Ever since the 50s there have been whispers amongst those who know about a secret in the stars. Nothing is said out loud; you can only hear the word when the wind is blowing right. Or it creeps into your dreams while you’re sleeping. You turn a corner and you spot the elven footprints of a crazy physicist who insists he has the answer. You hear the answer as it blows in the wind: fussssion, fussssion, fussssion.
As Einstein is my witness, fusion power will work. And it will solve our problems.
“A fusion power plant would produce no greenhouse gas emissions, operate continuously to meet demand, and produce shorter-lived and less hazardous radioactive byproducts than current fission power plants. A fusion power plant would also present no danger of a meltdown.” — National Ignition Facility
So what is fusion?
It’s the opposite of fission. Fission harnesses the energy produced when a big ass atom is split. Fusion harnesses the energy when a teensy atom is fused with another teensy atom. Specifically isotopes of hydrogen, the very smallest, most basic of atoms. The isotopes in question are deuterium and tritium, one of each. They fuse to produce a little matter in the form of helium and a neutron plus a whole wad of energy.
So what are we waiting for? Well, in a nutshell, 120 million degrees Kelvin.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Right. It takes a big dog to weigh a ton. 120 million degrees is a sizable dog. What the hell are you going to use to hold your little deuteriums and tritiums? What could possibly take that heat?
The 120 million dollar question, of course. The answer: a plasma. I defined that for you previously, and I’m not going to do it again, mostly because it doesn’t matter for this post. Suffice it to say you need a plasma. What to hold the plasma is more important. You and the crazy physicist have two methods to do this: Magnetic confinement fusion, and Inertial confinement fusion. Confinement is the key to the problem. Specifically plasma confinement.
Most believers believe in magnetic confinement. Apparently early work into laser confinement was not promising. The energy required far exceeded that produced, so everybody pretty much thought it was a dead issue.
But there was that one crazy physicist who was just a little crazier than the rest and who never let the subject of laser confinement die.
The crazies are currently hosted by the Lawrence Livermore National Labs in California. They work in the National Ignition Facility. Sounds internally combustive doesn’t it? National Ignition. Like half of us are going to turn the crank and the other half give it the gas at just the right moment and boom! energy everywhere for everyone.
Actually “The goal of the National Ignition Facility is to achieve fusion by compressing and heating a pea-sized capsule containing a mixture of deuterium and tritium with the energy of 192 powerful laser beams (Shouldn’t that be “192 bone-chilling laser beams”?). This process will cause the fusion fuel to ignite and burn, producing more energy than the energy in the laser pulse and creating a miniature star here on Earth…Ignition experiments at NIF will set the stage for one of the most exciting applications of inertial confinement fusion one could imagine—production of electricity in a fusion power plant.”
You can see the “pea-sized capsule” mentioned above in today’s image at the top of this post. Looks magical, doesn’t it? All shiny and golden like that.
So where are they at in this shiny, golden process? Well…they’re making gains in fits and starts. In October New Scientist reported that the facility “set new records for neutron yield and laser energy.” Sounds good. Progress continues. Experimentation continues. You can watch the drama at the NIF status page.
Meanwhile due to environmental pressure from global warming and economic pressure from rising costs of power, fusion is on a 20 year plan for commercialization. They want fusion power online by the 2030s.
To achieve this, “Mike Dunne, managing director of Laser Fusion Energy at the NIF, says that to achieve its goal of commercialization, the NIF has already brought in the utilities industry and vendors, concurrent with experimentation at LIFE. This is in contrast to simply producing lab results with no real commercial plan down the road.”
For your info, LIFE stands for Laser Ignition Fusion Energy project.
They tell us that our troubled energy future cannot be saved by alternative fuels alone. With the number of outsized vehicles running around the countryside and our disdain for sacrifice, I’d say that’s probably a safe assumption. Considering last year’s Fukushima mishap I don’t think anyone is hot on increasing our fission dependence either. Fusion is not only in our future, it probably is our future.
Thanks for reading,
Sue Lange’s latest ebook, Tritcheon Hash, is full of lapses of logic and weird science. “It’s a wild, good read.” Get your copy right here at good ol’ BVC.
This essay was first posted on December 21, 2011 at the Singularity Watch blog.