DailyDirt: Making Progress Towards Fusion (Again)

from the urls-we-dig-up dept

Fusion would be a real game-changer if we could actually harness it to generate energy. The problem, though, is that we're pretty far from controlling the insanely hot nuclear reactions in a way that produces net energy. Sure, almost anyone can build a fusion reactor. (But seriously, don't bring one to school to impress your teachers, kids!) The trick is maintaining hot plasma somewhere safe for as long as you need to -- and to figure out a way to get usable energy out of your fusion reactor. Some folks have reported reaching some milestones, but fusion still sounds more than 30 years away, as usual. After you've finished checking out those links, take a look at our Daily Deals for cool gadgets and other awesome stuff.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Sep 2015 @ 6:03pm

    Polywell is another

    I've been following Dr. Bussard's very clever Polywell (inertial electrostatic confinement) project for a number of years with my fingers crossed.

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    • icon
      JoeCool (profile), 22 Sep 2015 @ 7:34pm

      Re: Polywell is another

      Yeah, I think we'll see a reactor of this sort long before the more "traditional" fusion reactor, despite the head start and hundreds of billions spent on them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 22 Sep 2015 @ 9:20pm

    "...we're pretty far from controlling the insanely hot nuclear reactions in a way that produces net energy"

    Not entirely true. We have produced enough net energy from nuclear reactions to heat all of downtown Nagasaki until it melted. It's the maintaining the reaction and harnessing it that is a niggly little problem.

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  • identicon
    Andrew D. Todd, 22 Sep 2015 @ 10:08pm

    Fusion Is Irrelevant.

    I don't know that Fusion Power would be that much of a game-changer. If you look at where the shoe actually pinches, the issue is not about energy in general, but about particular kinds of energy.

    For example, the whole mess in the Middle East is not based around energy as such-- it's based around oil. State-of-the-art fossil-fuel-based electric power plants are about twice as efficient as an automobile engine, and they run on fuels an automobile engine cannot use (coal, gas, biomass, etc). As for greenhouse gases, a fossil-fuel electric power plant can be designed to inject its carbon-dioxide exhaust gas into a suitable well. If you can find a practical method of running a car on electricity, you are most of the way home. Conversely, a perfect electric power plant only takes-- at best-- a few cents off the per-kw-h price of electricity. The lion's share of your electric bill goes to maintaining a local electric grid, and fusion power isn't going to change that. Fusion is not going to help you get an electric car. For electric cars to be practical, you need either better batteries, or a system of electric contacts built into the roads. Fusion energy is not going to help you string trolley wires.

    Now, let's look at the electric grid. The grid's big issues have to do with things like black-outs and peak load. At present, the main component of peak load is air conditioning, and the necessary measure is to convert a lot of buildings to geothermal heat pumps, which store head and cold in the ground. The same applies to solar hot-water heaters. Beyond this, it may be necessary to provide electricity storage. The most economical way to store electricity at grid level is to push water uphill, and and then let it spin a turbine coming down again. Ideally, you should have about a thousand feet of vertical rise, and it is often possible to achieve this in an obsolete mine. If you have decent electricity storage, you can use windmills to provide electricity in the first instance.

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    • icon
      Michael Ho (profile), 23 Sep 2015 @ 10:06am

      Re: Fusion Is Irrelevant.

      Given that fusion generators that produce net energy don't exist yet -- yes, fusion is irrelevant now.

      But are you saying that if fusion energy were practical at some point, it wouldn't significantly change the world economy? Hmm. The petroleum industry wouldn't disappear entirely, but we might not need to ship billions of gallons of oil anywhere -- or strip mine coal or frack anything.

      And I think electric cars are already becoming quite practical, more quickly than you might expect.

      The question really is... will fusion ever live up to its promise of unlimited, clean, cheap energy? If it does, it *would* be a game changer.

      Obviously, if fusion turns out to be similar to fission generators, where the potential for catastrophic accidents are a concern and the total costs are comparable to coal-produced energy, then yes, it'll be no big deal.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Andrew D. Todd, 23 Sep 2015 @ 11:26pm

        Re: Re: Fusion Is Irrelevant.

        If you cannot get energy where you need it, and when you need it, then you might as well not have it. Distribution costs are not going to go away. I doubt a fusion power plant will be any cheaper to build than any other kind of power plant. The wires which carry the electricity won't be any cheaper. The only saving will be in the fuel, and that is only a small fraction of the cost of electricity.

        I don't think they are going to be able to make a very small fusion plant, say, twenty horsepower or thereabouts. I anticipate that fusion plants will still be in the hundred megawatt class, and, except for powering big ships, they will have to be applied via the electric grid.

        If you want to build additional nuclear reactors, it is quite practical to locate them in the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear _weapons_ were tested, or in the Hanford Reservation, where nuclear weapons were manufactured. The nuclear weapons program assumed that it was going to have an accident, and located its facilities in places where an accident would not take out a city. California has long been installing coal-powered generators in the general area near the Nevada Test Site, to keep the smoke away from Los Angeles and San Francisco. State-of-the art power lines (megavolt DC) are something like 97% efficient per 1000 kilometers, so the reactor doesn't need to be anywhere near the place where the power is used. New York gets electric power from dams in Northern Quebec (La Baie James). Of course, stationary electric power consumption has reached its peak, and is now declining, as more and more people install more efficient electric appliances, so there isn't much market for new power plants.

        Take an example: suppose you have a very inefficient light bulb. The energy which doesn't get turned into light doesn't just vanish. It gets expended, typically in destroying the internal structure of the light bulb, and the light bulb burns out a lot. Cheap electricity isn't going to change that fact. People are buying more and more LED lights. Looking at the packaging material of a recently installed LED light, the claim that it will last 22 years (25,000 hours @ 3/hrs/day) is in larger type than the claim about how much electricity it will save. We shall see how that works out.

        In the same way, in computer technology, improvements in peripheral devices tend to be driven by portable computers, first laptops, and now tablets/cellphones. A desktop computer's components are increasingly designed around the assumption that they have to run off a small battery.

        If you look at an air-conditioner, or a heat pump, you come to the issue of peaking load. The air conditioners all run on summer afternoons, because that is when it is hot. Peaking load is expensive, not because of the fuel, but because it is necessary to maintain standby generators, which only get started on summer afternoons. Peaking load not only affects the generators, but also the capacity of the intervening wires, transformers, etc. A geothermal heat pump is a kind of "nega-watt standby generator," which happens to cost a lot less than the electric utility's standby generator. Geothermal heat pumps have reached the point where they are more or less standard in good-quality new construction, and there must be five or ten million units in use.

        The electric company, if it is intelligent, can make some money from this, by installing geothermal heat pumps on its own account in customers' homes. The electric company is better equipped than a typical householder to supervise contractors. They deal with a given contractor every day of the year, and if someone is doing shoddy work, they will find out fast, and they can get even just by cutting off the guy's contracts. They don't have to pursue him in small claims court, the way a householder would. The electric company can then sell the householder heating and cooling by the BTU. It's no great difficulty to design meters to fit inside the air conditioning loop, measuring temperature, pressure, and volume of the coolant. When the electric power industry was rapidly expanding, it did a lot of this kind of stuff, because it was not realistic to assume that every customer was an enthusiastic techie, any more than it is reasonable to to assume that every customer is an eco-fan now.

        The pattern of the electric power industry for the next twenty years is going to be that, each year, there will be a little bit less domestic consumption, and every year, the electric utility will hopefully manage to connect up a little more electric transportation, to make up the difference. They will get together with the local commuter transit agency to build electrically-powered streetcars and commuter rail.

        I will believe in electric cars when I see them being used by people who make their livings with cars, eg. taxicab drivers. However, the limiting factor of the electric car is the battery, not the electricity. More specifically, it is a matter of how the battery responds to being charged and discharged a thousand or ten thousand times. Free electricity is not going to make the battery any more durable.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Sep 2015 @ 3:33am

    Where's my Mr Fusion?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 23 Sep 2015 @ 5:52am

    My high school physics teacher was taught in the early 1960s that "Fusion power is 20 years in the future, and always will be." He repeated the prediction to our class 20 years later in the early 1980s.

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  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 23 Sep 2015 @ 11:59am

    "That looks like a bomb"

    It's better than a bomb. It's a star.

    It's the way of progress. We use energy sources to make big kabooms. Then we use them to make power.

    Still, dangerous for young brown Muslim students to bring one to school, probably.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Heinrich Hora, 17 Oct 2015 @ 4:12am

    Avalanche boron fusion may be a solution

    The proton-boron11 fusion (HB11) is indeed the ideal solution excluding any nuclear radiation problem, is of unlimited availability, and now at a low cost solution:
    H. Hora, G. Korn et al. Fusion energy using avalanche increased boron reactions for block ignition by ultrahigh power picosecond laser pulses. Laser and Particle Beams. 33, No 4 online “first view” ,14 July 2015, DOI:10.1017/S026.03461.5000634
    The key is the discovery of the avalanche HB11 reaction which is only possible for this kind of fusion as consequence based on measured super-high gains by Picciotto et al. This is combined with a new non-thermal initiation of the reaction by ps-plasma block ignition with laser pulses of 35kJ energy and picosecond duration resulting in more than GJ energy of alpha particles if a solid cylinder of HB11 fuel is trapped by a laser produced magnetic field of few kilotesla. This is a fully controlled nuclear fusion reaction within few cubic millimeter volume for about ns duration in power stations with one Hertz repetition. Estimations of costs for a one reaction per second operation may result in $300Million profit per year of electric power.

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