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Saturday, May 28, 2011
Science ... Society ...

I have written quite a bit about my concern that civilization has been getting less civilized in recent times. One reason, I believe, involves energy. I honestly believe that the quality of our lives largely depends upon the economy, which itself largely depends upon energy and technology factors (in the long run, anyway).

Sure, there is plenty to say for love and spirituality and social interaction and self-actualization, for artistic expression, and for constitutions and elections and due process. History is made by men and women, not by guns, germs and steel. And it’s wonderful to have info at our fingertips with I-pads and I-phones. But when the economy goes bad permanently and people scramble just to find their next meal and make it to the next morning (e.g., the early Middle Ages in Europe), all the spiritual realization and artwork and human rights stuff gets tossed overboard. Complex government and social arrangements collapse, replaced by simple and crude arrangements (e.g., Sharia and other religious cults).

I really believe that we’re moving closer to such a situation, largely driven by the disappearance of cheap, portable energy sources (such as oil was for us through most of the 20th century). Unless some unexpected leap in effectiveness occurs, green energy is not going to fill the gap. And forget about nuclear going anywhere. We need an industrial-strength energy technology to get the world economy back to the glory years of cheap, easy-to-find oil, not a lot of niche applications that work only in limited circumstances and still aren’t much of a bargain (such as solar, wind, geothermal and biomass fuels). The brightest hope for such a “big generator” of power for the past 50 years has been nuclear fusion (the reaction which powers the sun). Unfortunately, since the 1960’s practical fusion energy has remained stuck on the horizon (repeatedly said to be 20 years away).

The mainstream approaches to fusion technology are extremely intricate and expensive; if they ever can be harnessed for power generation, they will require huge, complex facilities that make today’s nuclear plants look like a Model T (a better analogy might be an Edsel). One approach involves shooting hundreds of lasers at little pellets, over and over again. Thus far, $3.5 billion has been spent on at the National Ignition Facility in California trying to develop an economically viable version of this. The other approach involves a superconducting tokamak, a high-energy magnetic “bottle” harnessing super-hot plasma gasses. There is an international project in France called the ITER getting underway to make something out of this method; it is expected to cost $20 billion. These projects have made for interesting and remunerative careers for various scientists and engineers. However, the tokamak and the pellet laser just don’t sound to me like the kind of thing that changes history. For that, a “black swan” is needed — something that will be unexpectedly cheap, fast and (relatively) simple.

Some years ago, I thought that the fusion black swan was coming over the hills, in the form of cold fusion. I wrote about my hopes for cold fusion seven years ago (hard to believe I’ve been blogging for so long). But unfortunately, most of the alleged breakthroughs turned out to be nothing more than allegations, e.g. Fleischmann-Pons from the mid-eighties. Since then there have been various other announcements about “alternative fusion” breakthroughs (Wikipedia says that the term “cold fusion” should be limited to the Fleischmann–Pons claim of nuclear fusion at room temperature using a tabletop setup; I thus use the term “alternative fusion” to designate anything outside the mainstream tokamak and laser pellet approaches). There was one earlier this year from some Italian scientists regarding a hydrogen-nickel reaction, which mainstream scientists are already casting doubt upon. So, no hope for alternative fusion anytime soon?

Fusion is a funny thing scientifically, involving quantum inter-atomic interactions that we still don’t completely understand. Experiments have proven that there are other ways to cause it besides hot gas compression by magnetic forces (tokamak) or laser beams. I just read an article on the Scientific American web site about three more alternative technologies that certain people believe will lead to usable fusion. As is typical for Sci Am, which can be a bit pompous in its role as defender of the scientific mainstream, the article is titled a “Skeptical Look” at what they call “Wild Fusion Schemes”. Obviously, the Sci Am owners and authors disagree with the people backing these “schemes”.

Interestingly, one group of people they are disagreeing with is the United States Navy! Over the past few years, the Navy has paid several million dollars to a research group called EMC2, to come up with small-scale “test of concept” fusion reactors based upon a method called “polywell plasma confinement“. Unlike the Ignition Facility or ITER, the polywell reactors in question are put together in local machine shops (they are nick-named “wiffleballs”). Supposedly, around year’s end, the Navy will decide whether the technology seems promising enough to ramp up to the $100 million range, as to attempt to build a fusion generator big enough to “break even” in terms of energy in versus energy created. That is the holy grail of fusion research, which no one has achieved yet.

For now, a handful of scientists from the famous Los Alamos nuclear labs have left to work with EMC2 on the polywell. It is said that the polywell would be less dangerous and more portable than the conventional approaches, if it could be made to work on an economic basis. The Navy would appreciate the “portable” aspect, as a potentially better way to power its subs and aircraft carriers than the nuclear reactors they now use.

So this may be something to keep an eye on, despite Scientific American’s cynicism. If the Navy envisions a technology that might be ready for its ships in 10 or 15 years, then perhaps by mid-century we might have a way to break our civilization’s dance of death with fossil fuels. Unfortunately I won’t be around to see it, and I expect the human race to continue its downhill trend during my twilight years. But still, it would be nice to think that kids today might experience a time of renaissance and renewal in their own twilight years. So, let’s hope that a black swan of fusion energy — perhaps a Navy blue swan, in this instance — is finally getting past that “20 years away” horizon!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:06 pm      

  1. Jim, Once again I have to say that I was actually kicked out of an engineering class back in the 1980s (when usually I was a good student). So, I cannot comment and do not feel competent to comment on any of this cold fusion stuff that goes under various titles, but I won’t let my incompetence stop me in this case.

    I do remember back some years ago when there was a h-u-g-e hoopla about some guy who said he could produce cold fusion on his kitchen table, had proved it, and said he would do it any time anybody asked. Unfortunately, somebody asked him to produce cold fusion on his kitchen table; and, of course, that was the end of that. If I remember correctly I think there was an actual attempt on TV to produce cold fusion; that didn’t work either. I remember watching something where the poor man had to say, well, it’s not working now, or some such phrase to try to offset his embarrassment.

    Now it seems you are telling me that scientists are actually working toward the “kitchen table” idea? Will wonders never cease. I wonder if these “legitimate” scientists (as opposed to the “kitchen table” scientist of previous times that I remember) will be any more successful than the “kitchen table” guy. Does it make a difference if one scientist is not “legitimate” and the other scientists are? I’m just asking, not trying to be sarcastic.

    I have always tho’t that somewhere along the line (who knows where/when) suddenly there will be some kind of breakthrough that enables all kinds of things that now are considered impossible–such things along the line of cold fusion, e.g., maybe travel faster than light. (Another thing considered impossible. Correct me if I’m wrong.) Someone somewhere will make some serendipitous discovery that takes humans past the boundaries that limit us now. And future generations will say, well, that was back in the time when cold fusion was tho’t impossible and travel to the stars was too. Maybe the only questions are who will make the discovery and when. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 29, 2011 @ 2:01 pm

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