect this particular conformation will not attain net positive any time soon.

Initiated in 2007, the international magnetic confinement ITER (originally called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) in France hopes to gain 500 MW of deuterium-tritium 500 MW fusion in 2027.  While the surface of our Sun is 6000 C at the surface, the core is at 15 million C.  However, ITER will reach 150 million C.  The cost continues to go up, and the $18 billion current budget is but a moving sum, and I bet it keeps going up.  I have less confidence in ITER than laser fusion.
Historically, it was a quarter century ago that Stanley Pons and Martin Fleishmann of the University of Utah stunned the world with their cold fusion announcement.  Chemists wanted to believe, while physicists panned the idea.  A month later, the New York Times declared cold fusion dead.  During this period I hired a recent PhD from Stanford University to carry out some experiments on the Manoa Campus, but the field just did not develop.  He today sits next to my office and is a noted battery researcher.  In 2011 researchers in  Italy indicated that their Energy Catalyzer succeeded.  However, nothing has been commercialized.  Skepticism remains rampant.  Yet, Sidney Kimmel (above) gave the University of Missouri $5.5 million to support cold fusion research, and last year, the U.S. Department of Energy set aside a $10 million funding opportunity for low energy nuclear reactions.

Fusion is the ultimate process that someday will provide the energy Humanity requires for continued progress.  We released fission with the Atomic Bomb and fusion with the Hydrogen Bomb.  Will we be able to control fusion?  I continue to remain optimistic.

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