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July 24, 2014 5:44 PM   Subscribe

The fragments of information that have filtered out make it clear that the building houses one of the largest fusion experiments now operating in the United States. It is also one of the most unconventional. Instead of using the doughnut-shaped 'tokamak' reactor that has dominated fusion-energy research for more than 40 years, Tri Alpha is testing a linear reactor that it claims will be smaller, simpler and cheaper — and will lead to commercial fusion power in little more than a decade, far ahead of the 30 to 50 years often quoted for tokamaks. The Fusion Upstarts.
posted by Ghostride The Whip (37 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Absolutely.
posted by Songdog at 5:50 PM on July 24 [6 favorites]


I think that at this point any rational engineer would give up on tokamaks long ago as being a lost cause. And maybe give up on fusion entirely. But the decisions weren't being made by engineers.

This kind of thing happens: technologies which work but never become practical. (Anyone here remember bubble memory?)

But some of the other approaches (e.g. laser implosion) have gotten short shrift because so much has been invested (and arguably wasted) on tokamaks.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:05 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


commercial fusion power in little more than a decade

No doubt it will also be too cheap to meter.
posted by flabdablet at 6:11 PM on July 24 [15 favorites]


Recent New Yorker article well worth a read to know the deal on the ITER. "..if all goes according to plan, the most complex machine ever built." The "plan" is by international committe driven by politics. Good luck.
posted by stbalbach at 6:11 PM on July 24 [4 favorites]


Sunk costs ... And technologies that show lots of promise and probably always will ...

But seriously ... Based on the complete history of science since the invention of writing, I can say with 99% certainty that the next revolutionary, Nobel-winning breakthrough in energy will be discovered by accident due to a lab mistake or while looking for something having nothing to do with energy.

So we all need to get busy NOT working on this problem.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:12 PM on July 24 [6 favorites]


and will lead to commercial fusion power in little more than a decade

In before 'that's what they've been saying for the last 4 decades'.

Clean cheap fusion power will save the damned world. I just hope we figure out how to do it soon.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:13 PM on July 24 [7 favorites]


If I had research money to allocate, a fair chunk of it would fund Polywell device research, as well as Fusor devices.

Solar power seems a good way to go as well. I'd set a national goal of producing 1 Terawatt of devices per year by 2020, and giving the cells and panels away to taxpayers.
posted by MikeWarot at 6:15 PM on July 24 [4 favorites]


One of the huge problems with a lot of the fusion proposals is that if they work they release huge amounts of free neutrons, which eventually makes the lining of the reactor chamber horribly radioactive.

One of the proposed fusion reactions in the graphic in that article was Boron-11 plus a proton yielding three He4's. That's very interesting, but the big problem with it is that the temperature required will be drastically higher than for other kinds of fusion because there's a lot more electric force to surmount.

ZenMasterThis: it may already have been found. It looks like it should be possible to design reactors based on Thorium 232, which is far more common in the crust of the Earth than uranium. One of the interesting aspects of the design is that they can be made small, and sealed. You bury one in your back yard and it provides you with power for a thousand years or so. When it stops working, you forget about it. It won't leak, and it can't melt down.

At least, that's what fans promise.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:18 PM on July 24 [5 favorites]


Lower cost Solar panels and better batteries. The arpa-e project setup by Secretary Chu is the great unheralded triumph of the Obama era.
posted by humanfont at 6:20 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


Clean cheap fusion power will save the damned world. I just hope we figure out how to do it soon.

We already have clean fusion power that really is too cheap to meter, complete with a planet-wide wireless distribution system, and particularly in the last ten years we've been making excellent progress on improving the receiver stations.
posted by flabdablet at 6:21 PM on July 24 [35 favorites]


Clean cheap fusion power will save the damned world.

Maybe the difficulty explains the Fermi paradox?

What happens if you shoot plasma into a slurry of subcritical liquid fissionables? Could we make something like a turbocharged breeder reactor out of that?

Anybody explore spherical stellarators beyond theory?
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:22 PM on July 24


Clean cheap fusion power will save the damned world. I just hope we figure out how to do it soon.

I am inclined to agree with you; however, when I consider how absolutely shit we are at predicting how technologies will change society, and to what uses they will be put, by whom, and to whose benefit, I cannot have any real confidence.
posted by clockzero at 6:24 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


We already have clean fusion power that really is too cheap to meter

Oh, absolutely. The fast and furious pace of developments in solar energy in recent years has been heartening, and I remember being very pleasantly surprised recently reading about how *mumble* percentage of energy production in *mumble* (my memory is, as usual these days, hazy) was from solar, wind and wave.

I cannot have any real confidence.

I hear you. It is a disease of late middle age that I had hoped to avoid, but I do find myself -- even as I cling to hope -- frequently pessimistic about our collective future these days.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:28 PM on July 24 [2 favorites]


It is only through fission, fusion and geothermal power that we will ever escape the horrible tyranny of the sun!
posted by poe at 6:34 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


What happens if you shoot plasma into a slurry of subcritical liquid fissionables? Could we make something like a turbocharged breeder reactor out of that?

BrotherCaine: IANANS*, but I do know that there is experimental, possibly production work in progress to get more energy from depleted nuclear reactor fuel rods which would be subcritical in conventional applications. Can someone else help with the details?

*I Am Not A Nuclear Scientist
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:34 PM on July 24


*shakes fist at sinister Heliopian cabal*
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:36 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


It is a disease of late middle age that I had hoped to avoid...

But if you've felt like that since you were young, then at some point it flips the other way and you start enjoying life, right? RIGHT?
posted by Behemoth at 6:44 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


Seriously, though- once we re-organize all the matter in the solar system into a giant ring around the sun, all our problems will be pretty much solved.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:45 PM on July 24 [4 favorites]


I'm fond of the General Fusion approach just because I like the idea of fusion driven by hammer blows. Now if you can just replace the pistons with sweating stevedores with gleaming biceps like something out of a WPA poster you'd have something.
posted by George_Spiggott at 6:47 PM on July 24 [5 favorites]


I'm fond of the General Fusion approach just because I like the idea of fusion driven by hammer blows.


Your theme song.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:59 PM on July 24 [2 favorites]


... and will lead to commercial fusion power in little more than a decade

Practical fusion is always just a decade away. Always has been, always will.

Or, in other terms, just 12 Friedman Units.
posted by benito.strauss at 7:21 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Flabadablet mentions Thorium, the fission technology that let me stop fearing nuclear power. Now, I just fear the stupid dirty nuclear power we are using, not the nukes we could have. I don't believe in "clean coal", but I think "clean nukes" could actually be a thing.

LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors in Five Minutes, concise video technical overview) makes sense. Less waste, and what there is will only screw with the next twelve generations if we mishandle it--not the next four thousand, like those complex delicate domed reactors we currently tiptoe around and surround with barbed wire. We can do twelve generations, right? The waste produced is comparable in toxicity to coal and oil waste but without the global warming, and of course there is far less of it; it would fit in a corner of existing facilities and be less toxic. LFTR reactors are not able to blow up or melt down and they use cheap fuel. Worth being reasonably excited about.
posted by ssr_of_V at 7:29 PM on July 24 [7 favorites]


Given the rapid price drop in solar pv and battery tech why bother with Thorium or some other fission technology.
posted by humanfont at 8:18 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


^ Safer, cleaner, cheaper, less attractive business model. It's that last that takes a while to overcome.
posted by notyou at 8:27 PM on July 24 [2 favorites]


Now why might a government want to keep employing lots of scientists who know a great deal about fusion when it's extremely unlikely that fusion power will ever be cost-effective compared to solar, wind, geothermal, wave, and tidal?

...

...

Oh wait, nuclear bombs.

At least, that's the justification for the French investing several billion Euros in fusion science, as told to me by a French fusion scientist.
posted by happyinmotion at 9:24 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


That doesn't make any sense. We already have fusion bombs. So do the French.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:49 PM on July 24


We can't allow a fusion bomb gap with the French, can we?
posted by mikelieman at 12:15 AM on July 25 [1 favorite]


Also, present-day fusion bombs don't look like a Hollywood storyboard artist's Evil Technology wet dream and don't come with fog machines.
posted by flabdablet at 12:20 AM on July 25 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised we haven't found a fusion reaction that works, when there are so many different fusion reactions.

For instance, there is muon-catalyzed fusion. A muon has the same charge as an electron but is 210x more massive. A molecule with muons instead of electrons is then 210x smaller, interestingly. For some molecules, that brings the nuclei close enough that there is a significant probability of fusion via quantum tunneling.

If a nucleus can quantum-tunnel into another and fuse with it, then you don't need high temperatures or pressures.

Deuterium-tritium fusion catalyzed with muons works in the lab. The difficulty is that too many muons stick to the fusion product, a He ion, rather than moving off to catalyze more deuterium-tritium fusions. Muons have a half-life of only a few microseconds, and they're expensive energetically, so you need each one to catalyze several hundred fusions to come out ahead; and they don't quite catalyze enough reactions before sticking.

It *almost* works. If the probability of sticking was 1/3 what it is, it would work. There seem to be a lot of "almost works" cases like this, and it seems surprising that with all of that nothing has panned out yet.
posted by kadonoishi at 12:23 AM on July 25 [2 favorites]


Inertial Confinement Fusion probably has some applicability to nuclear bombs (see: NIF), but magnetic confinement machines like ITER don't. In ICF you're compressing the fusionable material to high densities; in a tokamak the plasma is orders of magnitude less dense than air.

The tokamak concept is the front-runner because incremental but steady progress has been made. (If you ask me, it's a miracle tokamaks work as well as they do, considering how much of the operating region is excluded by plasma physics considerations.) In contrast, most proposed schemes have some fatal flaw and don't go anywhere.

What happens if you shoot plasma into a slurry of subcritical liquid fissionables?

You don't shoot the plasma into it, because this kills the plasma. Instead you'd use neutrons produced by the fusion plasma to drive the fission reactions. This isn't a new idea but the disadvantages are that 1) fusion is much harder to do than fission, so it's putting the cart before the horse somewhat 2) still have to deal with nasty high-level waste. So in the end you get something that's hard and dirty, as opposed to hard and clean or easy and dirty.
posted by Standard Orange at 12:38 AM on July 25 [1 favorite]


I'm gonna have to read up on this liquid lead then.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:16 AM on July 25


I can say with 99% certainty that the next revolutionary, Nobel-winning breakthrough in energy will be discovered by accident due to a lab mistake or while looking for something having nothing to do with energy.

Sadly, it seems this phase of human scientific progress has been more or less exhausted. I have been goofing around for _years_, and have yet to make a major discovery.
posted by Dr Dracator at 2:06 AM on July 25


So in the end you get something that's hard and dirty, as opposed to hard and clean or easy and dirty.

This gives me a funny feeling. I think I need a cold shower!
posted by freecellwizard at 6:05 AM on July 25


benito.strauss, fusion used to be 20 years away. I find it heartening that fusion will be only 10 years away for the next several decades. We may even eventually get it down to five.
posted by Hactar at 7:51 AM on July 25 [4 favorites]


Thorium, alas, is not weapons-proof. (India is going for it in a big way, largely because India has rich thorium deposits but little uranium.) The trouble is, molten salt thorium reactors rely on internally converting thorium to Uranium 233 as the main fissile element. Firstly, you can build atom bombs with U-233 (and chemically separating it from Thorium-233 isn't that difficult). Secondly, there's a build-up of U-232 as a contaminant. This is a very active gamma emitter, so the core of a liquid thorium reactor is going to be rather ... unpleasant ... if anything goes wrong.

The U-232 makes it a bit harder to use uranium bred in Thorium reactors for weapons -- separating it from the useful U-233 is hard, and building bombs with U-232 contaminated fuel is much more hazardous than working with nice, friendly, inert Plutonium-239(!). But it's not impossible, dammit. So you just end up with the U-233 mediated equivalent of a Plutonium economy, which is weapons proliferation central (and a big reason we're not barking up the Fast Breeder tree this decade).
posted by cstross at 8:50 AM on July 25 [4 favorites]


My understanding is that the highly corrosive salts, water solubility of the radioactive fluoride waste products and the toxicity of various chemicals involved makes Thorium reactors extremely problematic from a maintenance, waste storage and lifecycle perspective (refueling and decommissioning). Also as we've seen in Japan and Ukraine when a black swan event happens with one of your reactors in the wake of a badly designed test protocol, or unexpected natural disaster you are just totally fucked.
posted by humanfont at 11:53 AM on July 25 [2 favorites]


Why might anyone want to be training fusion bomb experts when we already have bombs?

Oh, how about for understanding the ones we've got, keeping them reliable, modelling their behaviour, understanding how they age.

Or for building better ones, smaller, lighter, longer shelf life, and able to explode in areas of high background radiation.

Or for building new ones with more specific effects, i.e. what's generally termed fourth generation nuclear weapons.

The US stockpile stewardship programme employs 27,000 people just to look after the bombs the US already has. Maintaining a fusion power research programme is a clear way to increase the numbers of fusion researchers that the weapons programme draws upon.
posted by happyinmotion at 12:30 PM on July 25


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