Burning Saltwater

There is hype coming from some chemist at Penn State University that claims a serendipitous discovery that salt water; when irradiated with radio waves; burns.

This is dumb people; it’s not going to power your cars or your homes. All that has been discovered is that salt in water is conductive; and radio waves induce radio frequency currents in conductors, thus causing electrolysis, the emission of hydrogen and oxygen; and that hydrogen when burned in a stoichiometric mixture with pure oxygen burns damn hot, about 1700 °C hot; but it doesn’t generate more energy burning than the energy put into breaking the water down in the first place.

There are real energy solutions out there; this isn’t one of them. If you want to make energy from water; the way to do it is first to separate the water containing deuterium molecules from the rest of the water. This can be done through repeated distillation because the water with deuterium molecules has a higher boiling point.

Next electrolyze the water to get hydrogen, deuterium, and oxygen. Separate the hydrogen from the deuterium, any number of possible ways that this can be done; since the mass to charge ratio for deuterium is twice that of ordinary hydrogen, it’s not real difficult.

Now, take the deuterium and put it in a spherical tokamak with a lithium blanket; add a strong confining magnetic field; some heating current; and in a some D-D reactions will take place; you’ll get some protons, some tritium nuclei (proton+two neutrons), and some neutrons. Some of those neutrons will collide with the lithium and create more tritium nuclei.

After about a day there will be enough tritium generated for D-T reactions to predominate and at this point the reactor becomes a net producer of energy and continues to breed tritium from lithium.

The Tokamak science is understood well enough now that we could build such reactors if the people really in power didn’t oppose their construction. But the banks and oil companies have a lot to lose. The oil companies built platforms costing billions of dollars that take decades to recoup the costs; almost free environmentally friendly and unlimited energy would undo that. And the banks that loaned money to build these things don’t want that to happen either.

An alternative; build a Bussard reactor and use boron and hydrogen as the fuel; much cheaper (about 100x) in terms of capital expense; much more efficient as the energy can be drawn directly as electricity; and much cleaner; no neutrons means no neutron activation; no neutron embrittlement. The Bussard reactor requires no superconductors magnets, no exotic rare earth materials, and no extensive shielding, it can’t explode, melt down, and it neither produces radioactive waste nor requires radioactive fuel.

The Bussard reactor is much smaller than a Tokamak but still too large for cars; probably too large for trucks, but possibly could be fit in a large airplane, and definitely in in ships and trains.

These are some ways we can get large amounts of energy from water; we can get much smaller but still substantial energy from water by taping it’s latent heat or motion. We can build devices that generate energy based on the temperature differences between deep and shallow water, or between water and the air above it. We can tap energy of it’s motion by using undersea turbines, or tidal energy by damming inlets; or by taping wave motion by using a float and a anchored objects relative motion to generate electricity.

But we won’t get any net energy gain from bombarding saltwater with radio waves and burning the gas that results; always we will get less energy than we put in this way. Perhaps if we all throw some salt over our left shoulder the Penn-state chemist will go away.

Category: Future

4 comments on “Burning Saltwater

  1. The problem with the Tokamak is that to get net energy out they have to be big. 17GWe big.

    The biggest electrical plants built these days are 1 GWe. The most common size is under 100 MWe.

    The Tokamak is a dead end.

  2. I’m not sure if you work for the oil companies or only work on out-dated information but the information you have is incorrect. It was correct half a decade ago but there have been significant advances in three areas all of which have made it possible to make Tokamak’s much smaller.

    The first advance is the use of artificial neural networks to dynamically adjust the confinement field; the neural networks learn and adjust to the dynamics of the plasma much better than older static algorithms did.

    The second advance is that a method of eliminating edge-mode instabilities was found that eliminates heat loss caused by instabilities allowing the outer edge of the plasma to contact the containment vessel. This not only improved confinement but also reduced damage to the containment vessel and diverter and reduces the heat load on the diverter considerably.

    The third major advance is that the strength of magnetic fields achievable with superconductive magnets has improves, and superconductive magnets are necessary in any commercial reactor because of sustained operation. The Chinese EAST reactor has proven the superconductive technology.

    These things combined allow a reactor which achieves more than an order of magnitude over break-even to be built at power levels under 600Mw, and while 100Mw might be typical of a coal fired plant; 600Mw is typical of a nuclear fission reactor and there are generally two or more reactors at most plants.

    But then going to a spherical tokamak further improves the confinement product by a factor of about 3.5, allowing still further reductions in size.

    In terms of the Tokamak being dead; it is quite competitive with fission power now; even without considering that the fuel is nearly free, and only some activation products are present as waste and not high level long lived actinides. But consider those advantages and it is very competitive, save for big oil and fission interests desire to kill it.

    However; what will render it unattractive is if the Bussard reactor is brought to maturity. It should reduce the capital expenses by two orders of magnitude, can use aneutronic fuel, and using aneutronic fuel power can be converted directly to electricity with no thermal conversion at efficiencies approaching 85% which is about twice that of the very best thermal plants.

  3. The problem with all this talk about a functional Tokomak is… where is the Tokomak? Where is the Bussard reactor? I WANT these things to work — and am quite concerned about the transitional decades between an oil economy and the post-oil world.

    But after many, many false starts and outright hoaxes, once bitten twice shy. Should we count our chickens before they’re hatched? (Trying to think of another corny polemic, but am worried I’ll do so till the cows come home).

    When are they building the Bussard reactor? With solar and wind farms sprouting up all over the place, I can’t believe “big oil stopped it” theories to explain away why fusion isn’t already powering our world. If the Tokomak worked, why are they building another enormous 15 billion dollar test-prototype? Why is fusion still “40 years away, and always will be?” They’ve been tinkering with the Toko forever. As Bussard said, if fusion is going to work, at least we’ve funded the Toko and found that it doesn’t work. Time to move on.

  4. I’m all for wind farms, but as opponents are quick to point out, wind blows some of the time and not all of the time. Some people don’t want it in their back yards.

    Your argument seems to be though that because it hasn’t been done we shouldn’t do it.

    With respect to the Bussard reactor, I would recommend you view this video:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1996321846673788606&q=bussard+reactor&total=4&start=0&num=10&so=0&type=search&plindex=0

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