119 thoughts on “Wow

  1. The zooming hydrogen atoms, in a state of extreme kinetic excitement, will slam into one another, fusing to form a new element—helium . . .

    This is such a relief, for I feared we were running out of helium, and children of the future would suffer at birthday parties.

    Awesome writing in this; thanks for sharing it.

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    • Fusion is still 50 years away.

      Seriously, but all this stuff is necessary. There’s no reason fusion as a power source can’t work. (I mean, the sun does a great job of it). it’s just hard and finicky and there’s a lot of ways to do it, but doing so economically? Probably very few.

      And sure, it costs a lot. But it’s not like it’s all wasted. Doing something this hard? Always requires a lot of stretching of various sciences and engineering disciplines. People have to invent and innovate and push. And what they figure out and make gets kept, and used again.

      Generally for something hilarious, like the fact that those fancy push-button mix-your-own soda machines popping up at fast food places were built using technology designed for dispensing pharmaceuticals in precise dosages. God knows how many millions were poured into developing that, and now we use it so we can offer customers eighty-three varieties of drink from one tap in a small machine, and don’t have to replace the cartridges as often.

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      • Reminds me of this list!

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NASA_spin-off_technologies

        At its peak, NASA was 4% of the nation’s budget. Now it is a paltry shell of that, and we haven’t gone to real space in a very long time. Can you imagine the benefits of leveraging not-even 4% of the nation’s budget to put a human being on Mars? I can’t, but I imagine they will be even more spectacular than the described fusion reactor.

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      • Fusion is still 50 years away.

        Assuming nothing goes wrong. As I recall ITER’s current schedule, if there are no further slips, we get a series of ITER experiments, which allow the design and construction of DEMO, and that experience will allow design of an actual commercial reactor that will produce electricity at reasonable prices, in about 30 years. I don’t think ITER has hit a major milestone on time yet. There are a number of failure points in the process, some of which has mentioned. We may achieve both ignition and stable operation with large energy gains; we may be able to extract hundreds of megawatts worth of heat energy and keep the thing from melting down; the materials may remain structurally sound under long-term exposure to the neutron flux; overall net efficiency may be sufficient to produce electricity at a price that can keep a high-tech society functioning. Plenty of room for “Oops!” to happen in there. Several of the “oops” possibilities apply to the NIF and inertial containment generally as well as to tokamaks and plasmas.

        My own concerns are about keeping society’s wheels from falling off generally for another 50 years. Median income in the developed world is stagnant (and “income” in general is a tricky thing, since a much larger share of production consists of pushing pieces of paper around). Peak production of various resources but global population predicted to continue rising (I believe the UN’s latest forecasts now have the peak population at about 10B, up from 9B). From a parachial view, I appreciate that the US has large coal resources it can easily keep to itself; whether it continues to be politically feasible to consume it is an open question, or at least to consume it without greatly increasing the cost of doing so (eg, much better pollution controls).

        I think it’s pretty easy to describe a path forward where we eventually figure out how to make fusion work, but at a capital cost that we can no longer afford.

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      • With regard to your last sentence, a similar point is made here: http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/10/the-energy-trap/ (this blog is excellent).

        Though, the current estimates we do for the cost of a reactor typically find that the cost (in terms of $ per energy produced) would be competitive with coal or nuclear. These are just pretty rough estimates though. But even coal plants are pretty expensive (average plants are around a billion dollars). I kinda doubt cost will matter too much. Once a reactor looks feasible it might be that all the big energy companies start pouring money into building them. And even the cost of something like ITER is fairly insignificant for a major energy company – they spend far more each year just on exploration (http://investorplace.com/2012/03/exxons-massive-spending-plan-looks-right-on-the-money/).

        In other words, ITER is very expensive for a scientific experiment, but its cost is on the same order of magnitude as many power plants.

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      • I’ve enjoyed your comments here recently. Please continue.

        Prof. Murphy’s blog is indeed very good; it’s a shame he doesn’t write much there these days. The series that culminated with the Alternative Energy Matrix is a must-read example of scaling problems.

        The coal-fired 750 MW Comanche Unit 3 built outside Pueblo, CO cost $1.3B (but that included retrofitting Units 1 and 2 with state-of-the-art emissions controls). OTOH, the new Vogtle 3 and 4 fission units in Georgia, rated at 1.1 GW each, are projected to cost about $8B apiece, with the estimates still going up. State regulators have taken the unusual step of allowing Southern Co. to include costs in their rate base that will let them collect $2B toward the construction before any electricity is produced. All of the parties involved in paying for the new reactors have seen their credit ratings seriously degraded due to the Vogtle project. The federal government has agreed to $6.3B in loan guarantees [1] to keep the project viable. If fusion construction costs wind up looking like fission rather than coal, we are already approaching a point where financial constraints are binding [2].

        Assume fusion is ready for commercial plants to be built starting in 50 years. What else happens in the next 50 years? Among them: (a) the entire existing fleet of US fission reactors is going to have to be replaced; (b) there will be increasing political pressure to replace at least some of the existing coal-fired generation; and (c) it is at least arguable that natural gas production will peak and begin a relative steep decline. I assume that none of the existing reactor fleet currently starting through their 20-year license extensions will see further extensions. The pressure on coal is more likely to come, IMO, from the massive accumulation of ash than from CO2. Natural gas is a complicated situation, but the decline rate from currently producing wells in aggregate is already >20% per year, and getting worse. I see it as a matter of timing: if fusion is available in 15-20 years, it’s a game-changer; if it’s not available for another 50, the game’s basically over.

        [1] In a different direction, TTBOMK none of the Congress critters from the southeast states who were outraged over the Solyndra loan guarantees have said a word about guarantees for fission in their region. As I said in another comment in the last few days, this looks to be a source of increasing friction between regions of the country. The Western Interconnect states appear to be making a serious push to solve their energy supply problems with renewables and minimal nuclear; the eastern part of the country, and the southeast in particular, appear likely to be pushed down a fission path; both of them are going to be increasingly pissed off about “their” federal dollars supporting tech that they’re not using.

        [2] A similar financial constraint is starting to bind in integrated circuit technology. Several Far East foundry firms have announced that they can’t afford to build 22-nm fab lines. Several analysts have predicted that Intel and Samsung are the only private companies with the financial chops to eventually build 14-nm fab lines.

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    • Can you imagine the benefits of leveraging not-even 4% of the nation’s budget to put a human being on Mars?

      Yep. None – or at least a whole lot less than spending that money on health care, education, other social services, medical research, or green energy. We’ve never sent a person back to the moon, because there’s nothing there but rock. All indications from sending robots to Mars indicate that the same is true of it. Putting people on other worlds is, at present and for the foreseeable future, a stunt; they can’t due anything the rovers can’t, and they also can’t do a lot of things the rovers can.

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      • because there’s nothing there but rock

        Annnd, no. There is a lot on the moon. He3 is the one thing that gets lots of play in the media, but the moon itself, as the earths private meteor sponge, is chock full of fun and exciting material resources for us to extract.

        We haven’t been back to the moon because we are not ready, technologically, to try and extract those resources, and if we are not going to be able to start exploiting the moon (for resources, or as a lunar base), then the cost of returning, just for bragging rights, is prohibitive.

        Of course, once we know how to build and run a fusion reactor, the moon will become a very hot commodity.

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      • Of course, once we know how to build and run a fusion reactor, the moon will become a very hot commodity.

        That would be the best place to put them, yes.

        I’m not completely joking. If the reactors have a failure mode that’s a very infrequent big kablooey, and they’re extremely cheap to run, and it becomes possible to transmit power from station to station with an acceptable power loss, putting them on the moon makes sense. (No an original idea, of course. It’s straight Heinlein.)

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      • the reactors have a failure mode that’s a very infrequent big kablooey…putting them on the moon makes sense

        We’d best get on that now. We’re already 15 years behind, and Martin Landau and Barbara Bain are no spring chickens anymore.

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      • Your analysis misses the point that all those technologies developed by the space program were positive externalities of engineering efforts made to conquer the unique conditions of space.

        And we couldn’t do the same or better by devoting our research directly to practical applications, instead of having some useful applications as a spin-off effect from vanity megaprojects?

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      • FWIW, the failure mode of a fusion reactor is “It stops fusing” and the catastrophic affects are called “Ah, man, we just melted 40 million in stuff” as the bottle fails and the plasma very briefly impinges on solid matter.

        And then stops existing.

        The trick with fusion is getting it to start and keep going. The trick with fission is getting it to stop. :)

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      • Kim – The geological time scale is billions of years. Humanity has been technologically competent for a few thousand and making rapid progress for a few hundred. There’s absolutely no urgency in pursuing space travel; and until our understanding of physics gives some indication that faster-than-light travel isn’t impossible, human space travel is pointless. Short of global nuclear war, we can’t make earth less habitable than the moon and Mars already are.

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      • “And we couldn’t do the same or better by devoting our research directly to practical applications, instead of having some useful applications as a spin-off effect from vanity megaprojects?”

        No, we couldn’t. Great discoveries are more often than not made by accident, the benefits therein of basic science research are well-documented, and space provides the perfect controlled laboratory for experiment to reveal essential truths about the universe.

        “Kim – The geological time scale is billions of years. Humanity has been technologically competent for a few thousand and making rapid progress for a few hundred. There’s absolutely no urgency in pursuing space travel; and until our understanding of physics gives some indication that faster-than-light travel isn’t impossible, human space travel is pointless. Short of global nuclear war, we can’t make earth less habitable than the moon and Mars already are.”

        Human space travel is not pointless, for reasons articulated above. Furthermore, we have not had the capacity to destroy ourselves before. Now we have several ways of doing it, and several more are on the horizon. Developing human competency for existence on worlds other than our own has never been more urgent.

        The time factor is not important. Fungi have spread from one corner of the world to the other using spores. Plants store their genetic information in seeds. A few million years to travel to a nearby hospitable world is a long time compared to the life of the individual human, but this is nothing compared to the operative time scale of the forces determining survival or destruction of individual species.

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      • There’s absolutely no urgency in pursuing space travel; and until our understanding of physics gives some indication that faster-than-light travel isn’t impossible, human space travel is pointless.

        Poppycock, plain & simple. Mastering our ability to just move about our little solar system will greatly allow us to stop damaging the Earth in the search for materials. Asteroids are rich in desired materials, and zero-G mining has considerable advantages over doing it on earth. It will allow us to expand outward. It will open up hundreds of new avenues for basic research that are just too expensive to do on Earth because of gravity or the difficulty in maintaining a vacuum.

        If you want to save the Earth, mastering space is the key to doing it.

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      • And it’ll let us drive the space elephants off before they conquer the Earth, enslave us all, and start destroying the planet for their own purposes. (There’s a scene in that book where an environmentalist realizes that to save the environment he should have been pushing for a space navy instead of worrying about pollution. It’s idiotic even for Pournelle.)

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      • Yep. None – or at least a whole lot less than spending that money on health care…

        With no intent to criticize anyone’s priorities, spending on health care is exactly what did happen. In 1965 we decided that the elderly and the poor would get the same kinds of standard care that most everyone else did. After a few decades, combined with the US political reality that the federal government can collect ~20% of GDP in taxes, and state/local governments can collect ~10% of GDP, and medical care costs growing much faster than the economy as a whole, crowding out became inevitable. At the federal level, science (among other things). At the state level, huge pressures on roads and higher ed.

        From time to time I take the opportunity to irritate a certain class of commenter at Slashdot by pointing out that the world’s experience suggests that if you want to free up government money to spend on science and higher ed, you should be an advocate for single-payer health insurance.

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  2. As a scientist working in the field, pretty involved with ITER research, this article strikes me as having the right balance of optimism and “holy shit this is hard”.

    Fortunately, the Chinese and South Korean governments are really big on fusion right now and are just pouring money into this research. They both have plans to move forward with the construction of demonstration reactors at around the same time that ITER experiments really get going (according to the current schedule, the late 2020s, but take that with a grain of salt). Even here in the EU, a fusion scientist could get a 10x higher salary by going to China or South Korea right now.

    Also I would note that some of the biggest remaining obstacles for building a fusion reactor may end up being solved by materials scientists (see, for example: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24528306). At the moment it’s not really clear if any materials exist that could be used to armour in the inner wall of a fusion reactor, such that the wall material will survive long enough to make the reactor economically feasible.

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      • Unfortunately not. The magnetic field does provide lots of confinement – the plasma is at 150 million degrees in the core (actually we’ve even gone much higher in the big Deuterium-Tritium experiments in the 90s) but only say around 1 million degrees at the edge of the confinement region. In today’s “medium-sized” Tokamaks that amount of confinement is occurring over only 50 centimeters or so, and in fact most of it occurs in the outer few centimeters of the confinement region (we call this H-mode confinement, as mentioned in the article).

        If you follow some particle trapped in the core of a Tokamak, you’ll see that there’s a pretty abrupt boundary between where it’s still well confined by the magnetic bottle (and thus diffusing outward very slowly), and where it just follows the magnetic field directly into the wall – this is what I’m referring to by the confinement region. Between the edge of the confinement region and the wall of the device you have a region of just vacuum.

        So you’ve got particles slowly diffusing out of the core of your Tokamak, and you also want to be able to puff in more gas to fuel the experiment, so you need some holes in the wall where you can pump gas in and out. And, inevitably, the particles diffusing out of the Tokamak will still be somewhat hot, and they’re going to hit the wall eventually one way or another. The quality of your magnetic bottle determines how hot those particles will be, but it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to do much better than 1 million degrees.

        It turns out the best way to handle this is to design the magnetic field such that particles, when they leave the confinement zone, are directed into very small part of the wall where you put the toughest materials you can (tungsten seems to be the best choice now since it has the highest melting point of any metal). To give a better idea, here’s a picture of what it looks like in most Tokamaks: http://ej.iop.org/images/0029-5515/53/2/027003/Full/nf441334f03_online.jpg

        So you have one little corner of your device where you’re pumping gas in and out and letting the hot plasma which escapes the confinement region smash into some really tough wall materials. We hope that we’ll be able to operate ITER such that the temperature of the gas smashing into the wall is only ~150,000 degrees, but this is based on extrapolation up from smaller machines – we really just have to build the thing and try. The issue is then that your tough armour plates on the wall have to be able to survive bombardment by 150,000 gas for say ~30 years without falling apart.

        And of course in a machine like ITER or a reactor, all the first wall materials are constantly being bombarded by extremely high energy neutrons…

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      • Considering what fusion reactors are containing (charged particles), magnetic fields are the logical choice.

        Of course, the magnetic fields being employed are quite powerful, as one would expect. Perhaps has an idea how many Teslas/Gauss those fields are.

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      • Considering what fusion reactors are containing (charged particles), magnetic fields are the logical choice.

        We’re talking sub-atomic particles, right?

        It seems like trying to keep mosquitoes out with a screen of chicken wire; with the only saving grace being that the chicken wire is moving really, really fast.

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      • (I am ignorant, so must ask questions.)

        Doesn’t this push us into perpetual motion machine fallacies? Wouldn’t the amount of energy required to create the magnet (energy to spin a coil or running current through the coil) strong enough to contain energy come close to or exceed the amount of energy released?

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      • On existing machines, the eternally imposed toroidal field is usually somewhere between 1T and 4T (C-mod at MIT is higher though). ITER’s coils will produce a magnetic field up to 13 T or so (and over a much, much larger volume). Also, the enormous electrical currents flowing through the plasma produce their own magnetic field (which is essential for confinement) which is usually around 1/10th of the external field.

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      • Satellite orbits: I just got that; trapping the particles in a magnetic field in the same way a large mass traps smaller in a gravitational field; the trapped object is still moving in a straight line, but the in is bent by gravity into an orbit.

        Which still leaves me questioning the amount of energy required to generate a magnetic field strong enough to act as a shield; but I suspect I’m thinking too much in terms of Newtonian physics.

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      • There’s no fundamental engineering limitation that I know of. The reason we typically have 1-4T magnetic fields in existing experiments is because one of the key parameters determining the behaviour of the confined plasma is the ratio of thermal energy into the plasma to the energy in the magnetic field (we call this beta, it’s almost always less than 5%).

        So, you could take an existing medium-sized Tokamak and triple the magnetic field up to 6T or so, but if you still had the same amount of heating power, this means you’re now operating at much lower beta. Beta is the key parameter describing how stable the whole configuration is, and for ITER to match its goals, we will have to operate it very close to the stability limit (so, a critical value of beta above which the plasma goes unstable and smashes into the wall). So most experiments that are useful to prepare for ITER involve operating around a very specific values of beta.

        Though, there are other useful experiments you can do with stronger magnetic fields, and C-mod at MIT does a lot of useful stuff because they have a much stronger magnetic field than most other Tokamaks. These experiments usually involve studying the interaction of the plasma with the wall, or testing certain heating methods or diagnostics.

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      • The plasma that the magnetic field is containing is composed of ions, or charged particles. Since they are charged, they will interact with a magnetic field & follow the field.

        Think of it as a very powerful stream of water in front of the wall of the chamber, and the charged particles are cloth bean bags you are shooting at the wall. If you shoot the bean bag fast enough, it will pass through the water, but not before the water pulls it along. If I want to prevent the bean bags from ever hitting the wall, and I know how fast the bean bags could possibly go, I can calculate how fast and what volume of water I need to make sure the bean bags never hit the wall.

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      • I have reading to do.

        Plasma, never really thought about it much, a state relegated to the insides of suns, the place where space and time are bent and all that.

        But wikipedia tells me how common it is; a static-electric shock; a neon sign.

        My state-of-the-states-of-matter address needs some rewriting.

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      • With lightning, the bolt itself is not plasma. The light you see, however, is. As the invisible electrical current passes through the air, it superheats the gas around it, flashing it to plasma and causing that plasma to accelerate away from the bolt at supersonic speeds (hence the thunder you hear is a supersonic boom).

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      • It seems like trying to keep mosquitoes out with a screen of chicken wire

        Really bad analogy, I think; there are no holes in the magnetic field. Consider the humble (and now largely retired) cathode ray tube. Heat a wire to create a cloud of free electrons, snatch them away in one direction to form a crude beam, focus the beam to a tiny spot, and steer the beam to hit phosphors on the back side of a glass screen with enough energy that the phosphors give off light. Swing the beam back and forth across the screen thousands of times per second, varying its intensity continuously to render an image. All the focusing and steering and intensity control done with magnetic fields. A working Braun tube dates to 1897.

        In some high-def tubes, 1440 traversals (one forward and one reverse per scan line) 60 times per second. If the active area of the screen is 32″ across, the point of impact is traveling at… call it 2600 mph, and delivered with high positional precision. Yeah, they built TVs around 720p high-def CRTs. I used one in a series of field demonstrations to show off high-def video quality. The set was so heavy that as a precaution, we always used four people, one on each corner, to lift the damned thing onto the elevated stand.

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      • I am absolutely crushed you didn’t like my analogy. Because super excited particles do, to my layman’s understanding, requires thick shields of lead and concrete to shield; so a field of something I can pass my hand through would seem weak sauce for the cause.

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      • The important thing to understand is the difference between charged and uncharged particles. can no doubt say this better, but: I can contain the charged particles in the plasma — electrons and ions — with a magnetic field of appropriate strength and shape, because the field can push/pull on the charged particles. You could do it with an electric field as well (you can build a fusor that uses electrostatic confinement in your garage capable of producing a detectable number of fusion events). Equivalently energetic neutrons, OTOH, do require feet (or at least inches) of dense matter to contain them, because having no charge, magnetic or electric fields don’t affect them at all. Most of the energy produced by the fusion events shows up as energetic neutrons. By design, they pass through the plasma-containing field in a tokamak and impact the wall of the containment vessel, heating it. The heat is extracted from the other side of the wall and used in one way or another to spin a turbine to produce electricity.

        So, two kinds of containment in a tokamak: one magnetic to contain the charged particles of the plasma, one physical to soak up the neutrons. If your mosquitoes are the neutrons, the magnetic field isn’t even chicken wire. If your mosquitoes are charged particles, the magnetic field is better than a solid wall.

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      • I do sort-of understand. (And in part, was teasing because my analogy actually did work in demonstrating why I didn’t understand before.)

        An analogy to show I have some understanding might be the way the sun charges the atmosphere, resulting in better propagation for hf and vhf radio waves when the sun is more active; the more highly-charged ionosphere contains the waves rather like the strong magnetic fields contain the plasma.

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      • I think it would be safer for China to build nuclear fusion plants than coal or fission. The worst thing that can happen with a fusion plant is that it sorta destroys itself and then you’ve wasted a lot of money and are left with a big, ugly pile of mildly radioactive steel (the radioactivity will decay after ~100 years or so).

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      • If only it, you know, worked.

        And this. It would be better if we could provide all developing economies with access to reliable fusion electricity generation. Or even some sort of factory-built small modular fission reactor. But we can’t, and they’re not going to put economic development on hold for 50 years while they wait. So they build dirty, coal-fired power plants because they’re cheap and coal’s easy to haul, etc. Carter’s decision to pretty much put reactor research on hold, reinforced by subsequent Presidents and Congresses, comes back to bite us in the butt diplomatically.

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  3. What happens if something goes wrong? Not in that they do this and fail but they do this and fusion equivalent of the nuclear meltdown occurs. Whats the potential damage we are talking about?

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    • A whole lot of bupkiss Lee. Worst case scenario: A junked pile of enormously expensive equipment and a lot of very unhappy scientists and technicians drowning their sorrows in the nearest pub. Fusion is really finicky stuff, you have to move heaven and earth to get it to happen. If there’s some kind of breach and you lose containment the fusion reaction just goes kaput. There’s no big Hollywood boom.

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    • Fusion reactions can’t “runaway”, no China Syndrome.

      That is not to say there is no danger, a significantly violent loss of containment could cause an explosion and destroy the plant, but not in the Earth Shattering Ka-BOOM kind of way, and no dangerous radiation. And by violent, I mean someone dropped a really big bomb on the reactor and no one was able to press the off switch before it hit.

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      • …and no dangerous radiation.

        On a different level, though, after 30 years exposure to the neutron flux necessary to get commercial amounts of energy out, the containment vessel will have been transformed into several tons of moderately radioactive material that will have to be properly disposed of. One of the purposes of ITER is to find out if the proposed materials for the containment vessel actually behave the way the models predict when exposed to that level of flux. One of the (at least partial) failures that could occur with ITER is that the containment vessel turns out to be good for only ten years instead of thirty. That has an enormous effect on the economics.

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  4. 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. ut 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.

    Is “$20 billion” supposed to impress me? If we can create unlimited energy from an artificial star for less than half the cost of the Sochi olympics, that’s the biggest bargain in history. The cost is not the problem here.

    If only the description of this thing as a super-hot artificial star wasn’t reminding me of Octavius’ device in Spider-Man 2….

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  5. “…the technology could solve the world’s energy problems for the next thirty million years, and help save the planet from environmental catastrophe. ”

    How, exactly, would free energy save the planet?
    Isn’t it more logical to foresee the exact opposite outcome?

    Wouldn’t free energy result in a sudden and massive overconsumption of every single natural resource on Earth?

    Consider the concept of embedded energy, the idea that embedded in every single created item- your house, your car, your clothes, your water, your food- is the energy required for its production.
    Starting with the raw resource extraction, to the transportation, refinement, assemblage, retailing, and final use- the cost of every item contains the cost of the energy. When that cost drops to zero, there would be a sudden and steep drop in the cost of every item- multiplied by the entire length of its supply chain.

    The cost of extracting and refining resources would be virtually free. And as history teaches us, the use of a thing never becomes more efficient as its cost goes lower.

    We would face a world in which the only limitation on our consumption would be whatever horrors are caused by collapsing fisheries, drained aquifers, crop failures, desertification of farmland or climate change.
    But of course, history also teaches us that these horrors would only be visited upon some, while others use their political and economic power to escape.

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    • Fusion power would help get us off this rock. Once we are able to move about space freely, we’ll be better off extracting resources from the moon, and asteroids, and other planets. In a lot of ways, orbital mining will be cheaper than digging around in the earth.

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    • Mostly in the sense of “We’ve really, really, REALLY got to stop getting energy from lighting things on fire. It’s just unhealthy”.

      We need energy, and most of the way we get it is by burning dead plants. Replace that, and while there are still a million problems plaguing the planet — from big to little — you’ve at least knocked off one of THE big ones.

      We can’t get by without energy. At the moment, that means we pollute like crazy — from cars to coal plants. Fusion wouldn’t get rid of pollution, or end resource scarcity — but it’d certainly remove a big problem from the list and let us focus on the next ones down.

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      • And keep in mind that a single fusion plant is not UNLIMITED FREE POWER FOR ALL!!!

        We will still need to build a lot of them (& they will be expensive), and the infrastructure to supply the fuel, etc.

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      • As long as “The Answer” to any problem is “Lets Find A Way To Consume More Stuff, Faster” then we haven’t solved anything.

        Unsustainable consumption of resources- consuming faster than they can be replaced- IS The Problem.

        Fusion power CAN be part of the solution to unsustainable consumption, but if the attitude displayed by the article is any indication, it will instead be the gasoline poured on an already raging fire.

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    • When that cost drops to zero, there would be a sudden and steep drop in the cost of every item- multiplied by the entire length of its supply chain.

      Hallelujah! That sounds great. Unless of course you happen to think that you ought to remain in the minority of the human population who lies without access to modern health care, sanitation, housing and transportation?

      Your argument is straight out of the Malthus/Ehrlick playbook that has been proven wrong time and again.

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    • I think this is over the top pessimism LWA. Sure enormously cheap energy would bring the cost of things crashing down but you’re ignoring the up sides. A lot of that extra consumption would be by people who have very little. A lot of that diminished energy cost would mean that we could do ecologically friendly things would help the environment.
      Collapsed fisheries? With super cheap energy and goods we could develop aquaculture enormously and take the pressure off the fisheries. Drained aquifers? A thing of the past. Cheap energy would mean we’d simply desalinate the water we need. No need to pump it out of the ground. Crop failures? Desertification of Farmland? Same as aquifers. Climate Change? Cheap carbon free emission would punch climate change right in the throat.

      And most importantly of all cheap energy would bring considerable improvements in global standards of living. That in turn would allow the one thing that environmentalist-Calvinists always try to paper over; it’d allow people to achieve a level of affluence where they could start giving a fish about environmentalism. Below a certain level of development humans see ecological sacred cows as simply tomorrow’s meal.

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      • A lot of that extra consumption would be by people who have very little.

        Would it? We’re talking about scientifically advanced, high-technology, expensive fusion reactors. Things that require highly trained personnel to create and maintain and run, and strong infrastructure support in order to be viable, and some level of social-governmental stability to appear worthwhile. Do you really think many of those would be being built in African countries?

        Part of being poor is that poor people live at a much lower level of technology; everybody talks about the spread of cell phones, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Never mind oil – there’s large parts of the world where wood and charcoal are still the primary sources of energy. Even with a major advance like fusion power, distribution would remain a major, major problem. Unlimited green energy would have a far greater effect on the lives of people in already-rich countries than it would have on people in poor countries. (For developing nations that draw substantial income from oil – including Indonesia and Nigeria, two of the most populous developing nations – it would be a disaster. Not that Nigeria’s oil benefits the average Nigerian much, if at all, but you take away the majority of a country’s GDP in one fell swoop and you’re looking at state failure.)

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      • We don’t have to build them all over Africa. They could be built in the few locations where the infrastructure & staff exist to support them. Power can then be transmitted & sold quite easily over wires. Heck, we will figure out soon enough how to broadcast power with acceptable losses over long distances. High tension cross country transmission lines would soon be a thing of the past.

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      • Yes Katherine, the benefits would reach to every corner of the planet. Even in countries where no hint of a hope existed that a fusion reactor would be placed energy prices would plummet. Energy is fungible, it flows. If the first world found a way to produce electricity like this then the price of non fusion energy sources would plummet along with it. Africa might (maybe) not light their houses with fusion but whatever they did use would be much much cheaper.

        And not just energy either, cheap energy means cheaper consumer goods, cheaper agricultural goods, cheaper transportation costs, cheaper recycling costs, all of those benefits would impact every nation connected in any way to global trade (which is to say nearly all of them).
        That’s without even going into the impact on semideveloped industrializing nations like China and India, Lord(Lady?) those nations are just screaming for this kind of power supply.

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      • MRS – You do realize that large areas of Africa, and other developing countries, don’t even have electricity? The infrastructure to access this sort of power simply isn’t in place. Technological advances aren’t automatically going to mean that it appears.

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      • North, all you are proposing is Lets Consume MOAR Resources; the fact that you are substituting sea water for fresh water doesn’t change the equation, it only shifts it in a different direction.

        Lets say that the total quantity of natural resources would skyrocket far beyond the ability to renew them. Sea water is finite, and is already being used by a trillion natural creatures; aquaculture would only introduce the same problems of industrial food production as we have on land to a whole new site.

        What in human history would cause you to think we would exercise caution, foresight or restraint in this use?

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      • LWA, if you take water out of the ocean, desalinate it and then use it to water crops it… ends up back in the ocean. Increased cheaper energy would make all kinds of natural resource recycling processes far more economical. Aquaculture might produce the “problems” of industrial food production into the sea, but if it saves natural fish habitats from being vacuumed en masse into the hungry mouths of seafood lovers that’d be a fair price to pay. We can’t rule out human hunger or suffering by environmentalist fiat. People will strive to consume “MOAR” yes, and the only historical way I’ve seen to temper that is to raise the availability of material welfare to a level where people will start letting other luxuries (like environmentalism) begin appealing to them.

        I just don’t understand hair shirt environmentalism like what you’re preaching here. It’s akin to the hair shirt sexuality of the right wing. Women should be hidden away so that men aren’t tempted to sexual thoughts; economic development should be stifled so that people aren’t tempted to consume more. Worst of all the right wing doesn’t practice their policies on a personal level and in an unhappy parallel environmentalism is rooted in the developed world where people have the affluence to indulge it.

        Improved energy production like this would be good regardless of whether we used caution, foresight or restraint in its use because the people we have on this rock want to eat and they will find a way to using whatever means they have available. Better to provide more efficient cleaner means than dirtier more ineffective means. Also, it is a demographic fact that world nations that have reached high levels of development (and the liberalism that both promotes and then develops with it) see their population growth rates invert to a negative. The only way I see us achieving some measure of harmony with the planets ecology is via improved technology, reduced population and escaping the Terran gravity well to harvest the resources we want elsewhere. Fusion promotes all of those things. The pronouncements of a minority environmentalist luddite faction speaking from positions of unspeakable privilege and hypocrisy strike me as counterproductive to that goal.

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      • Yes, I’ve been to Africa, I’m aware of how undeveloped it is. And we probably don’t want to develop the whole continent anymore than we want to develop the Amazon rainforest.

        What such power would do is allow the cities that exist in Africa to more fully join the first world. They could expand, allow more of the population that is practicing subsistence living to find a living in the cities. Hell, massively cheap power could advance the ideal of being able to provide a basic living for all (power, shelter, 3 squares a day).

        The amount of water in the the oceans is more than you can possibly wrap your head around. The current estimate is that the Earth has over 330 million cubic miles of water (330,000,000)! A single cubic mile is more than 1 trillion gallons of water. Each person in the US (arguably one of the most prolific users of water) currently uses about 80-100 gallons a day. So even using 100 gallons a day, per person, it takes the US a month to consume just 1 cubic mile of water.

        Assuming the whole world used 100 gallons a day per person, 1 cubic mile of water would last the whole world 1.5 days.

        And of course, that water is not lost. It is continuously recycled by the water cycle, evaporating & becoming rain or snow & eventually returning to the oceans via the rivers within a few days.

        So in order to really harm the oceans, the world population would have to expand 2 or 3 fold before we’d really start to affect water levels (and with water levels going up, is that really such a bad thing?).

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    • Wouldn’t free energy result in a sudden and massive overconsumption of every single natural resource on Earth?

      Nope.

      We would face a world in which the only limitation on our consumption would be whatever horrors are caused by collapsing fisheries, drained aquifers, crop failures, desertification of farmland or climate change.

      Not really. I mean, fisheries and aquifers might have a problem, but those would be due to population growth not energy capacity growth.

      Remember: production = free also means that recycling = free.

      People don’t actually *consume* anything. Conservation of matter and energy and all that.

      People take raw materials and turn them into goods and then they consume the goods and produce raw materials.

      The tricky part is the energy cost to turn the raw materials into goods. Once you have free energy, you get free goods.

      Well, unless a new cult behavior arrives where people just want to stockpile city-sized piles of stuff they don’t use and never allow out of their ownership. But I suspect inheritance laws would take care of that in short order.

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