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February 25, 2014 12:00 AM   Subscribe

A Star in a Bottle. "An audacious plan to create a new energy source could save the planet from catastrophe. But time is running out."
posted by homunculus (52 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
So in the meantime we should look at better fission designs along with renewables where they make sense.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 12:04 AM on February 25 [9 favorites]


In other fusion news: Giant Laser Complex Makes Fusion Advance, Finally
posted by homunculus at 12:07 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Is there a reason ITER is in lower case throughout the piece, including at the beginning of sentences? Neither Wikipedia nor the ITER site do so. Just another quirk of the New Yorker style guide, I guess?
posted by Rhaomi at 12:17 AM on February 25


So in the meantime we should look at better fission designs along with renewables where they make sense.

Nope. In the meantime we should keep doing what we're already doing, which is ramping up energy efficiency improvements (cheapest currently available energy source per watt) and renewables (next cheapest).

Large-scale centralized power generation made sense before mass production really got going. In the 21st century, not so much.
posted by flabdablet at 12:28 AM on February 25 [4 favorites]


Rhaomi: it looks fine to me. Maybe they just fixed it?
posted by edd at 12:47 AM on February 25


After years of disappointing results and missed deadlines, a $5 billion laser complex has now achieved a step that revives optimism that thermonuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun, can one day be harnessed for almost limitless energy.

Fusion researchers have this horrible case of not-invented-here.

We already have a working fusion reactor that supplies more energy than we could conceivably use, complete with many billions of years' worth of fuel already in place and a wireless energy distribution system that covers the whole planet, and yet we continue to fartarse about with trying to build fusion-powered coal plant emulators. But we didn't build that, so it's somehow not cool?

The German experience demonstrates clearly that renewable energy works just fine, even where it doesn't make sense.

I am far more excited by research like this than I am by anything involving the kind of local power concentrations inherent in on-planet nuclear.
posted by flabdablet at 12:50 AM on February 25 [9 favorites]


"the Earth has only one mechanism for releasing heat to space, and that’s via (infrared) radiation. We understand the phenomenon perfectly well, and can predict the surface temperature of the planet as a function of how much energy the human race produces. The upshot is that at a 2.3% growth rate (conveniently chosen to represent a 10× increase every century), we would reach boiling temperature in about 400 years. And this statement is independent of technology. Even if we don’t have a name for the energy source yet, as long as it obeys thermodynamics, we cook ourselves with perpetual energy increase."
posted by weston at 1:14 AM on February 25 [17 favorites]


Flabdablet, your link is 404. Please link again.
posted by Kerasia at 1:18 AM on February 25


It's a weird redirect, this seems to link to the PDF.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 1:23 AM on February 25


This HTML version seems to have a straightforward address that works.
posted by flabdablet at 1:30 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Even if we don’t have a name for the energy source yet, as long as it obeys thermodynamics, we cook ourselves with perpetual energy increase.

We'll be extinct, but maybe our AI offspring will roll around on our Neo-Venus, powered by Sterling engines.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:31 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


And this statement is independent of technology. Even if we don’t have a name for the energy source yet, as long as it obeys thermodynamics, we cook ourselves with perpetual energy increase.

We don't, however, cook ourselves by tapping off some of the energy that already arrives here in the form of high-quality radiation, and diverting it through systems that put it to useful work before it eventually degrades to low-quality heat.
posted by flabdablet at 1:32 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


it looks fine to me. Maybe they just fixed it?

Just checked the source code -- it looks like they're wrapping each instance in a <span class="smallcaps"> tag that isn't rendering properly in my browser (Chrome). Weird.
posted by Rhaomi at 1:39 AM on February 25


From weston's "cook ourselves" article:

The conversation recreated here did challenge my own understanding as well. I spent the rest of the evening pondering the question: “Under a model in which GDP is fixed—under conditions of stable energy, stable population, steady-state economy: if we accumulate knowledge, improve the quality of life, and thus create an unambiguously more desirable world within which to live, doesn’t this constitute a form of economic growth?”

I had to concede that yes—it does. This often falls under the title of “development” rather than “growth.”


I remain dubious about whether such a scenario is in any way achievable.

Sure, we're currently finding out new things at an absolutely enormous rate; disease conditions that were once inevitably fatal are now mere annoyances for some people, for example. But is our overall quality of life (and when I say "our" I'm referring to those of us in the wealthy minority) actually any better than it was, say, thirty years ago? I'm unconvinced.

It's different, but not necessarily better. It's more convenient in many ways, but that convenience has come at a price: when you have to get off your arse less often, your arse gets bigger. When you have to plan ahead less often, your ability to plan atrophies and it's easier to get stuck in ruts. When you can expect to be able to contact anybody you know at any time regardless of where they are or what they're doing, you can also expect to be interrupted and distracted at any time by an incoming call. And so it goes.

I'm reasonably sure that provided we manage to wind back our out-of-control population growth and get our excessive numbers down, global conditions can indeed be made to improve to the point where such suffering as remains is a consequence of personal choices. Beyond that I'm really not so sure. Because for those of us already living in such lucky circumstances, it seems to me, utopia is more a matter of outlook and attitude than knowledge and organisation.
posted by flabdablet at 2:03 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Sure, we're currently finding out new things at an absolutely enormous rate; disease conditions that were once inevitably fatal are now mere annoyances for some people, for example. But is our overall quality of life (and when I say "our" I'm referring to those of us in the wealthy minority) actually any better than it was, say, thirty years ago? I'm unconvinced.

By using the timeframe "30 years", you are somewhat biasing the question by using to short a time frame. We're still in a very deep economic slump and in a world-wide AIDS crisis, and that is going to affect the answer to that particular question but still not tell us much about the bigger picture (i.e. if the question was "are things better now than they have been at many points in the past?", the answer is undoubtedly "yes").

Still, though: I'd say quality of life is much better now than it was 30 years ago. There are many small things that technology have given us that might not seem to matter individually, but in aggregate makes a difference. I can listen to my favorite music whenever I want, I can watch whatever great movies I want to see, I can find out any piece of information I desire. More important than that, I can reach into my pocket and instantly have a conversation with the people I love. I live in a different country than many of my relatives, and 30 years ago my nieces and nephews probably wouldn't recognize me, but today I can Skype with them and have them get to know me. Think of all the people throughout history that moved away somewhere and forever lost contact with their loved ones. This kind of technology might seem unimportant, but it does matter.

In addition, if you're gay or black (or both) in America, the answer to the question "are things better now than in 1984?" is ludicrously obvious. Not that things are perfect, but they're a hell of a lot better.
posted by gkhan at 2:23 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


In 1951, Argentina’s President, Juan Perón, announced that, on the island of Huemul, his scientists had built the world’s first thermonuclear reactor...Perón extolled the reactor, pronouncing it “transcendental.”... [chief designer] Richter had built a concrete bunker, nearly the shape of a cube, which housed a machine that he called a “thermotron.” ...Some physicists suspected that he was a swindler, or crazy—though an American intelligence assessment wondered if he was a “mad genius” who was “thinking in the year 1970.” When public pressure grew for a demonstration, Richter began to act erratically. He made requests for gunpowder, to improve the efficacy of his machine.

"Thinking in the year 1970" is my new favorite term of abuse.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:33 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


you are somewhat biasing the question by using to short a time frame...

Well, that's the time frame for which I have been an adult, so I'm working with what I have.

And I'm not attempting to argue that we are anywhere near the stable-energy, stable-population, steady-state economic conditions contemplated by the linked physicist; rapid global improvement is ongoing. All I'm doing is using my perspective as a white male in a Western democracy whose conditions of life always have been free of most of the structural ills that beset so many, and wondering what scope there could be for ongoing improvement once the rest of us have attained a similarly non-threatening social environment.

I do enjoy life more than I did when I was twenty, but I'm quite sure that's more to do with thirty years of personal maturation than with anything going on outside me. Because despite all the mod cons available to today's twenty year old white males, they don't seem any happier on the whole than I or my peers were.

All I'm really saying is that every technological advance comes with trade-offs, many of which are not initially obvious, and that I suspect that for many of us the cumulative effect of all those hidden downsides is already apparent enough to support a position that human progress, like all other forms of growth, probably has inbuilt limits.
posted by flabdablet at 2:57 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Should be a viable technology in just about 20 years!
posted by thelonius at 4:01 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]


Another thing: in the context of technological progress, thirty years is really not that short a timeframe. It's been less than a hundred years since the US first got an interstate highway system.

Nuclear fusion is a technology that, as thelonius neatly observes, shares with artificial intelligence the property of having been ten years away for the last fifty.
posted by flabdablet at 4:44 AM on February 25


Nuclear fusion is a technology that, as thelonius neatly observes, shares with artificial intelligence the property of having been ten years away for the last fifty.

Thermonuclear fusion has been available cheaply and relatively safely in American households since the launch of Hot Pockets in the 1980s.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:49 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


Smallcaps

That's standard New Yorker style for acronyms -- abbreviations that are typically pronounced as words, like AIDS. Abbreviations that are typically pronounced by spelling out the letter, like DNA in the story's first paragraph are set in a standard size font.
posted by beagle at 5:19 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


We already have a working fusion reactor

um, might I remind you that the sun is a left wing plot and therefore cannot be trusted.
posted by mattoxic at 5:25 AM on February 25 [6 favorites]


Only in the Northern Hemisphere. Here in Australia, it rises on the right.
posted by flabdablet at 5:30 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Is there a reason ITER is in lower case throughout the piece, including at the beginning of sentences?

They're using smallcaps, which may not be transforming correctly in your browser.

I may not understand fusion but I know html so I got that going for me which is oh well uh
posted by ook at 5:36 AM on February 25


also I didn't read the whole thread first did you notice that
posted by ook at 5:36 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]


But is our overall quality of life (and when I say "our" I'm referring to those of us in the wealthy minority) actually any better than it was, say, thirty years ago? I'm unconvinced.

This is because the market is skewed to cater to the ultra-wealthy, who pretty much just want fancier versions of what the 99% have. The rest of it is skewed to keeping a semblance of a middle class lifestyle in the face of shrinking income by making what we've already got cheaper.

Communications and entertainment (phones, TV and internet) have been keeping pace, and to a lesser extent cars by becoming more reliable and fuel efficient and comfortable (and soon to be self-driving).

But the big improvements in quality of life, across all spectrums of income, has been stifled by out of control income inequality. This is the irony of the 1% - by taking more than their fair share, they actually impoverish themselves by denying themselves opportunity for new luxuries and conveniences.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:37 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


um, might I remind you that the sun is a left wing plot and therefore cannot be trusted.

Might I remind you that a swastika may have been an ancient sun symbol?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:47 AM on February 25


MuffinMan: " Thermonuclear fusion has been available cheaply and relatively safely in American households since the launch of Hot Pockets in the 1980s."

Now in New Thermonuclear Mushroom Blast™ Flavor!
posted by zarq at 7:01 AM on February 25


More like New Thermonuclear Boondoggle flavor... let me know when the price of a hot pocket rises into the billions and I'll start paying attention. If the ridiculous amount that's already been spent on this monument to hubris had been spent on thin-film solar R&D instead, spray-on photovoltaic roof paint would now be standard for new buildings.
posted by flabdablet at 7:12 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


Large-scale centralized power generation made sense before mass production really got going.

Umm. . . mass production really got going before the development of industrical-scale electrical power generation. All those textile mills in Dickensian London? Coal-fired steam.

And I'm not really sure you understand the true scale of industrial demands for electrical power. In 2012, aluminum smelters alone consumed over 600,000 GWh of electricity. That's about as much energy as Germany uses in a year. Given that there can't be more than a few thousand such plants in the world--and it wouldn't shock me to learn that it was less than a thousand--that reflects an enormous amount of electricity being directed to a very small number of facilities. This article suggests that an 18% increase in efficiency at the world's largest such smelter would save enough power to run every household in a mid-sized American city.

And you think that large-scale centralized power generation doesn't make sense? How else are we supposed to do it, pray tell?
posted by valkyryn at 7:20 AM on February 25 [3 favorites]


Maybe we need to have fewer, more efficient aluminum smelters? Just because we have large companies today using huge amounts of electricity doesn't mean that's the best way to provide aluminum. People have been arguing for many years that claims like "we have to have large-scale centralized electricity generation" benefit large utilities and their owners. I'm not saying we should be doing one or the other, just that there are alternatives.
posted by sneebler at 7:33 AM on February 25


Another thing: in the context of technological progress, thirty years is really not that short a timeframe. It's been less than a hundred years since the US first got an interstate highway system.

Way less than 100 years.

"Construction was authorized by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and the original portion was completed 35 years later."

Sorry, I'm just that prickly stickler about these kinds of things....
posted by dglynn at 7:41 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


A possible off-track: This thread has gotten me reading a bunch of general fusion articles, especially about other types of confinement. I'm curious if anyone knows about the technologies for getting the power back out of confinement once the plasma has been contained. Normal nuclear plants use steam intercoolers, sometimes several layers, that then run turbines. But usually that starts with hot fuel rods in contact with water. Most of these fusion designs seem to require vacuum containment, which would, at least at that first step, keep intercoolers from working.

Anybody?

Did that even make sense?
posted by wormwood23 at 7:49 AM on February 25


Maybe we need to have fewer, more efficient aluminum smelters? Just because we have large companies today using huge amounts of electricity doesn't mean that's the best way to provide aluminum.

Except that it is the best way to provide aluminum? First, efficiency goes up with scale, not down, i.e., larger smelters can be more efficient if done right. There is an incentive for centralization here. But that increases the demand for power at a single point, making large-scale generators even more important.

But second, the reason we use a lot of electricity to smelt aluminum oxide into aluminum metal isn't because we're bad at it, but because the physical and chemical properties of the compound require it. Aluminum ores have a ridiculously high melting point.* We have already improved the process by which we smelt aluminum--more than once--and we're investigating other possibilities, but we cannot change the physical properties of the material. Wishing that it could be different does not make it so.

I'm not saying we should be doing one or the other, just that there are alternatives.

Only if you count "using less aluminum" as an alternative. Which, I mean, okay, but that's not the argument you were making.

*Which is actually one of the reasons it's so important a metal.
posted by valkyryn at 7:53 AM on February 25 [5 favorites]


I'm curious if anyone knows about the technologies for getting the power back out of confinement once the plasma has been contained.

I think the obstacles to creating a sustainable fusion reaction are so great that physicists and engineers have basically decided to cross that bridge when we come to it. No sense spending time on generation when we don't even have a source yet.
posted by valkyryn at 7:56 AM on February 25


Wormwood, I was curious about that too. The Wikipedia article about tokamaks explains how usable energy can be extracted from the confinement system:
The fusion reactions in the plasma spiraling around a tokamak reactor produce large amounts of high energy neutrons. These neutrons, being electrically neutral, are no longer held in the stream of plasma by the toroidal magnets and continue until stopped by the inside wall of the tokamak. This is a large advantage of tokamak reactors since these freed neutrons provide a simple way to extract heat from the plasma stream; this is how the fusion reactor generates usable energy.
posted by compartment at 8:13 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


>> Large-scale centralized power generation made sense before mass production really got going.

> And you think that large-scale centralized power generation doesn't make sense? How else are we supposed to do it, pray tell?


Just because all forms of energy are interchangeable doesn't mean that there's one unique answer for all our energy production needs. Hell, SimCity knew than Industrial, Commercial, and Residential areas have different requirements. Please don't GRAR up the thread by ignoring the fact that different scale approaches might be appropriate for different sectors.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:30 AM on February 25


Just because all forms of energy are interchangeable doesn't mean that there's one unique answer for all our energy production needs.

Exactly! People saying that we should refocus our efforts from things like fusion power on to renewables and efficiency should remember that. Just because something might be practical for the residential electrical market doesn't necessarily mean anything for industrial applications.
posted by valkyryn at 8:48 AM on February 25 [1 favorite]


And simultaneously it sounds like flabdablet is arguing that there are opportunities for more decentralized energy production that we are ignoring because our history is almost exclusively mega-sized centralized projects. (Apologies if I've mis-characterized your position.)

I just didn't want this to turn into yet-another-argument where all the needles slam from "this is a valid approach" to claims and accusations to be advocating The One True Exclusive Solution.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:09 AM on February 25


I'm more excited about fusion rocket engines, which are also perpetually 10 years away, but seem more likely in the near term just because they don't require industrial-size scaling and sustained output. Hopefully it'll use helium-3 so that we have a reason to go into space (to get more helium-3 of course)

I plan to die on Mars spending my last Dogecoin on an orbiting coffin SO THERE.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:14 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


And simultaneously it sounds like flabdablet is arguing that there are opportunities for more decentralized energy production that we are ignoring because our history is almost exclusively mega-sized centralized projects. (Apologies if I've mis-characterized your position.)

No, you haven't. It just annoys me when people bag on these projects for being a misuse of resources, arguing we should focus on things which are really only relevant to the residential market, when said market is a relatively small portion of overall energy consumption.
posted by valkyryn at 9:32 AM on February 25


there's a GIANT LASER COMPLEX, and the project director is DR. HURRICANE?
posted by crazy_yeti at 9:39 AM on February 25 [6 favorites]


Impossible. Dr. Hurricane was blasted out of the airlock, that time he tried to take over the ISS.
posted by thelonius at 9:47 AM on February 25


How else are we supposed to do it, pray tell?

Bitpower, obviously. Trading in unregulated virtual power shares will completely meet all of our power needs.

We ah, haven't quite figured out how to transfer virtual into real energy, and someone just made off with 32 gigawatts. But there are merely minor technical details- the important thing is that we are the future of energy.
posted by happyroach at 10:30 AM on February 25 [2 favorites]


I plan to die on Mars spending my last Dogecoin on an orbiting coffin SO THERE.

Don't forget to back up your data on your Interstellar Hard Drive first.
posted by homunculus at 10:37 AM on February 25


Huh? No mention of Lockheed Martin Skunk Works/Charles Chase?

Previously

I thought that team had the most promising approach to solving fusion these days. They're working on a trailer-size power plant. They expect to have an operational unit in 2017 and commercial availability in 2022.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:36 PM on February 25


Lairy Hobster - I too was wondering if that would come up. The most promising thing about that announcement was that it came from Lockheed- there wasn't much actual content in Chase's presentation, and there's nothing else out there about the project (aside from dozens of articles rehashing the presentation).

A cynic might say Lockheed was looking to generate some quick interest and quick funding.
posted by stinkfoot at 5:08 PM on February 25


Wasn't it Lockheed that also tried to prop up Eestor's credibility?
posted by flabdablet at 6:39 PM on February 25


Big scary numbers for point loads like smelters are all very well, but they don't equate to a need for centralized power generation. I can see absolutely no reason why the existing grid infrastructure, which mainly exists to take concentrated generation and distribute it widely, could not just as well be used to take widespread distributed generation and concentrate it. Transformers and wires don't care which side the power is coming from.
posted by flabdablet at 6:59 PM on February 25


I can see absolutely no reason why the existing grid infrastructure, which mainly exists to take concentrated generation and distribute it widely, could not just as well be used to take widespread distributed generation and concentrate it.

Efficiency, basically.
posted by valkyryn at 8:31 AM on February 26


So, how is concentrating distributed generation any less efficient than the present practice of distributing concentrated generation?

Consider a model where most residential energy is generated very close to where it's consumed with excess sold to the grid, and where all present centralised generation plants have been replaced with residential- or community-scale distributed generation. Residential and commercial sectors have roughly equal total power demand, so you end up with pretty much exactly as much power flowing upstream through the grid as presently flows downstream.

You're basically trading off the losses inherent in moving your smelter's power source to the far side of the grid against the gains inherent in moving your residential sources to the near side.

In fact, because most commercial power demand is not huge point loads like aluminium smelters, you should end up with a net efficiency gain.
posted by flabdablet at 3:30 PM on February 26


NASA: Fusion vs. Fission
posted by homunculus at 8:22 PM on February 26


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