Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Free Energy Too Expensive

One tokamak over the line?
For decades every geek has dreamed of a world powered by fusion – the conjoining of atoms under intense heat and pressure that, due to the relationship between energy and mass, produces a huge amount of power – the nuclear physics equivalent of a marriage between Donald Trump and Richard Simmons. A constant supply of energy would be available practically for free for the benefit of everyone: since there would be no emissions, there would be no greenhouse gases; since it fed on cheap hydrogen in a self-sustaining way, it would pay for itself; and since it took energy out of the global power equation, it would reduce intenational tensions.

Now, though, after almost 80 years of research, that impression might be trapped in a blind alley. Expenses and technical hurdles threaten to hold up progress on workable fusion reactors, if they don’t send them the way of the flying car, the self-regulating finance market or the cheap, light suspension bridge. A meeting of the governing council of Iter, the world’s largest fusion reactor, could scale back the planned machine. In the face of a combination of cost overruns and huge technical challenges, fusion itself might suddenly be decades further from realization.

While the money – $16 billion – isn’t peanuts, it shouldn’t be impossible to find. Fusion could make its inventors filthy rich and save governments many times their initial investment. That it’s a huge source of clean energy means it would pay for itself in lack of environmental degradation alone.

Technical problems, though, might stymie the project forever. As a research director opposed to Iter’s direction summarizes:

"The most difficult problem is the problem of materials. Some time ago I declared that fusion is like trying to put the Sun in a box - but we don't know how to make the box.

"The walls of the box, which need to be leak tight, are bombarded by these neutrons which can make stainless steel boil. Some people say it is just a question of inventing a stainless steel which is porous to let these particles through; personally I would have started by inventing this material."
Of course if scientists and engineers insisted on solving the most difficult problems before tackling the easier ones, we’d still be poking twigs into anthills to get our dinner. Progress in science is a steady expansion, not a series of giant technological leaps – the physicists who’ve been working on fusion for decades can tell you that.

If it’s funding they need, then $16 billion can be scrounged from somewhere. Hell, that only comes to five years of Merrill-Lynch bonuses. And if the engineering problems prove insurmountable, then fine – but at least we should prove they’re insurmountable before we give up.

1 comment:

M. Simon said...

There is always Polywell Fusion Which is operating on a very small budget in New Mexico and is producing results.

Bussard's IEC Fusion Technology (Polywell Fusion) Explained

The American Thinker has a good article up with the basics.

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

Also have a look at the latest post at:

IEC Fusion Technology