Posts Tagged ‘Thermonuclear Fusion’

(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’

The Way: ITER, CERN

March 12, 2014

There are only two fundamental, independent sources of energy: nuclear fission and nuclear fusion. All other energy “sources” are derivative of those two.

The distance between the world’s two most expensive science experiments, ITER and CERN, is less than 300 kilometers. Both powered by French nuclear energy. Discuss.

Fission nuclear energy powers the Earth (magnetic shield, plate tectonic, continental drift, subduction, volcanism).

Fusion nuclear energy powers the Sun (and thus the biosphere, past and future). (Thus those who hate “nuclear” should go see a shrink, and I’m here to help them before they hurt someone. )

Sol, A Yellow Dwarf Star: Hot, Not Cuddly

Sol, A Yellow Dwarf Star: Hot, Not Cuddly

The center of the Sun is submitted to enormous pressure (340 million times atmospheric pressure), and a temperature of ten million degrees Kelvins. That‘s too hot, that is, too violent for atoms: shocks tear electrons from nuclei, and make an electron gas mixed with a gas of nuclei, that’s called a plasma.

Nuclei, each equipped with a positively charged proton, repel each other electrically.

[Sol is actually brighter than 85% of stars in the Milky Way; it’s actually white; the atmosphere scatters the blue component of light, making it look yellow from Earth’s surface!]

600 million tons of the Sun’s hydrogen fuse, converting 5 million tons to energy, each second.

The enormous pressure and heat mean that hydrogen nuclei are packed up close together, and are extremely agitated, with gigantic kinetic energy. So, sometimes, two protons crash into each other head on, and the violence of the collision overwhelms the electric repulsion.

At very short range the nuclear force is attractive. It overwhelms all other forces, and the two protons stick together. This happens more readily if two electrically neutral neutrons join in, as they contribute their attractiveness, and none of the electric repulsion.

British physicists Aston and Eddington suggested in the 1920s that the sun got its power from fusing Hydrogen into Helium. Indeed adding the mass of two heavy hydrogen nuclei (each with one proton and one neutron) is more than that of the Helium nucleus they fuse into. The difference is released as energy, according to the famous Poincare’(-Einstein) E = mcc formula.

Synthesis of the Elements in Stars“, published in 1957 by the extremely famous astrophysicists Margaret Burbidge, Geoffrey Burbidge, William Fowler and Fred Hoyle, demonstrated convincingly that most elements in the universe had been synthesized by nuclear reactions inside stars. Heavy elements, such as iron, had been produced by the dramatic explosions of supernova.

As I have argued in H Fusion Or Bust, we desperately need nuclear energy, as our main energy system, burning fossils, is both running out and poisoning the entire biosphere, killing already an unbelievably unnoticed  several million people a year (soon to be dozens of millions a year, dead). Unfortunately, millions of retards are goose stepping behind well organized, and well paid fossil fuel propagandists, and doing nothing about it, while they howl about nuclear energy.

One angle of attack for reducing pollution is to build Thorium-U233 fission plants. Such reactors have lots of advantage, including the fact be made before and have unproblematic waste. (What’s less easy is to scale them up economically, because it was not done before; India and China have massive programs.)

Thermonuclear fusion has been mastered in bombs, using the dirty trick of using the fantastic temperature and pressure of an exploding Plutonium fission “pit”. That would allow to explode bombs as powerful as 100 Megaton of TNT, or more, enough to bust or deviate a large comet or asteroid.

Some adore the facile joke of saying thermonuclear fusion has been the energy of the future, and always will be. It’s idiotic: it took 7 centuries between the invention of gun powder in China and the first (hydrogen!) internal combustion engine, a succession of explosions (early 19C, Switzerland).

There are two main approaches for inducing fusion: shock, and heat (like in an H bomb), using lasers. This approach is pursued in the Bay Area and Bordeaux. It tends to be military financed, as it simulates H bombs, and lasers are irresistible to real men.

The other approach is the Tokamak (abbreviation of Russian for TOroidal Chamber MAKgnetic). France, as usual in the last three millennia, is at the forefront of the effort to create new technology.  The French already built no less than four tokamaks, and their Tore Supra has enlightened us all with phenomena never seen before. It found OVNIs (Objet Volants Non Identifies)

OVNI Inside Thermonuclear Plasma.

OVNI Inside Thermonuclear Plasma.

[Tore Supra, Cadarache.]

France has few natural resources, but the will to produce a lot of ideas. She is adamant to make nuclear fusion work. As the New Yorker puts it:

if all goes according to plan, the most complex machine ever built will be switched on in an Alpine forest in the South of France. The machine, called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, will stand a hundred feet tall, and it will weigh twenty-three thousand tons—more than twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower. At its core, densely packed high-precision equipment will encase a cavernous vacuum chamber, in which a super-hot cloud of heavy hydrogen will rotate faster than the speed of sound, twisting like a strand of DNA as it circulates. The cloud will be scorched by electric current (a surge so forceful that it will make lightning seem like a tiny arc of static electricity), and bombarded by concentrated waves of radiation. Beams of uncharged particles—the energy in them so great it could vaporize a car in seconds—will pour into the chamber, adding tremendous heat. In this way, the circulating hydrogen will become ionized, and achieve temperatures exceeding two hundred million degrees Celsius—more than ten times as hot as the sun at its blazing core.”

ITER will the hottest phenomenon in the Solar System, ever.

Like the sun, the cloud will go nuclear. The zooming hydrogen atoms, in a state of extreme kinetic excitement, will slam into one another, fusing to form a new element—helium—and with each atomic coupling explosive energy will be released: intense heat, gamma rays, X rays, a torrential flux of fast-moving neutrons propelled in every direction. There isn’t a physical substance that could contain such a thing. Metals, plastics, ceramics, concrete, even pure diamond—all would be obliterated on contact, and so the machine will hold the superheated cloud in a “magnetic bottle,” using the largest system of superconducting magnets in the world. Just feet from the reactor’s core, the magnets will be cooled to two hundred and sixty-nine degrees below zero, nearly the temperature of deep space. Caught in the grip of their titanic forces, the artificial earthbound sun will be suspended, under tremendous pressure, in the pristine nothingness of ITER’s vacuum interior.

No one knows ITER’s true cost, which may be incalculable, but estimates have been rising steadily, and a conservative figure rests at twenty billion dollars—a sum that makes ITER the most expensive scientific instrument on Earth. But if it is truly possible to bottle up a star, and to do so economically, the technology could solve the world’s energy problems for the next thirty million years, and help save the planet from environmental catastrophe. Hydrogen, a primordial element, is the most abundant atom in the universe, a potential fuel that poses little risk of scarcity. Eventually, physicists hope, commercial reactors modelled on ITER will be built, too—generating terawatts of power with no carbon, virtually no pollution, and scant radioactive waste. The reactor would run on no more than seawater and lithium. It would never melt down. It would realize a yearning, as old as the story of Prometheus, to bring the light of the heavens to Earth, and bend it to humanity’s will. ITER, in Latin, means “the way.”.

The main road to the ITER construction site from Aix-en-Provence, where I had booked a room, is the A51 highway. The drive is about half an hour, winding north past farmland and the sun-glittered Durance River. Just about every form of energy is in evidence nearby, from hydroelectric dams to floating solar panels. Seams of lignite, a soft brownish coal, run beneath the soil in Provence, but the deposits have become too expensive to mine. Several miles from Aix, a large coal plant, with a chimney that climbs hundreds of feet into the sky, is being converted to burn biomass—leaves, branches, and agricultural debris.

Actually the chimney is 300 meters tall, and not just a symbol of pollution, but a real health problem when there is no mistral and a temperature inversion. When there is mistral, the pollution can head towards Rome. ITER is up the Durance valley. At its source, my daughter was born. Up the nearby Rhone valley, nuclear power reactor parks have the added touch of giant windmills on site while atomic powered Very High Speed trains zoom by (in case, somehow, power goes down, the mistral is supposed to help, as it already did, 1,000 years ago).

In 1997 the JET (Joint European Torus) based in England, produced about as much power through fusion as what put in. So controlled thermonuclear fusion is not a dream. The reactor instantaneously overheated, within a second, and had to be shut down.

Meanwhile in Cadarache, the French tokamak Tore Supra succeeded to confine thermonuclear plasma for more than 6 minutes (by opposition to just one second in JET). Tore Supra could do this as the world’s only tokamak with supraconducting magnets to generate long term magnetic fields. Tore Supra’s walls were built of pure carbon, same as the nose of the space shuttle. It looked like a good guess: carbon has the highest solid temperature (it sublimates directly).

Plasmas are occasionally unstable: look at the picture of the Sun above, complete with explosions, and prominences hundreds of thousands of kilometers long. In a reactor, everything can be perfect for long minutes, and then suddenly all goes to hell without a hand-basket, and the plasma comes in contact with the walls, photo-abrading, tearing carbons away, and prying some of the strongest materials on Earth with forces of hundreds of tons, as if they were made of cardboard:

French Reactor Torn By Thermonuclear Plasma

French Reactor Torn By Thermonuclear Plasma

[Inside Tore Supra, Cadarache, next to ITER.]

The forces that can be unleashed in a thermonuclear reactor are of the order of the largest rockets ever launched (and even several times that in ITER).  The French nuclear safety authority forced the ITER organization to make the reactor’s floor twice stronger than it wanted it to be (the Princeton tokamak jumped in the air).

Not touching the walls is part of the Plasma Facing Material problem (PFM). The plasma, once loaded with tritium, then would have combined to create radioactive carbures. So the French scientists discovered that carbon, in appearance the best candidate for PFM had to be given up.

JET has been rebuilt as a forerunner of ITER, it is now relined with Beryllium . The results have been excellent, and ITER will go directly to such a lining. (Baby ITER, JET will be reloaded with radioactive, easy to fuse, Tritium within two years.)

French Physics Nobel, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes said of controlled nuclear fusion, “We say that we will put the sun into a box. The idea is pretty. The problem is, we don’t know how to make the box.”

The problem is obvious: the highest temperature a solid can sustain is less than 5000 Kelvins at room temperature. The plasma is 40,000 times hotter.

The box has to be electromagnetic. And it has to be perfect, and require mathematics beyond what we can master (mathematics break through allowed the long term containment in Tore Supra). Can it be done? It better be. There is no other option.

Except war. But Putin, the world’s most powerful dictator, already thought of that one.

Putin, of course, is a self-satisfied, vicious idiot with a short alpha man inferiority complex. This shows that the present dominant political system, electing “leaders” every now and then, is, itself, idiotic. The invasion of Ukraine could lead, indeed, to a world war, under some scenarios. Scenarios under which the “West” would act perfectly, let it be said in passing (in 1939, France and Britain, by declaring war to Hitler, acted perfectly… later the war went badly, but that’s another subject).

Idiocy is not just deplorable, it’s a moral problem. In the USA, one meets people raging against France all the time. That makes them morally inferior, and such people were gung ho for invading Iraq.

Basically, anything the USA can do, France can do. No exception. France is the only state capable of this, in the world (even Great Britain buy part of its strategic nuclear deterrent in the USA; France makes its own, and its arguably as limber as the USA’s).

This goes a long way to explain anti-French racism in the USA: here is a Socialist country that does just as well, does not that prove being a slave to Wall Street is pointless? France socialist? Not only the Parti Socialiste holds most elected offices, state spending in France is 57% of GDP (the highest in Europe with Denmark, but Denmark can’t make war around the world).

What the millions of little American minds who rage against France are truly raging again is anything that could hurt their master, plutocracy.

Another example of raging idiocy is directed at CERN. OK, CERN is an abbreviation from the French, and the Large Hadron Collider is mostly below France and fed by French nuclear power, so it’s related to the preceding.

Critics of CERN claim it could swallow the Earth, thus demonstrating their lack of education. Ironically, they probably read that on the Internet. And CERN invented the World Wide Web.

CERN Inventing World Wide Web, 1989.

CERN Inventing World Wide Web, 1989.

Would CERN haters become less hateful if they read on the Internet that CERN invented the WWW? Not sure. Idiocy is fungible. If it’s not this, it will be the other thing.

There is no solution to the mayhem caused by burning fossil fuels, except nuclear energy. No solution, except war. But Putin, the dictator of the world’s largest petrostate is already a pawn for that system of thought.

Patrice Aymé

H Fusion Or Bust

February 13, 2014

We are quickly running out of resources. This is what the economics of fracking means. Fracking is profitable, precisely because we are past peak conventional oil and gas (there is nothing conventional about high Arctic gas, tar sands, and extracting deep oil below kilometers of ocean as off Brazil).

The problem with peak oil is general. We are past peak zillions of crucial materials, including copper and fertilizers (most fertilizer reserves, worldwide are in Morocco, under the determined French nuclear imperial umbrella, with Washington back-up).

This collapse of all resources has a solution, a dramatic solution, and only one, the solution the Romans were incapable, unwilling to conceive. For the good and simple reason they did not even understand that one could understand why the “world was getting old” as they used to moan.

Fusing Ideas To Progress Always Saves Civilization As Resources Die

Fusing Ideas To Progress Always Saves Civilization As Resources Die

Our situation is the same, but it’s degenerating even faster, as we enjoy a planetary demographic boom without precedent, and a splurge of waste also never imaginable before. For their vacations, a few days, people jet around the world. Just because they can. Is that the call for self destruction? An appeal to the mysterious god of war and apocalypse?

Yet. Energy is the one and only solution. Ever more energy. (Ever more Absolute Worth Energy, more exactly.)

Solar is useful (yada yada), and will work very well in areas not controlled by Al Qaeda (like North Africa, once it has been thoroughly cleansed).

Wind works, sort of, but the giant investment may turn out silly in the long run (although winds are augmenting now that the melting of the poles is gathering speed, in the very long run, if the poles warm up enormously, winds will die down).

That leaves us with conservation. Yet, as the climate belts switch north, many regions that have now plenty of water will go dry, and require desalination and, or long distance transportation of water, thus augmenting energy spending. An example? The South-West of the USA.

Geothermal will not work on a massive scale. Just as fracking, it causes earthquakes. Oh, and fracking at this point in the USA releases enormous quantities of methane, accelerating the greenhouse.

Coal kills directly two millions a year already (without counting how much it kills indirectly through climate change). Chinese coal is filling California’s Napa Valley vineyards with mercury (I guess Californian excess goes around and comes around as a fine mist of Hg…).

However, coal is used more and more: look at nuclearly correct Germany. Or coal is used obdurately: look at Denmark. Denmark is a paragon of ecological correctness… yet is building a new giant coal plant.

To save the planet, one is left with nuclear. Either new fission technologies (say Thorium techs), or… thermonuclear fusion.

The old joke about fusion is that it’s the fuel of the future, and always will be. However, that’s making fun of the scientific process itself. Understanding is progressing ever more, and results are following.

After decades of unexpected discoveries that were blocking the way to controlled thermonuclear fusion, it is entirely possible that only details may have to be figured out pretty soon.

For example a purely theoretical mathematical breakthrough, a few years back, allowed the existing French thermonuclear device at Cadarache to achieve confinement of the thermonuclear plasma for more than 6 minutes.

Next to that machine is now build the giant International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). ITER is expected to produce ten times the energy put in.

The Joint European Torus (JET) in England has been rebuilt, in ITER style, and the preliminary results are allowing to build ITER directly in (what was supposed to be) stage 2.

In 1997 the Joint European Torus (JET) released 16 megawatts of power from fusion, from using 24 megawatts-worth of heat.

ITER is involved with building new materials, to resist thermonuclear fire. If those work, they may profit the Korean national program, which, although part of ITER is also planning a production style reactor very soon after ITER turns on.

Thus it’s entirely possible that magnetic confinement fusion could become energy profitable within 15 years or so.

Meanwhile the proudly called NIL (National Ignition Laboratory) has succeeded to get in November 2013, twice more thermonuclear fusion energy out of one pellet of Deuterium-Tritium fuel than was put in (by lasers).

The NIL lasers compressed the thermonuclear fuel at three times the pressure and five times what exists (we think) at the center of the sun (where thermonuclear fusion is raging). They improved the efficiency by spending more energy heating up the fuel before compressing.

In a thermonuclear bomb, the thermonuclear fuel is compressed similarly with X rays from a fission-fusion “pit”. Who said nukes were useless.

And yes we need to colonize Mars (be it only because we mess up Earth, and always need to go “meta”). But we will do this only with fusion (there is a scheme to make fusion propulsion by using a technique half way between magnetic clinching, and the ITER and NIL styles.

Who need this?… will whine those who want to feed the poor and build their roofs. Do they know how much energy is needed to feed, quench the thirst, bathe, and shelter eight billions? Lots. We still don’t know how to reproduce Roman cement, but that will save a huge amount of energy.

No way out, but science, ever more science.

That’s the old fashion way, the most human way.

Because, of course, as the old resources run out, just like the Romans did not do, we need, having used lots of brains, to replace the old with the new born. Born from our minds.

This is exactly what happened with Rome. The economy of the empire of the Franks, the Imperium Francorum, rested on new engineering: wind mills, water mills, heavy ploughs (capable of digging deep into the fat land of the wet north), new energy (draft collars), and hundreds of new bioengineered species (horses, oxen, hundreds of species of new vegetable, especially protein rich beans). It was an amazing tech revolution. By 1000 CE, the Franks had surpassed Rome, and had the highest energy usage, per capita.

The Frankish tech revolution was paralleled, nearly as spectacularly  in the Far East. New rice cultivars allowed the population to boom. (Originating in Vietnam, they quickly spread-out). China introduced new technologies, such as paper money (having not enough precious metals).

Our similar situation knows an urgency not found before, though. It’s not a question of imperial collapse, or not, but of planetary collapse, or not. So go fusion, go.

Otherwise, well, even older gods will come to dominate. Those presiding the arena of evolution. The survivors incarnate the epigenetics. But there again, fusion will come in handy.

Patrice Aymé

Nuclear Fusion Or Civilization Fission

June 2, 2013

Obama diverted billions of dollars of taxpayer money towards private companies, such as battery makers (bankrupt “A123”), solar makers (bankrupt “Solyandra”, cost to The People, half a billion), or luxury car makers (Tesla; bankrupt Fisker). Result? NASA can find only $600,000 for research on propulsive nuclear fusion. Millions for the venture capitalists, only 600K for nuclear fusion research. Why? NASA was forced to give billions to companies such as “SpaceX” (owned by a South African billionaire). Never mind there is no market for “SpaceX”… the US government will provide one (by having NASA contract with SpaceX). OK, SpaceX could work as a company. But SpaceX is not doing fundamental research in aerospace, just applying fundamental research done much earlier by NASA.

Instead, government ought to finance only technological research that cannot bring immediate profit, from sales. Government ought to never, ever, finance for profit companies. Public money has to be saved for financing what no private company would ever finance. That Obama did not understand this is astounding. Governments should fund, and only fund, instead, big, expensive science:

Provence 2013: 20 Billion+ Fusion Reactor Rising.

Provence 2013: 20 Billion+ Fusion Reactor Rising.

ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is the most valuable international science project. Ever. (The International Space Station, a good thing, pales relatively speaking, as it requires little science; there are rumors it found something unexpected recently, though… CERN is not really a project, as it’s an organization dating from the early fifties.)

Such a machine is, literally, priceless. Its real cost will be well above 20 billion, as the participating governments have to feed their research establishments to produce the required new science. In particular a whole new science of materials capable of confronting directly temperatures and pressures only found inside the sun. Just as with propulsive fusion, or maglevs, or contact free bearings, the production, control and efficiency of magnetic fields, an electronic and mathematical problem, has also to be considerably improved.

ITER will bring near infinite profits. Saving civilization may be one of them.  Be it only from ITER’s diplomatic aspects ITER should be financed. All nations worth anything are funding, and collaborating in ITER, each bringing new science! This has never happened before, except at CERN, not coincidentally also on French territory. Learn, silly and offensive Senator Dianne Feinstein, learn. If your hubris allows you to!

In the preceding essay, Philosophy Feeds Engineering, I deplored that thermonuclear propulsion studies were not financed more.  Some readers asked me to justify myself a bit more, here it is.

The rationale for wishing for fusion propulsion, is that, since we use, now, much more of the Earth than the Earth can provide, we have to expand in the solar System. Now.

It’s a pressing problem, a very practical solution should one want to avoid a holocaust: human population augments at the rate of 100 million a year, at this point. Thus as much as the entire Earth can support with pre-1900 technology, about 500 millions, is added every five years (500 million humans on the whole planet was passed around 1550 CE).

Some will sneer that they don’t see what’s out there in space that we can use. Sure, as we have not been out there. Clearly, with energy at will, Mars could be colonized right away. And even the Moon, as there is water there, in the rocks, so oxygen could be obtained. Again, if we had a plentiful energy source.

We can’t expand through the solar system with chemistry (that is, by burning stuff), as the energy production of that prehistoric method is barely enough to send robots to planet. And even then: a successor to the Curiosity Rover won’t happen before 2020, because, although the demand is great, it’s too expensive, and we have run out of Plutonium generators, so we simply do not have the energy source for a new rover! (I hope the rabid anti-nuclear lobby is satisfied!)

However, there is the energy of the sun, thermonuclear fusion, and we know how it works. Much of the science is here. Can the engineering follow?

Old Geezer Pilot, a faithful commenter on this site, loves the photovoltaic effect and he reminds us that: “Fusion is just 20 years away. And it always has been.”

That’s an old joke, always good to hear. However, it’s getting a bit too long in the tooth. Indeed, two points:

a) the photovoltaic effect was discovered by an obscure Frenchman,  Alexandre Edmond Becquerel in1839. It took about 150 years to make the PV effect able to produce electricity economically.

b) the Joint European Torus, the JET, in the UK, achieved, with its Tokamak design, not just thermonuclear ignition, but break-even (or so), producing nearly  as much energy through fusion as was put in to confine the plasma and heat it up. That was in the 1990s. (Tokamak is from the Russian for toroidal kamera aksial; the great Andrei Sakharov got the idea of the toroidal chamber with an axial magnetic field.) Since then tremendous progress has been made.

 ITER is supposed to produce ten times the energy put in.

 Tokamak designs aim to put the sun in a box. A tall order. Have the sun turn around in a torus, as a magnetically controlled plasma, never touching the walls. It’s ambitious. Maybe too ambitious.

The first problem is to confine magnetically the 100 million degrees Celsius plasma, so that it does not touch the walls. Initially, plasma could be confined for only a fraction of a second. But, in the last decade, a Tokamak in France at Cadarache, where ITER is built, achieved around ten minutes of confinement. After some subtle computations by a woman mathematician uncovered new tricks for stabilizing a plasma.

Plasma are the fourth state of matter, beyond gas, liquid and solid. Stars are made of plasmas. It’s not like we don’t need to know about plasmas. Sometimes, stars blow up. The French Corot satellite found that most stars are much more unstable than the sun. (This discovery could lead to very practical applications, say in the search for extraterrestrial life, or just Sol surveillance.)

Other designs for thermonuclear fusion than the tokamak, are imaginable, or have been achieved. No, this is not a joke about “cold fusion”.

 Electrostatic thermonuclear fusion machines do exist and are for sale. In them a beam of particles is shot into a thermonuclear fuel target, fusion is achieved. They generate copious amounts of neutrons (that’s why people buy them). http://www.nsd-fusion.com/

The lack of success of the presently governmentally financed fusion efforts has been caused from their very ambition, in particular the necessity to avoid contact with plasma and to handle waste… something that is irrelevant in space.

A few years back, the confinement of the Tokamak at Princeton failed catastrophically for a second, or so. The plasma touched the wall, or something. The machine is 10,000 metric tons (heavier than the Eifel Tower). It jerked up by a foot.

10,000 tons, jumping. Fusion is mighty.

The scheme for fusion as propulsion is a variant of a system long proposed to achieve energy production. The idea was to use some material to crush fusion fuel (Deuterium and, maybe, also Tritium), to the point temperatures and pressures similar to those of the sun would be achieved.

This is how a so called thermonuclear bomb works. In such a bomb, the enormous pressure of the electromagnetic blast from a fission bomb is used to compress a so called tamper that surrounds a mantle made of thermonuclear fuel with a plutonium fission core. The tamper gathers heat and kinetic energy, and, in turn, compresses its interior to sun like conditions.

In a nuclear bomb, the tamper participates to energy generation: if made out of U238, it fissions. That, however, generates nasty radioactive waste.

Thus, the main problem of controlled thermonuclear fusion has been, what do you do with the crushing mechanism, once it has become some sort of obnoxious plasma?

In a so called fusion bomb, the crushing mechanism, which is crucial, can either be made of lead (to reduce yield), or U238 (to augment yield, by supplementary fission).

Then how come the usage of lasers to ignite a pellet has, so far, failed to achieve ignition? (Differently from the tokamaks which do this routinely.) Because, precisely, in this NIF, the National Ignition Facility, there is not much of a crushing mechanism. Instead light is asked, directly, to crush. But light is made of bosons, particles that like to pile up at the same place, they don’t crush very well.

In the rocket engine, the crushing mechanism becomes ejected fuel. Presto, no more waste. So I think it should work.

Why having fusion obsession as a moral order? We don’t want to do like the Romans, and wake up some day, out of energy to do what needs to be done. Going to Mars. Among other things.

Just like the Romans had to go to Eastern Europe, to find the metals they needed. But they never made it there, because, the one and only time, the entire Roman army was ready, capable and determined to make it there, its imperator was assassinated.

His name was Julius Caesar.

Never again would a Roman army be capable of that mission. Eastern Europe would turn into Rome’s Achilles Heel. In several ways. Those romanized Germans, the Franks, were fully aware that progress of law, order and civilization had to cover all of Europe, so, as soon as 407 CE, they fought as the old republican Romans used to, and conquered Eastern Europe by the 8C.

After this not so accidental happenstance of history, the assassination of the transgender Caesar, the hostile attitude of emperors to any sort of new adventures, especially in all aspects of the mind (hence technology) insured debilitating degeneracy.  That’s why the initiative of plutophile senator Feinstein (Demoncrat, California) to defund the modest USA contribution to ITER should be seen for what it is. Rage against the progress of understanding. Rage against progress: an attempt to spoil our only chance.

Either we will master fusion, and will go beyond prehistory, or civilization, just as unable to hold together as a nucleus with too many nucleons, will fission.

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Patrice Ayme

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P/S: Some will say that we can just do with PhotoVoltaics. Not true. However the fusion propulsion project will use PV to create the electrical power it needs. So, as fusion products don’t fission (having too few nucleons), fusion propulsion will be very clean, allowing to use it even in low orbit. Add this to the space elevator, and we have our access to space, cheap, easy and safe.