Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Holy Wiffleball, Batman!

They say when it rains, it pours. That sure seems to be the case this week. First, we have what looks like an incipient revolution in Iran. Now ... hold on to your hats, boys and girls, because it's looking like the future is about to arrive.

I'm talking about the "Wiffleball" series of prototype fusion reactors built by the late Robert Bussard's Polywell outfit. Classical Values has more of the scoop here.

Now, let's not read more into this than is actually being said. They aren't all the way there yet. There's still a full-scale unit to prove out. There are still a lot of technical details to get done right. But at the same time, let's realize what's actually happening, here.

First: The WB-7 prototype generated results sufficiently interesting for the Navy to spring for a larger and much more powerful device, WB-8. To me, this says that the data to date is solid enough that the Navy thinks this is a line worth pursuing.

Second: The Navy is asking for a conceptual design for a follow-on WB-9 device. This says that if WB-8 does work as advertised, they might want to hit the ground running for the next step.

Third (and perhaps most importantly): The Navy is asking for a WB-8.1 mod that will explore a different reaction than what has been looked at to date. Instead of a deuterium-deuterium fusion reaction, WB-8.1 will run on hydrogen and boron-11. That's key, because while the D-D reaction is easier to start, it spits out stray neutrons as part of the process. That's bad for several reasons. One, neutrons carry energy away that's damn near impossible to recover and use. And two, stray neutrons tend to make things radioactive. But some reactions, such as the one between hydrogen and boron-11, produce no stray neutrons. Not only is more of the energy recoverable and usable, but the reactor equipment and structure will not eventually become too radioactive to use safely.

Fourth: The Navy is asking Polywell to make its p-B11 rig compatible with all future WB prototypes. Well, we can see where this is going.

The obvious reading of the tea leaves here is that the Navy is looking for a replacement for its current generation of nuclear reactors. Makes good sense, really; nukes are damned expensive, aside from being moderately hazardous to run. If you can replace it with an electric gizmo that eats non-radioactive fuel and spits out electricity, that saves you plenty of money and grief over the life of a ship.

As a side benefit, we also get to use this technology dirt-side, to replace all manner of filth-producing power plants. Nuclear, gas, coal, no matter, they all produce something unpleasant as a side effect. This, on the other hand, produces helium. Just helium. Helium, far from being noxious or unpleasant, is occasionally useful. Besides which, abundant clean power changes things. Lots of things.

And as another side benefit ... well, if it works out, a 3-meter diameter reactor looks like it should have a power-to-weight ratio useful for driving a fully reusable surface-to-orbit rocket. And once you're in orbit, in terms of energy you're halfway to anywhere in the Solar System. Cheap, reliable access to space changes things. Lots of things.

I'll keep watching, fingers crossed and knocking on wood, but it sure looks like we're finally moving forward.

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