Posts Tagged ‘Base Load Energy’

(Thermo)Nuclear Base Load Energy Soon?

October 16, 2014

As you unwittingly wait to board Ebola Air, let me distract you with a more palatable, albeit philosophically related, subject.

Sustainable energy means wind and PV (Photo Voltaic). Other possibilities don’t work enough to make a global dent. (At least not yet, by a long shot.)

Except maybe for tidal and current power, used in Europe since the Middle Ages (exploitation of sea currents is tested on a grand scale in Europe presently; a related possibility would be to use thermal differences in the ocean; but barnacles are a problem).

Solar thermal is controversial: it occupies so much space, zap birds, insects, etc.. Its one advantage is that the energy, heat, can be stored overnight. Geothermal works only in very few, small places (elsewhere it generates earthquakes for reasons similar to fracking).

Hydroelectric is sustainable only in conjunction with nuclear (to refill the reservoirs… Although don’t tell that to California’s empty dams).

The riddle of wind and PV, is that they work only occasionally: one needs base load power. When the sky is black grey with little wind, and it’s very cold, and it lasts for weeks, in a typical Euro weather in winter, a marais barometrique, one needs power. This is the so called “base power” (it’s supposed to be around 40% of peak demand).

Dishonest pseudo-ecologists have, in practice, pushed for fossil fuels base power (because they hate “nuclear energy”… not that they know what it is). All too many (pseudo) ecologists claim one can fight the CO2 built-up catastrophe, while having a fossil fuel base load.

That cannot work: any fossil fuel infrastructure added to the grid cost a fortune, billions of Euros and, or Dollars, for just one plant (typically with a cost around 3 billion). So one cannot add such a plant to not use it. Once built, it will be used (especially if a third of the grid capacity is made of them!)

And there is no, nor can there be, for theoretical reasons, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). CCS is another lie. Herds of noisy pseudo-ecologists have been lying about the coming of CCS. (CCS works only in half a dozen very special places: it’s typically re-injected right away where it came from, a gas field.)

Real ecologists such as yours truly, know that there is just one ecologically correct possibility for base load energy that can be imagined at this point: nuclear power, new nuclear power. That’s what has to be developed to replace fossil fuel base energy. As I said many times, second (or the identical third) generation nuclear power plants were, are, military in disguise (they produce Plutonium, crucial for bombs). So, just on non-military-nuclear-proliferation grounds, they should be shut down.

There are plenty of fission techs that could be made safe and fruitful (including some burning nuclear waste).

And then there is thermonuclear fusion.

In nuclear fusion, light atoms combine into stable forms (mostly Helium 4) and release excess energy. There no nasty waste (as this comes from heavy nuclei). However 80% of the power is as a neutron flux. In the 1920s, it was guessed that fusion generated the power of stars.

In the 1950s, tricks were found to use the X ray light of a plutonium bomb to compress thermonuclear fuel, and heat it up to get a short, but mighty fusion: the H bomb. The first one was much more powerful than expected.

The old joke is that controlled, sustainable thermonuclear fusion has always been, and always will be, the energy of the future. However, we generate roughly 10,000 times more fusion (per unit of fuel) as we did in the 1950s (this is roughly as good a progress as the famous “Moore Law” of the doubling of the power of computer chips, every two years, but at a tiny fraction of the cost: it cost trillions to develop computer chips).

Table top sustainable thermonuclear reactors are for sale. Nuclei are accelerated, using electric attraction, collide, and fuse. Those reactors generate neutrons (neutron beams can be used for all sorts of application, including medical). At this point the efficiency of these reactors is insufficient for gainful power generation (but it’s imaginable that tweaks  to this tech could generate much more energy than it uses).

Numerous fusion concepts are being developed (although not enough). The giant ITER uses the safest technology, where a thermonuclear fuel plasma is confined by exterior magnetism. But numerous alternatives are studied.

The University of Washington, and others, claim to have made a breakthrough: computers studies would show that one can tweak the geometry of the thermonuclear fuel plasma chamber in such a way that the plasma itself would generate the magnetic field bottling it away from the walls.

That does not mean that ITER is useless. Just the opposite: ITER is developing new materials to resist the mighty thermonuclear fire… which all thermonuclear reactors will have to use.

Even the famous Skunk Works of Lockheed Martin is working in the aptly named “Revolutionary Technology Programs unit” on what it calls the compact fusion reactor (CFR). At this point, it’s a containment vessel the size of a business-jet engine.

Lockheed believes it will be small and practical enough for interplanetary spaceships, transoceanic ships and city power stations… Or even fusion power aircraft (fission nuclear-powered aircraft were tested 50 years ago). It speaks of a very quick development program, with a new proto-reactor type every year.

The world economy is faltering, in great part because the global Return On Investment (ROI) of fossil fuels is quickly getting worse.

The subsidies for fossil fuels are enormous: up to a trillion dollars, worldwide, each year.

Ecologists should push to have a small fraction of this directed towards clean, safe nuclear energy. There is no doubt that a crash program on Thorium could give efficient plants within ten years (China will have a plant next year; the problem with Thorium is not whether it can work, but simply a question of regulation and ROI; understandably private industry is leery to launch itself without governmental support).

It increasingly looks that thermonuclear fusion is a plausible alternative for base load energy, sooner than one expected even six months ago.

And now please immediately board Ebola Air. Although it does not look like it, the same mindset that will help fix Ebola, is the exact same one which calls for thermonuclear fusion. The virus, indeed, has probably mutated, to become more easily transmissible. That is pure selection of the fittest (virus) at work.

In the matter of Ebola, as in all the big issues regarding civilization, there is only one optimal way out, the same as for the European Union construction: think, solve, progress, up, up and away!

Patrice Ayme’