The Opposite of Cold Fusion
August 26, 2015 1:41 PM   Subscribe

The online edition of Science magazine reports that the private and secretive company Tri Alpha Energy, has built a machine that forms a ball of superheated gas—at about 10 million degrees Celsius—and holds it steady for 5 milliseconds, calling the achievement "a significant step toward mastering nuclear fusion"
posted by Frayed Knot (47 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
Reset the Cold Fusion Claim Clock!
posted by Sangermaine at 1:42 PM on August 26, 2015 [12 favorites]


I know what it means, but calling something that lasts only 5 ms "steady" amuses me anyway.
posted by Greg_Ace at 1:47 PM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Still a lot of work to be done, before I can use fusion power to make a cup of tea...
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 1:48 PM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wow...just 10 yrs away....!
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:51 PM on August 26, 2015 [19 favorites]


OK so I'm not exactly up on my science so hopefully one of you guys can reassure me: these guys aren't going to accidentally melt all of our faces off or anything, right?
posted by Hoopo at 1:51 PM on August 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


10MK (really, at this level, 10MC and 10MK are the same temp) is the core temp of stars only slightly smaller than ours. Ours runs about 15MK. That's a really impressive temp to hit and hold on a millisecond timescale.

Usefulness? I dunno. But it's an order of magnitude better than we've done before, so, hey, a few more of those and you might have something. But you need another order of magintude in temp to get D-T fusion to work. And I don't see it getting us that much closer to H-B fusion, which needs temps in the gigakelvin range, not the megakelvin range.
posted by eriko at 1:54 PM on August 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


2016 will be the year of fusion on the desktop!
posted by Thorzdad at 1:54 PM on August 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


VMWare fusion?
posted by ursus_comiter at 1:57 PM on August 26, 2015


eriko, why do we need D-T or H-B fusion? Given that Proton-Proton fusion happens at a lower temperature, why not use that?
posted by Hactar at 1:59 PM on August 26, 2015


Reset the Cold Fusion Claim Clock!

This isn't Cold Fusion, it's plain old garden variety Hot Fusion.
posted by chimaera at 2:00 PM on August 26, 2015 [13 favorites]


My cats can, on occasion, form spheres of super smelly gas that appear to remain stable while floating in midair. They're invisible and silent... you won't know they're there until you walk into them.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:04 PM on August 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


...why do we need D-T or H-B fusion? Given that Proton-Proton fusion happens at a lower temperature, why not use that?

Proton-proton fusion is a weak process, so it proceeds extremely slowly. D-T, etc. don't have to make neutrons from protons, so they are much faster strong processes.
posted by lozierj at 2:08 PM on August 26, 2015


Nice - the article does a good job making this sort of understandable to the lay reader.

As a side note, I'm sure there are good scientific reasons that they can create a kayak-sized star in an industrial park without endangering the neighbors, but part of me still feels like eeeeeeek.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:09 PM on August 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


The Opposite of Cold Fusion

Warm take-apartion?
posted by zippy at 2:11 PM on August 26, 2015 [13 favorites]


As everyone knows, this means that fusion power will be a practical energy source in 20 years, just as it was 20 years ago.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 2:11 PM on August 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


The Opposite of Cold Fusion

Joy Division?
posted by w0mbat at 2:19 PM on August 26, 2015 [49 favorites]


Ctrl-F : peer. Not found. Fail.

This is a news story about a press release in Science and not a peer reviewed paper. While papers in Science are, on average, impressive and usually point to revolutionary science, I would hold a news story in the same magazin to the same standards as the NYT....on a mediocre day....... especially where large sums of money are involved, like a fusion reactor.
posted by lalochezia at 2:19 PM on August 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


The Opposite of Cold Fusion

Joy Division?


Electrostatic repulsion will keep us apart...again
posted by clockzero at 2:26 PM on August 26, 2015 [14 favorites]


Ctrl-F : peer. Not found. Fail.

Generally I would agree. But peer review requires transparency, which puts many companies into conflict with their ability to maintain a leading edge in the field. Reading the article, there has evidently been a helluva lot of money invested into this company (150 employees!), which means they owe it to the investors not to let Tri Alpha lose any hard-won gains to competition.

These are credible people, the advance is an an entirely believable modest step forward (not some outlandish claim) that is completely in line with their previous achievements and stated goals. So I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Also, peer review is not a magical shield. The stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency papers, arguably the most fraudulent science of 2014, survived peer review.
posted by kisch mokusch at 2:45 PM on August 26, 2015 [6 favorites]


The observation that hit home for me how impractical the proton cycle will be to harness is that volumetrically, the energy output of the Sun's core is about the same as that of the human body. The only reason it gets so hot is that the Sun is so huge and the square-cubed law makes it hard for the energy to get out.
posted by Bringer Tom at 2:46 PM on August 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Warm take-apartion?

I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds. I have invented the....warm take-apartion bomb. Damn thing. There has to be a better name for it.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 2:46 PM on August 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


There has to be a better name for it.

If we were more honest we would call the H-bomb the Depleted Uranium Fission bomb, because that's where 80% of the energy and most of the fallout comes from. But nobody wants to be Father of the DUF bomb, I guess.
posted by Bringer Tom at 2:48 PM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Rename it the DÜF bomb, to make it seem tastier and more classy.
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:00 PM on August 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


But nobody wants to be Father of the DUF bomb, I guess.

Nothing I've done will make me famous, so if the DUF bomb needs an adoptive parent, I'll sign the form.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:05 PM on August 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Good. Now they only have 4 months left to invent Mr. Fusion.
posted by neckro23 at 3:24 PM on August 26, 2015


The Opposite of Cold Fusion

PHP?
posted by leotrotsky at 3:35 PM on August 26, 2015 [9 favorites]


I just want you all to know I enjoyed this site and the conversations, and the birds, skies, oceans and other life forms. Seems a lot of risk to run a toaster, maybe this will run the BF toaster.
posted by Oyéah at 3:39 PM on August 26, 2015


Hey um yeah Russia made the plasmatic, and they shipped it over here. Where is Footbill Ranch, California?
posted by Oyéah at 3:43 PM on August 26, 2015


It's good to see Rage Sphere getting work after Trump forced it out of the race.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:44 PM on August 26, 2015


This isn't Cold Fusion, it's plain old garden variety Hot Fusion.

I think a mere 10 million degrees Celsius still counts as Cold Fusion.
posted by straight at 3:48 PM on August 26, 2015


eriko, why do we need D-T or H-B fusion? Given that Proton-Proton fusion happens at a lower temperature, why not use that?

H-B fusion is nice because the primary reaction doesn't produce neutrons (you still get some from the side reactions, but you can live with that) and neutrons suck.

P-P, as was discussed earlier, is a slow reaction. P-P fusion results in diproton (two protons), which breaks apart almost immediately. For that not to happen, one of the protons must decay into a neutron, creating deuterium and a gamma ray. The odds of this happening are small (not zero, but small). D-T fusion is much more likely to result in usable energy.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 3:48 PM on August 26, 2015


Still a lot of work to be done, before I can use fusion power to make a cup of tea...

It's not that much work. Pick up a few twigs and sticks built by photosynthesis, build a bonfire, boil the kettle. Job's a good 'un.
posted by Devonian at 4:09 PM on August 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


I think a mere 10 million degrees Celsius still counts as Cold Fusion.

Minus the fusion, of course, so really this is just some warmish stuff.
posted by ssg at 4:21 PM on August 26, 2015


If we were more honest we would call the H-bomb the Depleted Uranium Fission bomb, because that's where 80% of the energy and most of the fallout comes from

Well in a ground burst, a whole bunch of that fallout comes from the ground as well -- but yeah, fast fissioning the tamper certainly adds to the "fun." But mostly, the fast fissioning adds to the bang -- typically, 50-75% of the energy release is the fast fissioning of the DU or natural U tamper.

A "neutron" bomb is really just a hydrogen bomb without a uranium tamper optimized for neutron generation rather than blast -- instead of the neutron flux from the fusion stage fissioning the tamper and getting that extra bang, you get the neutron flux flying free.

The Tsar Bomba was originally built with a natural U tamper, they replaced it with a lead tamper before they tested it. If they'd fired it as designed, it would have gone off somewhere around 100MT, not 50MT.

H-B fusion is nice because the primary reaction doesn't produce neutrons (you still get some from the side reactions, but you can live with that) and neutrons suck.

In particular, neutrons make everything into nasty radioactive isotopes that often then decay into worse things. Worse, that often means they *change* into different things. Wow, that aluminum just activated! And it spat out an alpha! That means it just lost two protons! Now it's sodium! AAAH!

Hmm, actually, that turns out to be a bad example -- no isotope of Al just spits an alpha and drops to Na, though there are some that will beta decay and then emit a bonus proton to end up there, and there's a case where they'll emit a beta and alpha and end up as Neon. Congrats, your radioactive metal is now a stable noble gas!

But yeah, H-B Fusion is sexy because we avoid the whole "bomb the hell out of everything with neutrons", which is bad. D-T fusion is fast and easy, but alas, also big on the neutron flux. 3He fusion also has no neutron flux, but we don't have any of that in any real quantity, and while it's possibly that strip mining the surface of the moon might get us enough to be useful, the question then becomes "how much will it cost to get up there, actually mine and refine it, then bring it back, *then* fuse it?"

Hydrogen and Boron are all over the Earth, no need for leaving the planet, strip mining the moon, yada yada yada. We just have to figure out that fusion thing. We should have it figured out in 50 years or so.
posted by eriko at 4:40 PM on August 26, 2015 [8 favorites]


Rename it the DÜF bomb, to make it seem tastier and more classy.

Needs more dog.

Okay, so that was Red Tick Beer, not Düff, but I'm going to shoehorn the reference anyway because it's one of my favorite Simpsons gags.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:59 PM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


But you need another order of magintude in temp to get D-T fusion to work. And I don't see it getting us that much closer to H-B fusion, which needs temps in the gigakelvin range, not the megakelvin range.

If Megakelvin Range isn't the name of a superhero or a porn star, it damn well should be.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:00 PM on August 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Strong the Snark is in this thread.
posted by echocollate at 5:13 PM on August 26, 2015


Well, the Snark could at least deliver fusion. Although the results would be almost, although not quite, unlike tea.
posted by Devonian at 6:14 PM on August 26, 2015


But nobody wants to be Father of the DUF bomb, I guess.

I think the Doof Warrior would be pretty enthusiastic about it if you promised to detonate them with guitars.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:18 PM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Serious question: what is the fusion equivalent of Moore's Law, and what temp/length of time kicks it into gear? In other words, how many months/years from now will we achieve 10ms...then 20ms...etc.
posted by prinado at 7:17 PM on August 26, 2015


Between this and the carbon-sucking front-page post four doors up the page...not a bad day for science.
posted by limeonaire at 7:50 PM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't think there's enough data points to establish a Moore's law-ish prediction. But keep in mind that Moore's Law fed back into industry -- they believed it, and it guided their long term planning, as a sort of self-fufilling prophecy. We don't have enough competitors yet to make that happen with fusion. Or so I believe.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:54 PM on August 26, 2015


Serious question: what is the fusion equivalent of Moore's Law, and what temp/length of time kicks it into gear? In other words, how many months/years from now will we achieve 10ms...then 20ms...etc.

Not being snarky at all here, but the answer is just a few comments up: We should have it figured out in 50 years or so.

Fusion has been about 50 years away for more than 50 years now and will probably be 50 years away for some time to come. I hope this doesn't turn out to be true, but it seems reasonably likely at this point. Harnessing fusion for energy is a very, very difficult problem and there are a lot of aspects that we haven't been able to figure out.

Moore's law is about incremental improvement of something that we fundamentally figured out how to do quite some time ago. We still haven't figured out fusion for energy generation.

This article is about 5ms of stable hot plasma. That's great, but there isn't any fusion going on yet.
posted by ssg at 8:02 PM on August 26, 2015


Damn, pesky high speed neutrons ruining our energy needs.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 8:44 PM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


Why, you unstable ball of carbon sucking hot plasma! A good day for science insults.
posted by Oyéah at 8:56 PM on August 26, 2015


What matters when it comes to fusion is the "triple product" -- so not just confinement time, but also the plasma density and temperature. There's this graphic which argues that the rate of progress in the triple product has actually exceeded Moore's Law. I think that's a reasonable claim, but getting from the lab to a 24/7 commercial powerplant is going to take a whole heck of a lot of work, and may turn out in the end to be uneconomical. Note that this plot is for tokamaks, which are the farthest along and are probably our best bet. Newer concepts like the Tri-Alpha are interesting, but they haven't endured the decades-long scrutiny that tokamaks have, and there have been plenty of contenders in this arena.
posted by Standard Orange at 10:06 PM on August 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


Oh dang, I was going to post the triple-product plot. So instead I'll post one opinion as to why fusion always seems to be "50 years away" despite making sustained progress.
posted by traveler_ at 1:31 AM on August 27, 2015 [3 favorites]


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