Friday, October 17, 2014

How Long? Not Long...

I've been keeping an eye on fusion research for quite some time. Some thirty-odd years ago, I made a short list of developments that would figuratively keep the wolf from our door. There's no particular order to them. As I saw it then, our key long-term problem was resource exhaustion. It's still our key long-term problem. There are three things that can solve that problem if they arrive soon enough. Back then, I saw the first as cheap access to low Earth orbit. I still think that's important ... but I also think that we'll basically get it for free if we get the other two items. So today's list gets pared down to two: high-temperature superconductors, and controlled fusion.

Modern civilization is electrical power. That's a gross oversimplification, but it's nonetheless true that given enough economical, clean power, a lot of our problems go away. Not all, not by any stretch of the imagination, that's an unfortunate consequence of human nature. But just about any resource-based problem you can name can be either greatly reduced or even eliminated if you can throw enough power at it. Water shortage? Cheap desalinization fixes it. Emissions? Plentiful clean power fixes it. And once you take those two off the table, that buys us time to deal with what's left.

High-temperature superconductors are a force multiplier. Most of the power we generate -- about two-thirds of it -- vanishes between the generator and the user. This isn't due to sloth or inattention. This is a fundamental physical fact. If you push one ampere of current across one ohm of resistance, you lose one watt of power. Two amps, four watts. The power lost is equal to the square of the current times the resistance. High-tension lines run at scarily high voltage on alternating current, so that they can reduce the amperage to as low a value as possible. And even with some of the country's best electrical engineers having worked on it for a century or more, a two-thirds loss is the best we've been able to manage. Now, replace those power lines with a high-temperature superconductor. The resistance drops to zero. So do the power losses. At a stroke -- without adding any extra generators -- you triple the deliverable power. And that's before you get to the other things superconductors can do for you: better electric motors, better generators, better everything ... except heaters. The guy who tries to use superconductors to make a better electric heater is going to be a sad, sad man.

Controlled fusion is the other key. We're getting into a resource exhaustion problem to begin with because everything we try to extract power from runs out on us. Coal, oil, even radioactive isotopes will run out on us eventually. Fusion power relies on hydrogen, which is the most abundant element in the entire Universe. Something like 95-99% of everything you see when you look up at night is hydrogen. It is, therefore, something we're extremely unlikely to ever run short of.

Virtually limitless power will change ... well, just about everything.

This is what makes Lockheed's announcement this last Wednesday so important.

For the last decade, several teams have been investigating odd corners of plasma physics to try to find a better way to control the fusion reaction. I've written several times about the Polywell project, founded by the late Robert Bussard, and they had some promising results from 2007 to about 2010, when they went dark. They're still working under a Navy contract, I think. But there were other approaches, too: dense plasma focus, inertial confinement, field-reversed configuration, Z-pinch ... one of them was bound to pay off sooner or later.

The announcement didn't have much detail. What Lockheed said is that they'd build a small reactor within the year, and have a prototype for a 100-megawatt model within five.

First, what this says to me is that the Navy is their primary customer. That's the right size to be a reactor replacement for the Navy's submarines and carriers, but it's also the right size to re-engine their frigates and destroyers. The Navy would like to start putting things like railguns on their surface combatants, but they don't have the power available to do that yet. This will change that.

Second, this is a project Big Oil won't be able to stifle. The small guys, like Bussard's old outfit, they could bully or stymie. Lockheed is the DoD's biggest supplier. If there's anyone that can tell Big Oil to help themselves to a tall, cool glass of SHUT THE **** UP, it's probably Lockheed, the DoD, or both.

Third ... we're close. Real close. I've always said fusion would be the transformational game-changer. We've never been closer to it becoming reality. It won't change everything, and not right away, but fission power will become obsolete overnight. The knock-on effects are going to be tremendous.

There does remain the possibility that it won't work. There's always that chance. I don't think it's very high, though; they wouldn't make such a public pronouncement and stake the company's name and reputation on it unless they were pretty damn sure of their success.

By the end of the decade ... we'll know.

And our world will never be the same.

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