Sunday, November 18, 2007

Steam Fusion

There are some really strange fusion reactor designs going around. This is beyond strange. Fusion is going to be ignited by 200 steam pistons all acting in unison. Really. The Financial Post has the story.

Where nuclear fission produces electricity by splitting apart atoms -- a process that can release enough energy to level cities -- fusion is exactly the opposite. It works to join atoms together, a process that also produces enormous energy.

But it is exceedingly difficult to achieve because it involves melding together the protons of two atoms that naturally repel. The only way to do it is to create a shockwave in a sphere that will press together the atoms in the centre with extraordinary pressure and temperatures of 100-million degrees Celsius.

Sustaining those conditions has proven impossible in the nearly eight decades since fusion was first proposed as a theory. The world record is the production of 16 megawatts of power for less than a second, and the most intensive global effort to beat that mark is a hugely expensive one. ITER, a recently formed international research and development project whose partners include the European Union, Japan, China, India and the United States, plans to build a fusion reactor in France with a budget of 10-billion euros, a construction time of 10 years and no ambitions to produce marketable electricity.

Mr. Laberge believes he can build a functioning prototype fusion unit for $50-million in half a decade, and produce commercial electricity with a $500-million reactor. General Fusion has already raised $1.4-million this year, and has pencilled-in commitments for another $5-million to $6-million as part of a financing campaign.

He is not crazy. Although he has not described his successes or methods in refereed publications -- "basically because I really don't like writing papers," he says -- some of Canada's leading fusion physicists say there is no reason to doubt he has achieved fusion.

They do, however, question whether he can succeed.

"What he has done is not enough because everybody can get fusion. It doesn't take anything," said Emilio Panarella, a long-time fusion scientist with the federal government who now runs Ottawa-based Fusion Reactor Technology, Inc., and has his own backyard project to solve the fusion puzzle.

"But the objective is so important that any enthusiastic person that joins this race is to be applauded not reprimanded."

Mr. Laberge himself is strikingly upfront about his own somewhat modest successes. In well over 30 tries, he has created fusion in only seven, and each produced an infinitesimal amount of energy.

Not only that, it now takes him a week between attempts. For fusion power to work, he needs to be able to make an attempt once a second. He figures that a bigger machine that produces compression with steam-powered pistons, instead of the bits of exploding foil he currently uses, will solve those issues.

But for that to work, he will need to make steam-powered pistons act with space-age precision. For atoms to stick together, they need to be hit with a perfect compression wave that will come from all sides of the sphere at exactly the same time. It is akin to compressing a balloon without letting it get misshapen -- except Mr. Laberge has to synchronize the compression from 200 different pistons in one-millionth of a second.
They failed to mention the spinning metal hollow liquid sphere which gets injected with Deuterium before every shot. That is a neat trick all by itself.

As one of the critics in the article pointed out - any one can make fusion. The real trick is to get more energy out than you put in. And not just a little more. It has to be in the 5X to 20X range to make it viable.

Still, as the critic pointed out, such enthusiasm is a good thing.

My favorite these days is still the Bussard Fusion Reactor.

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