Oil Prices

They’re not going to stop, OPEC is going to bleed the rest of the world for everything they can get. I’d like to draw your attention to this article in the Guardian.

The long and short of it is that OPEC has seen that the worlds economy didn’t totally collapse under the high pricing so they’re going to jack it up some more with additional production cuts.

We need to become independent of OPEC and other foreign sources for our energy needs. By keeping supplies tight, they not only drive prices up but they keep stocks low so that any natural disruption then becomes a major disaster.

In this country we grow our food, transport our food and other goods, with oil. As things currently stand, if we don’t have oil we don’t eat, and most of the folks supplying it to us aren’t our friends. It is best we face up to that and take care of our needs domestically. It’s not that we have a shortage of energy resources here, we just lack the political will to do what we need to do.

Folks, it’s time to ditch the Bronco’s for a Prius hybrid, better yet a modified plug-in hybrid. We have enough surplus generating and transmission capacity on the grid at night to meet almost all of our commuting needs and that would free up a huge amount of energy.

Much of our nations power generation has shifted from coal to natural gas because it’s cleaner and natural gas plants can also be throttled to meet load demand changes better.

What we should be doing now is massively investing in renewables and in bringing controlled hydrogen fusion online. It is something we can do technically, it is only political will that we are lacking.

There are criticisms to both because they raise some potential issues but they are problems that can be solved. First with respect to many renewables, wind and solar for example, there is the fact that the sun is not always shining and the wind is not always blowing. That is true, but by increasing the capacity of our transmission line, geographical diversity can do much to alleviate these problems.

Peak electrical demand does correspond to peak sunlight so that’s not an entirely unhappy variable. Down in the south, solar power generation can provide capacity exactly during those times when air conditioners require it.

No matter what we do, increased energy demand is going to require that we boost our transmission capacity. There is a relatively inexpensive way of doing that, convert existing AC transmission lines to high voltage DC. This substantially increases capacity while at the same time eliminating radiative losses. Eliminating radiative losses has a nice side effect, eliminating increased leukemia risks for those who are located near transmission lines.

High voltage DC has many other advantages in addition to reducing costs for lines longer than 500 kilometers, increasing capacity, reducing line losses substantially, and eliminating low frequency AC electromagnetic fields. In addition to these advantages, high-voltage DC lines eliminate the problem of cascading failures. They eliminate problems of phase synchronization and even allow the interconnection of grids with different frequencies. They are immune to space weather.

The last consideration is one we really should give special attention to because the last solar cycle was the most intense on record but indications are that the next cycle will be even stronger. While this is happening, the Earth’s magnetic field is weakening and appears to be headed for a possible reversal (it’s hard to say if it will became in the past sometimes it’s dropped to zero and then rebuilt in the same direction), but regardless it’s weakening and thus will afford us less protection from what the Sun is doing.

The next solar cycle will peak in 2012, so that’s less than five years we have to prepare the grid for this increased activity. By the way, because I know a lot of people believe the world is ending in 2012, or believe that the Earth will flip on it’s axis, let me make it clear this is only a magnetic flip, not a physical one, and the end date of the Mayan calendar is only a function of the number of digits and the number base used, it’s not any different than saying our calendar will end in 9999, in reality if we somehow manage to survive to that time, we’ll just add another digit, and if the Mayan calendar were still in widespread use I am sure the same thing would happen. Our ability to keep track of time is not a prerequisite for the continuation of the planet anyway.

If we convert our grid to using high voltage DC for all the long distance interties, and increase the capacity (which would be an automatic result of converting anyway), then geographical diversity will do a lot to alleviate the issues of reliability of wind and solar. Long distance interties are really the lines we have to worry about anyway, it takes a substantial length of wire for enough voltage to be induced by magnetic fluctuations caused by space weather to blow out transformers.

The reason that AC lines are affected and DC lines are not is because the transformers that terminate long distance lines have close to zero impedance at DC, so very low frequency voltages induced by space weather magnetic fluctuations cause very high currents to flow through these transformers and burn them out.

On a DC line, induced voltages cause some change of the voltage at the terminating station but the chopper electronics that convert the power back into AC simply adjust for it and no harm is done.

On long AC transmission lines there is also a problem of power phase shifts. If a line is near capacity, the heat causes it to sag more, the longer length of the span increases the distance the current has to travel and introduces a phase shift. With DC lines this is not an issue.

DC lines require less buffer around them and so have a smaller right-of-way foot print. If AC lines are converted to DC, some of that land can be used for additional lines or reclaimed for other purposes.

There are many renewable sources which are more constant in nature. Geothermal produced constant output and we have abundant geothermal resources in the west, and in spite of the comment from someone saying aside from Mt. St. Helens and Yellowstone, they are not proven, that is not the case. The USGS has done drilling and other research projects have been funded. There are also, contrary to popular belief, geothermal resources on the east coast, however, they are much deeper and thus costly to tap.

Another source of power that is more consistent is ocean current generation. Essentially like a wind turbine under water. The ocean currents are much more constant than wind and thus offer a relatively stable source of power.

Other sources of power are ocean thermal, which takes advantage of temperature difference between surface and deep water, and off the western Washington and Oregon coasts where the mid-ocean rift is very close, there are large sources of heat difference that can be exploited.

There is wave technology that simply uses a float riding on the waves, working against something anchored to the ocean floor, to drive a generator and produce electricity. The waves are of coarse variable, but the more diverse our sources the less problematic the variability of any one source is.

To whatever degree we can replace the use of natural gas for electricity generation, that natural gas can be liquefied and used to displace imported crude oil. So without converting our transportation system to electricity or hydrogen power (the hydrogen is generated from electricity) we can still displace imported oil even in the transportation sector. Of coarse one area where we could replace oil directly with electricity is in the railroads, North America being the one continent where this hasn’t been done, and the one that can probably benefit the most from doing so.

It is now possible to find solar panels for under $3/peak watt, last year it was around $5, the year before that around $6. Now the sub $3/peak watt panels are mostly thin film types which do not have the high efficiency of mono-crystal silicon panels, but they still can contribute significantly to our energy needs. Even silicon panels though I’ve been able to find under $5/peak watt new.

Given that oil is going to only continue to go up over time, an investment in renewable energy will only get better with time.

Controlled nuclear fusion has also met with some criticisms but they are based upon outdated information and narrow thinking. The first criticism I’ve heard is that we’re still 50 years away. Presently, we invest only as much money in 20 years as we spend on imported oil in two days, so yes, if we continue investing at that rate it is 50 years away, but it’s not 50 years for any scientific reason, the science has largely been done, these things could be built today.

The second objection, it was claimed that they were too large for commercial applications, around 10GW when the typical nuclear plant is around 1GW (typically two 500 MW reactors). China built the three gorges dam, presently producing 14 GW and they plan to go to 23 GW at completion, and they’re not only getting that power to the grid but transporting it half-way across the country just fine. High voltage DC transmission lines are doing the job. The Grand Coulee dam generates 6.8 GW, we manage to get that to the grid even with old fashioned AC infrastructure.

With hydroelectric projects we don’t have the luxury of locating them where the load centers are. Even with nuclear fission we don’t have this luxury because of the needs for large amounts of cooling water and the safety concerns of locating a nuclear fission plant near a population center. With controlled hydrogen fusion we do have this luxury because we don’t have the risk of meltdown or massive radiation leaks and thus can locate them near population centers without safety concerns. In such an environment, the waste heat can be utilized instead of spent heating up a river. Even in circumstances where it must be radiated, the availability of almost free and inexhaustible fuel make achieving the absolute highest efficiency not quite as important and thus we don’t have to heat a river to get the lowest possible sink temperatures.

The 10GW figure is based on old information anyway. Today it would be entirely possible to build a fusion plant in the 500MW range. The reason for the higher power specifications earlier was because plasma confinement improves with scale, and a certain minimal confinement is required to reach commercial break-even. Commercial break-even is where the energy produced by the fusion is commercially viable after all the energy requirements are considered, that is after you heat the plasma, run the plant refrigeration to cool the magnets, account for thermal and generating efficiency losses, and the over all cost of operation, after you do all of these things you can still generate enough power to be commercially viable.

A few years back, you did in fact need to build a plant of around 10GW to achieve this, given the state of the art at the time. However, improvements in the understanding of the plasma physics, combined with new controlling techniques that use neural networks to dynamically control the containment field, combined with better magnet technology particularly in the superconductive realm which is required in a commercial plant, all of these things have improved enough to where a 500MW plant is now doable, and with a spherical Tokamak design that can probably be reduced to about a third of that.

A Tokamak fusion plant will be capital intensive, although, the same British group (now part of the EU) that designed the START and MAST reactors (both of which outperformed their design specifications) went on to design a 500 megawatt commercial spherical tokamak reactor that would cost less than an equivalent sized fission reactor to build, yet it has not been funded. Once built, the fuel for these is essentially free, or at least so inexpensive that it won’t even be a measurable component of the overall expenses.

I do believe the Bussard fusion reactor, if someone actually will fund a full-sized prototype, has the potential for being several orders of magnitude less expensive to build, and can be physically small and light enough that it will find applications in transportation. Probably not small enough for a passenger car or truck, but definitely small enough for ships, airliners, trains, and large trucks. In a ship you could build the capacity for extracting deuterium from seawater and never have to fuel. Just run the thing until the ship rusts away.

But, the Bussard design needs more development before we’ll know for sure if it will be practical, the Tokamak’s could be brought online as power producers now, not 50 years from now, if only we had the political will.

Green Water?

Green waves at Alki

Ugly Green Waves

Close-up of green water at Alki

Close-up of green gross water.

It wasn’t like this twenty years ago. I used to bring my kids down here and they’d go out in the water. Now it’s just gross as are many other bodies of water in the Puget Sound region. I used to go swim in Green Lake almost every weekend but back then the waters were only slightly green now Green Lake looks like a toilet that needs badly to be flushed.

Nutrients that promote the growth of algae and other aquatic plants choke the water near the surface and block light from reaching the depths starving the deeper waters for oxygen and killing off life there.

These nutrients come from inadequately treated sewage and animal wastes as well as lawn fertilizer. What is more important? Bodies of water we can swim in and life can flourish in, or a nice pretty green lawn? Personally, I’d opt for clearer waters at the sound.

JP said…

“You obviously know what you are talking about regarding Tokamak research. What are your views on Inertial Confinement Fusion driven by lasers?”

I believe that Tokamak fusion could be brought online as a power source feeding the grid easily within ten years and perhaps as few as five if we were willing to make the national commitment (and I do believe that it is in our countries interest to do so).

I do not believe laser driven inertial confinement fusion is likely to be a viable method of generating electricity from nuclear fusion within the next three decades, however, I can’t rule out the unexpected breakthrough.

Here are the reasons for my belief. Plasma physics as they apply to Tokamak fusion reactors are sufficiently well understood that building a reactor that will confine a plasma at the necessary temperature, density, and for the necessary time is entirely doable today.

Until recently there were two large questions that needed to be answered. First, can superconductive magnets be manufactured that could create the necessary magnetic fields for long term plasma confinement?

The second question, what materials hold up to constant neutron and ion bombardment? In addition to enduring the ion and neutron bombardment, it is also desirable to utilize materials with low neutron activation potential to minimize radioactive waste from neutron activated materials when the reactor is retired.

Unlike a fission reactor in which neutron embrittlement of the reactor vessel will eventually necessitate retirement, it isn’t clear that this will ever be the case for a fusion reactor. The penalty for a failed reactor vessel is far less serious in the case of a fusion reactor owing to the fact that it’s not holding tons of radioactive fission products and actinides.

The first question, whether or not it is possible to create a strong enough field for containment using superconductive magnets was answered by the Chinese EAST reactor when it saw first plasma in September of 2006. The answer was an unequivocal “Yes” because the superconductive coils at EAST functioned as designed providing plasma confinement.

Existing test reactors, prior to China’s EAST reactor, used copper coils for confinement magnets. The resistance of the copper winding caused them to rapidly heat up and limited operations to no more than 60 seconds. In addition copper coils waste a huge amount of power. Commercial reactors will use superconductive magnets to allow for sustained operation and to avoid wasting power.

The second question won’t be answered until we build a commercial power level reactor. EAST will be able to do some testing but at a power level of approximately 16 megawatts where commercial reactors will operate at power levels of 500 megawatts or more. One can try to extrapolate but when you’re dealing with a difference in power levels of 30x you really need to be able to test at the higher power levels.

Contrast this to the situation with laser driven inertial confinement fusion. In my opinion, the state of laser driven inertial confinement fusion is approximately where Tokamak fusion was in 1970. There are several major problems relating to laser driven inertial confinement fusion.

The first problem is that because this method relies on the implosion of a fuel pellet, the fuel pellet must be extremely symmetrical, to within a few microns, and the illumination by lasers must be extremely uniform. In practice the necessary uniformity of illumination has not been achievable.

The second problem is that the delivery of energy to the fuel pellet is extremely inefficient. The lasers themselves have proven to be inefficient. The wavelengths that can be generated by lasers at the necessary power levels are not efficient for heating the target so some method of increasing the frequency (decreasing the wavelength) is necessary. Presently, this is achieved through the use of optical frequency tripplers. The end result is that around 1.5% of the electricity used to fire the lasers ends up as useful laser output. Terrawatts of power are used to implode a fuel pellet that would provide the equivalent of a barrel of oil’s energy if all the fuel were fused. The energy economics just aren’t there without massive improvements.

Shortening the laser pulse increases the overall efficiency by concentrating the power during the time it is required for rapid heating and compression of the fuel pellet. But electrical engineering realities make this problematic. Wire has inductance, inductance limits the rate that current can rise. The operation of a laser also requires the presence of an optical resonant cavity; but a resonant cavity limits the sidebands necessary for a rapid pulse rise and fall. A lower Q cavity that would allow the necessary sideband frequencies results in less efficient laser operations. The same problem also exists in the optical frequency trippling device which involves an optically non-linear material and optical resonances.

The output is not consistent from one firing to the next, nor from beam to beam, and this creates issues with the even illumination of the target.

In inertial confinement fusion, the reaction area is extremely small, consequently the heat-load in that small area is tremendous. Tokamak’s represent a much more diffuse energy production source making heat removal less problematic (though still a tricky engineering question). Given that the problem of efficient heat removal is still present in Tokamak’s, the fact that it is many orders of magnitude greater in inertial confinement leads me to believe that it may be an problem for which no solution exists.

Then there is the problem of fuel. The most promising fuel for both types of reactor initially is a mixture of tritium and deuterium because this particular mixture has the lowest energy requirement to fuse. Deuterium is not a problem, one out of two thousand hydrogen atoms in seawater is a deuterium atom. There is enough deuterium to provide for our energy needs for 15 billion years at present energy consumption levels. Granted, those levels will increase and so perhaps it will only last a billion years. But by then I’m sure we can tap extraterrestrial sources of deuterium or perhaps be able to create the necessary conditions for fusion of ordinary hydrogen which is 2000x more plentiful.

Tritium does not occur in nature in substantial quantities. A very small amount is created by the bombardment of atoms in the upper atmosphere by cosmic rays.

In a Tokamak, the reactor vessel will be lined with a lithium blanket which will absorb neutrons and breed tritium in the process, thus solving two problems at once, that of preventing neutron activation and embrittlement of the reactor vessel and producing the tritium necessary for the reactors operation. Tritium also is created by neutrons bombarding deuterium present in the cooling water of fission reactors. There are engineering obstacles to using a similar lithium blanket in an inertial confinement reactor because of the much higher energy densities and heat loads.

In a Tokamak, a burning plasma, that is a plasma in which energy created by fusion reactions is sufficient to sustain the reaction indefinitely directly, is the desirable state, but it’s not absolutely necessary. As long as the output energy from fusion is sufficiently greater than the energy input required to cause it to take place after all the losses are considered, it can be commercially viable even without a burning plasma.

By contrast, a laser driven inertial confinement reaction will absolutely need to achieve a burning plasma condition to get a significant fuel burn because it is just not possible to concentrate enough laser power in a short enough time frame at a high enough efficiency to have a prayer of reaching scientific breakeven much less commercial breakeven otherwise.

In my view inertial confinement fusion is and will only be useful as an inefficient neutron source, and for research for the development of nuclear fusion weaponry. In short, a toy of the war mongers and not a viable peaceful energy source.

On the other hand, Tokamak fusion I believe is very much ready to be brought online. As I mentioned previously, the issue of whether or not superconductive magnets of sufficient strength could be manufactured was answered by China’s EAST reactor.

A second big question was could a diverter, a device that skims helium waste and removes it, withstand the bombardment by ions and neutrons. The primary issue was the heat load that would be generated by ion bombardment which would largely be due to what are known as localized edge mode instabilities. Recently a new technique has been developed that addresses the localized edge mode instabilities.

So with these two major problems largely addressed, there really aren’t any other known major hurdles. There may be some that we won’t know about until we have a plasma operating for hours or days but those will only be discovered with the building and operation of a commercial power level reactor. However, I feel optimistic that the way is now relatively clear.

With all of this said; there are a number of new schemes for producing fusion power that may ultimately prove to be far more economical and flexible than Tokamak reactors. Tokamak’s are by necessity physically large. They are too large and too heavy to find applications in transportation. Perhaps eventually they might be small enough to power say an aircraft carrier, cruise liner, or merchant cargo ship, but not airlines, trucks, automobiles, or even trains.

Tokamaks also probably will never be able to operate with aneutronic fuels. This is because reaching the necessary energies for fusion to occur thermally results in too large of a loss for temperatures higher than what are necessary for D-T fusion.

Other new configurations may allow for a reactor sufficiently compact and lightweight to find applications in transportation. I don’t know if they’ll ever fit in a Delorean but an airliner or train is a possibility.

I believe one of the most promising new designs is the Bussard inertial electrostatic confinement fusion reactor. This reactor uses magnetic fields to confine electrons only, thus creating an electrostatic well. The electrostatic well then confines and accelerates the ions. The beauty of this design is that electrons being much lighter than nuclei can be confined by relatively whimpy magnetic fields. The electrostatic well created then confines and accelerates the atomic nuclei which then collide and fuse.

This unit causes all of the nuclei to have the same energy at the center of the electrostatic well so that it can be tuned to the energy spectrum required for fusion and then all of the nuclei will be within that range. This is much different than in a Tokamak where you can only achieve an average energy but many nuclei will have either too much or not enough energy to fuse and both of these represented wasted energy.

The Bussard design has the potential to achieve fusion with aneutronic fuels eliminating the need for massive shielding while simultaneously allowing electricity to be directly tapped rather than thermally generated. It also has the potential to be made small enough for large trucks, buses, airliners, etc. Unfortunately, it’s development is currently not being funded and I find this to be almost criminal.

Another interesting design is the levitated dipole. This device also has the potential for achieving the necessary energies for aneutronic fuels to be fused, however, I do not feel it has to potential to be compact enough for most transportation applications. It’s really too early to know how much potential it has. The Bussard design by contrast has already been through six generations of test reactors, each one showing substantial gains over the previous.

An alternative to laser driven inertial confinement fusion is particle beam driven inertial confinement fusion. The particles in questions most frequently being heavy ions. The advantage of this over lasers is that a larger percentage of the input energy can be delivered to the target, however, ions being charged particles, have a natural tendency to diverge and not remain in a focused beam and that is a problem.

The Farnsworth fusor uses two concentric grids to accelerate deuterium ions towards the center of the device where a portion of them collide and fuse. This readily produces fusion but, not at sufficient power levels to be of commercial interest. The limitation on power level is the grids which are heated by ions colliding with them. The Bussard device gets around this problem by creating a virtual grid by steering electrons with a magnetic field.

There are numerous other methods of creating fusion at low power levels. Injecting deuterium gas into a nickel cylinder under high pressure results in some “cold fusion” where ions are absorbed into the nickel and fuse. The fusion rate is extremely low, too low for power generation and only marginal as a neutron source.

There is a method of creating some fusion using pyroelectric crystals. Methods using collapsing bubbles in acetone created with ultrasound. All of these do not generate sufficient fusion to generate power. They are useful as a neutron source and to study the physics involved but little else.

Right now, I believe that Tokamak fusion is sufficiently mature to be brought online in the near term. I do not believe any other fusion technology is sufficiently mature to be brought online as soon, but ultimately some of the other methods may prove superior when sufficently developed.

Algae Biodiesel

If the claim made in this video is true, this is very good news. It is claimed that the yield of biodiesel from algae is 217 times as much per acre as from rapeseed, a preferred crop for the purpose in the US. What is more it doesn’t need food producing land nor high quality water.

Scary Stuff

This guy scares me. He writes this long entitled, “A new dawn for nuclear power”.

In this article he states,

“To keep this process under control most reactors require a moderator – usually made of graphite or water because their light atoms are good at absorbing the kinetic energy of the neutrons.”

For those who are not familiar with the operation of a “thermal” nuclear reactor, that is to say a nuclear reactor in which the chain reaction is perpetuated by slow “thermal” neutrons, the function of a moderator is not to “keep the process under control”. The function of the moderator is to slow the neutrons down so that they can readily be absorbed by another U-235 atom and cause another fission. Faster neutrons are not as efficiently absorbed.

Control rods are used to keep the process under control by absorbing a portion of the neutrons above that which is required to achieve break-even (a sustained reaction rate in which each fissioning atom results in exactly one additional fission reaction on average).

So what is scary about this? People who don’t know what they’re talking about write articles all the time. Well here is what is scary.. In the about the author section it states that,

“Paul Norman runs the postgraduate MSc course in the physics and technology of nuclear reactors at the University of Birmingham, UK; Andrew Worrall and Kevin Hesketh are at Nexia Solutions in the UK”

This guy “runs” a post graduate course in the physics and technology of nuclear reactors… I guess this explains a lot about the industry.

I am actually in favor of increasing the use of nuclear fission to provide for our energy needs, provided that it is done right. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that in this country or the UK that has a prayer of happening. It doesn’t have a prayer of being done in this country because flawed economics dictate the direction of the nuclear industry as well as every other industry. The economics are flawed because they do not take into account external costs, such as the real cost of waste disposal or the cost of negative health effects.

The paranoid restrictions on scientific exchange have motivated many scientists to leave this country to pursue a career elsewhere where academic and other freedoms still exist. These restrictions are stupid; even the most primitive countries understand how to make a nuclear weapon.

Accelerate ITER

In light of the worlds pressing energy needs and the demonstration of working superconductive magnetic plasma confinement at China’s EAST reactor, the United States and other member nations should enter into negotiations to accelerate the construction of the ITER fusion reactor.

I also believe we should start work on a second international test reactor project but that it should be of a spherical Tokamak design rather than the conventional design chosen for ITER. The reason for this is that confinement has been shown to be approximately three times better in a spherical Tokamak design of the same size.

A spherical Tokamak presents the possibility of making a reactor that achieves commercial break-even much smaller in size than with a conventional Tokamak designs. This in turn substantially reduces capital expenditures which in turn will make utilities more willing to invest in the technology commercially.

Because ITER is already underway and because ITER will answer important material science questions, I believe it should be completed as is rather than abandoned in favor of a spherical Tokamak reactor.

ITER in it’s current form will take twelve years to complete and then another twelve years of experiments are planned. The amount of money the United States will contribute over the 24 years is equivalent to what we spend on oil imports in two days. This is not the amount we will contribute EACH year, the total amount we are contributing over 24 years is equivalent to what we spend on imported oil in two days.

Controlled hydrogen fusion is the most promising energy source to provide our energy needs in the future. Unlike fission, it produces no significant quantities of long term high level nuclear waste. It has no potential for melt down. And it produces no plutonium or enriched uranium that can be diverted to nuclear weapons or terrorists activities.

Approximately 1/2000 hydrogen atoms in ordinary seawater is deuterium and this is enough deuterium to provide for all of our energy needs for the next 15 billion years. Tritium, which is not significantly present naturally, is also required, however, enough tritium fuel can be bread a lithium blanket and the D-D reactions that do take place to sustain reactor operations in one days operation with just deuterium. So, lacking a tritium supply, a fusion reactor initially powered with just deuterium will take a days operations to become a net energy producer. In reality though this isn’t a problem because we have large quantities of tritium produced for nuclear weapons already and one operational plant can breed tritium for dozens more.

So we should be doing this and we should be doing it as a crash program like Apollo or the Manhattan project, not the current just barely give it enough funding to keep the lights on approach. China built the EAST reactor in nine months. Granted, they had been working on design and component fabrication for years in advance, but it demonstrates how much faster we could move towards bringing fusion online as a power generation source if we were willing to make the commitment.