Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Fusion Is Hot

Says Alan Boyle in his most recent Cosmic Log.

So what's behind the seemingly sudden interest?

Part of the buzz is dictated by the calendar. After 12 years of construction, the world's most powerful laser is finally finished at the National Ignition Facility in California, and VIPs are getting a look at some of the best that Big Science has to offer in fusion energy research.

But part of it is dictated by the hard times we're living in, said Richard Nebel, who heads a team looking at an unconventional kind of fusion technology. "These can be the times when innovation can really take hold," he told me today.

The way Nebel sees it, tough times can spur people to look for unconventional solutions to society's challenges - for example, how to develop cleaner, cheaper, more abundant sources of energy. Biofuels (including algae), wind, wave, geothermal and solar power are all part of the mix, along with better batteries and greater fuel efficiency.

There's a place for safer nuclear power as well, involving fission as well as future fusion - or maybe even fission-fusion hybrids.
Rick has a few more things to say about fusion and his particular efforts in that field.
If fusion is a hallucination, the wildest part of the vision would have to be the project that Nebel and his colleagues are working on at EMC2 Fusion Development Corp. in New Mexico. They're following up on preliminary indications that a relatively low-budget, high-voltage gizmo known as a Polywell fusion device could produce more energy than it consumes - that is, if the gizmo is scaled up to the appropriate size.

Late last year, Nebel's team sent a report about their experiments to their funders at the U.S. Navy. The results were encouraging enough that the Navy is providing the money for follow-up work through the end of this year.

Nebel told me the interim funding was meant to "keep us alive until they figure out what they want to do." Although he was reluctant to go into the details, progress reports posted on the Talk-Polywell discussion forum and the Dean's World blog indicate that the device's design is being tweaked to improve its performance.

"We've been trying to clean up some of the things we know we can do better," Nebel said.

Nebel has long hoped that the technology could be ramped up to create commercially viable fusion reactors - which would cost way less than $10 billion each, by the way. He is still hopeful. "We think that we should be able to go forward with this," he said.

However, Nebel is also reluctant to overpromise. That might not be a bad thing, considering that so many people involved in the fusion quest have been promising so much for so long. The most Nebel will say is that the studies - and the discussions with potential funders - are continuing.
Of course Cosmic Log goes into more details on other methods of fusion being researched. I'm focusing on Polywell because in my best engineering judgment it has the best chance of producing a viable fusion energy system. Especially if the cost of the energy produced is an important criteria.

If you would like to read up on fusion and the standard approaches being researched may I suggest: Principles of Fusion Energy: An Introduction to Fusion Energy for Students of Science and Engineering.

If you want to learn more about what Rick Nebel is up to may I suggest: Bussard's IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained

Why hasn't Polywell Fusion been fully funded by the Obama administration?

Cross Posted at Classical Values

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Still at...

Q << 0.000001

Let us know what that changes?