Future of Fusion

It is my belief that the next major source of energy for Earth’s population will be terrestrial fusion energy. I believe that the type of reactor that will become a mainstream source of energy initially will be the spherical tokamak.

A spherical tokamak is a tokamak with a very short aspect ratio. That is to say the height to width ratio is high relative to conventional tokamaks. The ITER reactor being built is not a spherical tokamak, it is a more conventional design and I believe this is a serious mistake. The confinement qualities improve as the aspect ratio of the plasma becomes more circular and thus a short aspect ratio spherical design can provide more fusion for the same magnetic field strength.

There is more operating experience with conventional tokamaks and I believe this is why a conventional design was chosen for ITER. I believe ITER will be completely obsolete by the time it comes online. By that time I expect that the Chinese and perhaps other countries will already have electricity producing reactors in service. It’s too little too late.

While we’ve all been dicking around over where ITER would be build, the Chinese started construction of a superconductive tokamak reactor in February of 2006 and it saw first plasma in September of 2006. Prior to this reactor no superconductive tokamak reactors had been built.

The significance of a superconductive reactor is that the coils that produce the magnetic fields are superconductive and thus create no heat from their operation. Because of this they can operate for indefinite periods. Existing research reactors use copper coils to generate the magnetic field and they overheat with more than a minute of operation so sustained operation is not possible.

ITER was to be the first superconductive tokamak test reactor to allow testing in a steady state operation. The Chinese realize the urgency of the world energy situation and built a superconductive test reactor in seven months instead of waiting the scheduled twelve years for ITER to come online.

I believe the Chinese will rapidly complete the material research that needs to be done and go on to build a full-power prototype in short order. They will work out any glitches in the prototype and then go on to produce commercial power producing reactors on a feverish scale. Meanwhile, contracts for materials for ITER will not even have been bid out yet.

The Chinese will discover reactors with a shorter aspect ratio perform better and so their design will quickly evolve into a spherical design.

It is often stated that the fuel for hydrogen fusion reactors will be so cheap that it is essentially free because deuterium constitutes one of two thousand hydrogen atoms in seawater. There is a small rub however and that is that current tokamaks can not reach the necessary temperature and pressures for deuterium-deuterium fusion to take place efficiently and so a 50-50% mix of deuterium and tritium is used.

Tritium occurs naturally as the result of cosmic ray bombardment in the upper atmosphere but at extremely small concentrations insufficient for commercial exploitation. Instead, tritium is usually bread from lithium which makes lithium a necessary fertile material from which to breed the fuel for fusion reactors.

Lithium exists in the earths crust in concentrations of only 20 parts per billion, and in seawater it is even more scarce having a concentration of only about .17 parts per billion. Presently, the price of lithium is around $27 / 100 grams, trivial considering the amount of energy that can ultimately be obtained from that 100 grams, but as the number of fusion reactors escalates, so will the demand for and price of lithium.

The tokamak design is tremendously expensive and complex. This design requires the fuel be heated to a temperature in which the average kinetic energy is favorable for a D-T reaction to occur. The problem with a thermal approach is that the nuclei all have different energies and many nuclei will either be not energetic enough or too energetic for a reaction to occur. Thus a thermal approach is inefficient.

Some potential nuclear fusion fuel cycles create neutrons, D-D and D-T are among these, and the bombardment of reactor components by these neutrons results in neutron activation rendering them radioactive. They are not nearly as hot as spent fuel, but they still represent a disposal issue.

Other fusion fuel cycles create no neutrons, boron and hydrogen nuclei create only charged products, no neutrons, and thus result in no neutron activation or embriddlement of reactor components.

However, the energy levels requires to achieve hydrogen-boron fusion are beyond those that are obtainable in tokamak reactors at present.

There are alternatives to the tokamak that have the potential for sustaining the necessary temperatures and pressures. One of these is a device called a levitated dipole reactor. The earth generates a dipole magnetic field which contains a plasma at extremely high temperatures with no problem. A recent reactor design involves magnetically levitating a superconductive magnet to provide a similar dipole field. It is believed that this reactor design may be capable of reaching the temperatures necessary for hydrogen-boron fusion.

Another design is one that was invented by Robert Bussard. Basically, this design is based upon the fusor concept but replaces the physical grids with electron clouds held in place magnetically theoretically allowing it to achieve power levels that are viable for commercial power production. Unfortunately, a full-scale reactor of this design has yet to be built, and with Robert Bussard being 78 years old, of ill-health, and without others championing this design, it is likely that it never will be.

Ultimately, one of these designs may replace the Tokamak but I believe the Tokamak reactors will be the first to go online commercially. In large part I believe this is because they are sufficiently capital intensive that existing energy companies can feel secure that they still can have a lock on the energy market.

Long term however, I believe these other designs and perhaps some we haven’t even though of will take their place owing to their ability to operate on aneutronic fuels.

Either way, lithium will become the limiting factor for tokamak reactors and boron for aneutronic reactors based upon proton-boron fusion.

Another option is He3, which is exceedingly rare on earth but less rare on the moon. However, using that fuel source would require a substantial industrial presence on the moon and a substantial space transport system presently not in place.

So overall I think fusion will be a considerable improvement over burning hydrocarbons both in terms of environmental impact and availability, however I don’t believe it’s going to approach free by any means, both because ultimately the demand for lithium will drive the price up and because the reactors will be capital intensive to build even if they are relatively inexpensive to operate.

This if coarse is not to discount exploiting the natural fusion reactor in the sky, however, the density of solar power is problematic for many applications and earthbound exploitation is limited by available land.

I Wish I Had All The Answers

I wish I had all the answers to the worlds problems but I don’t. There are some things I know we’ve got to do if we are going to survive on this planet let alone thrive and find happiness and meaning in our lives.

Some of the things we must do, we must forgive each other. As the old saying goes, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth just leaves us with a lot of toothless blind people.”

We need to find a way to live within our means, this is a lesson I’m learning the hard way in my personal life as my own personal means have shrank considerably. But on a planetary basis, we’re running into this as well, we can only extract so much raw materials and create so much waste before we starve to death while drowning in our waste.

This means we need to recycle everything. The nutrients we extract from the soil, we need to get them back into the soil.

We need to stop depending upon one-way chemical reactions between atmosphere and minerals for our energy needs and shiftp towards energy sources which can be sustained indefinitely.

Even though I have elaborated that I think there are enough hydrocarbons that they could provide for our energy needs for a long time, we’re altering our atmosphere in undesirable ways and we do considerable environmental damage extracting hydrocarbons.

Tar sands are being mined in Alberta Canada, oil (heavy crude) extracted, cracked, and then sold to the United States. It takes a ton of sand to extract a barrel of oil, they extract it in huge open pit mines. This results in a huge amount of toxic trailings. The tar sands are largely below forested land. They have to clear all the trees to get at it.

We’ve got tar sands in the United States as well, huge quantities, but it is deeper and not readily accessed via open pit mining so here companies are experimenting with in situ methods of extraction. These involve heating in some way in order to lower the viscosity enough for the oil to be pumped.

We also have oil shale and extracting the oil from it has it’s own environmental consequences.

We have huge quantities of coal, and it can be processed into liquid fuel, again with environmental consequences.

Bottom line is that extracting hydrocarbons will get increasingly difficult and increasingly destructive to the environment, and burning them is always destructive to the environment, so we need to move on to something else.

We need to find a way to get along, these wars, not only do they inflict tremendous human suffering, but they waste tremendous resources and prevent the international coordination that we need. Today, pollution is no longer a local problem it is global, the same is true of resource exhaustion.

We need to find a way to stop producing crap we don’t need. Our existing economic system would collapse if we did this, there needs to be a way to modify or replace it with something that is efficient for the production and distribution of what we need but doesn’t involve marketing a lot of useless crap and producing that useless crap.

We need to find a way to love each other even with our differences, and respect our differences and accept them. Only if we can start thinking on terms of what is best for the planet as a whole can we make the right decisions for our planet.

Each of us, we’re all connected more than we realize with each other and with every other living thing on this planet, and even perhaps with the things we don’t ordinary think of as living.

Healthy Oceans, Lakes, Rivers, and Streams

The health of natural bodies of water and the entire planets ecosystem is threatened by excessive nutrients entering the oceans and other natural bodies of water. In this article, I discuss one of the sources of those nutrients, fertilizer runoff. In future posts, I will discuss other sources, human and animal wastes, and industrial sources.

Anyone who has lived in Washington has seen the changes to our beaches. Beaches had sand, upon which you could walk, sit, or play. You could wade into the water and see through it down to a depth of several feet. Now the beach is littered with seaweed and the waters are murky brown-green with algae.

An increase in available nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorous has created the increase in algae and other plant materials in the Puget Sound and Pacific Ocean. The sources of these nutrients are fertilizer run-off, human and animal waste, and industrial pollutants.

We could ignore aesthetics, but algae blooms near the surface block light from getting down to any deeper waters, depriving the deeper waters of oxygen. Fish and other life die off leaving huge dead zones. Anaerobic bacteria that make their living by metabolizing sulfur compounds thrive in the absence of oxygen and create hydrogen sulfide as a waste product. Hydrogen sulfide is highly toxic and smells like a fart. Some former mass extinctions may have resulted from anaerobic bacteria creating so much hydrogen sulfide that it killed most land land species as well as ocean life.

You can see more is at stake than simple aesthetics, death by global fart if this isn’t addressed, a mass extinction including the human race. To prevent mass extinction by global fart we need to do two things, stop fertilizer runoff and improve sewage treatment sufficiently that substantial amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, and other nutrients, are not discharged from treatment facilities.

Fertilizer runoff comes from residential and agricultural sources. Fertilizing your lawn then watering it excessively carries nutrients off into storm drains which drain untreated into lakes and streams. Is a green lawn is really worth mass global extinction by fart? Help your grass grow healthy using aeration, a mulching lawn mower and allowing your grass to grow slightly taller.

Only water enough to soak down several inches. Grass roots do not grow deeper than this so additional water only leaches nutrients from the soil, including any fertilizer you added, down the storm drains off to your local stream. If you use a mulching mower so all nutrients consumed by growing grass are returned to the soil, and water properly so that minerals aren’t leached from your soil, you should not need fertilizers.

The practices that allow a grass lawn to grow green without causing runoff also apply to food agriculture. Get onto Google Maps and view an agricultural region such as central Washington state, you will see these big circles, rows and rows of huge circles. These are agricultural fields in which a sprinkler system that consists of a central hub with a long pipe which has a series of wheels supporting it out from the central hub, and has sprinklers mounted on it. It irrigates the land by spraying water as the pipe makes a complete 360 degree turn through the field around the central hub.

This method of irrigation is simple, cheap, and extremely wasteful. Instead of going into the soil where needed, water is sprayed on top. Much is lost to evaporation as the spray travels through the air before it even gets to the crop. Usually, these are just run on timers and take no consideration of the amount of moisture already in the soil and how much the plants actually need.

Over watering causes the water to go past the roots, leaching minerals from the soil as it does, down past the top soil into the clay below and eventually into the ground water where it caries the minerals leached from the soil with it, or it runs off the top into nearby streams. Minerals leached from the soil require replacement by artificial fertilizers.

This type of watering should be replaced by controlled drip irrigation where water is placed directly into the soil and monitored at the depth of the roots so only enough water is provided as needed. This practice eliminates water waste and eliminates mineral leaching. The system is more expensive initially but saves the farmer the expense of unnecessary fertilizer and water. More importantly, it prevents nutrients from entering natural bodies of water.

We need to take these steps to preserve our biosphere which provides us with sustenance.

Sustainable Economy

There are many issues that need to be resolved in order for our survival on this planet to be sustainable over the long run. Some of the major issues are food production, energy production, and waste disposal.

One idea being pursued by some is the idea of intentional communities which are self-sufficient and live directly off the land in a sustainable manner. Use only what you need, produce no waste that can not be re-used, and don’t destroy the top soil at a rate that is faster than it can be replenished and your survival should be sustainable. Initially I questioned whether there was actually enough arable land for the worlds population to be fed without intensive farming, and I’ve come to the conclusion there is.

Requiring the worlds population to radically change their lifestyle to achieve sustainability is guaranteed to fail. A percentage will change for the global good but most will not. Some can not because of disabilities or other medical issues.

I believe that it is possible to design a system that would allow those who wish to continue living a modern lifestyle in a manner that is sustainable from a technological perspective. The problems of sustainable energy production, food production, exhaustion of resources, and disposal of waste are addressable. The major obstacles are vested economic and political interests.

Proponents of intentional communities bypass this problem by bypassing capitalism, becoming self-sufficient. However, they can not entirely financially isolate themselves from world economies because even land, which they require, has economic value.

The rest of us will either have to find a way to get past these vested interests in spite of a broken economic and political system, or fix the system. One major problem I see with the system is that as it is currently structured it requires continuous economic growth with attendant continuous increases in raw materials and energy and continuous increases in waste product.

People borrow money and it is expected that they pay it back with interest. This requires an expanding economy which is accomplished through consumerism. Making and marketing an every increasing quantity of junk we don’t need in order to keep the economic engine growing.

In order to live in a sustainable manner, we need a sustainable economic system that doesn’t require continued growth of the money supply. Credit unions are a step in the right direction, there is still interest but at least that is balance against interest paid.

Another area that artificially drives expansion of the economy is the stock market system. Originally intended as a method allowing people to pool capital to own a business, it has become a giant international online casino. People buy based upon hope of short term gains and then sell. Corporate board members then are pressured to maximize short term value at the expense of long term sustainability.

Republican pressure to lower short term capital gain taxes are misguided, because they will only exacerbate this problem. What are needed are incentives for people to invest for the long term so that board members will start thinking past this quarters results.

Yet another problem is that environmental costs aren’t included in the price of many products and services. Take nuclear fission power, it produces both long term transuranic wastes and short term fission products. Presently wastes are simply stored on-site but at some point those plants are decommissioned and then what? The industry isn’t worrying about this, that happens many quarters out. But it’s a real cost, that if included, would probably render nuclear fission financially prohibitive today. Now, there are ways to actually re-use the transuranic long term wastes leaving only short term wastes. That would greatly reduce that expense, but as long as no economic incentives exist, they’re going to continue doing what they do.

I don’t know how we fix these things but for the rest of us who aren’t going to go live in intentional communities (which as near as I can tell is the modern word for what used to be called a commune), they must be fixed.

The science and technology to fix these issues exist. We know how to build a type of fission reactor that will be a net burner of transuranics allowing us to extract around 20x as much energy from them as was produced during their production, eliminating the long term waste disposal problem and greatly improving our energy situation. We don’t do this because of vested economic interests. It’s much cheaper to continue running uranium through one-shot reactors wasting 95-99% of the fuels energy potential and creating a vast long term waste problem.

We have the science and technology to build nuclear fusion power plants which produce only non-radioactive non-toxic helium as waste and have no potential for melt down or explosion. The only science left to do to make these viable is some material research. The problem of superconductive magnet coils was an issue but the Chinese decided not to wait another 12-years for ITER and solved this successfully on their own.

The only real effort the US is part of at this point in the fusion area is ITER, and we contribute the equivalent of 2-days worth of oil imports over 25 years towards that. This tells you how seriously we aren’t about getting off oil. There are alternate avenues to fusion which could prove much cheaper than the Tokamak route that should be but aren’t receiving serious funding.

Fusion power would provide cheap unlimited energy allowing us to eliminate the need to burn hydrocarbons for fuel. The low cost of the fuel and low environmental impact of fusion power would make it practical to desalinize water on a large scale making desert into arable land. It would make it practical to recycle waste materials that presently are not recycled because the energy costs are too great.

In my opinion, we should have a national crash program to bring fusion online rapidly. In the meantime we should continue to expand other renewables, wind power, geo-thermal, etc.

If we do this it will allow us to greatly reduce our negative impact on the planet. It’s hardly the only thing we know but it’s a major thing.

What can we do as individuals? You can write your congress critters and tell them that we need to get serious about fusion and other renewables and stop killing for oil. We can really look at our own lives and avoid buying junk we don’t need, and where possible buy used stuff that otherwise will go into a landfill, or things made from recycled materials. We can reduce our energy consumption as much as possible.

Food Production

Can anyone point me to reliable data regarding the amount of land required for food production for a human being using various methods and with various diets, modern agriculture verses more natural methods, western diets verses less meat intensive diets verses vegetarian diets, etc? Thank you.

Controlled Nuclear Fusion

In the past I posted an idea regarding a possible way to scale up a device called a “fusor”, a small hydrogen fusion reactor that uses electrostatic forces to accelerate deuterium ions towards the center of the device where a portion of them collide with sufficient energy to fuse releasing neutrons, helium, and energy.

These devices have been around for many years but they only generate a very small amount of energy and consume more energy than they produce. They are useful as neutron sources.

Conventional fusors consist of two concentric grids inside a vacuum vessel to create an electrostatic field gradient to accelerate deuterium ions. The difficulty with this approach is that a large number of ions collide with the inner grid heating the grid and melting it before a usable amount of power can be generated.

My thought was to operate the fusor not as a steady state device but rather as an AC field device such that the charge on the inner grid reverses just as the ions pass it, avoiding collisions.

Dr. Robert W. Bussard came up with another idea to eliminate losses to the grids. He eliminated the grids. Instead of using grids to create the electrostatic field, he has come up with a magnetic means of containing electrons to create a potential well.

Personally, I find Dr. Bussard a bit annoying because he feels the need to attack any competing approaches such as Tokamak, never the less I find his approach interesting and promising.

Here is a video presentation by Dr. Bussard on his machine. It’s an interesting talk if you discount his trashing Tokamak fusion. The large size required for a Tokamak and cost really doesn’t represent a big issue in a nuclear power generating situation because you are talking about power levels of 600 megawatts or more an a large machine is required just for heat load considerations.

The video describes the evolution of the machines they built and how they kept addressing various issues with each generation and eventually on the last attempt created a machine that produced fusions at 100,000 times the maximum achieved by Farnsworth with his fusor. At that point they ran out of funding.

My feelings on the Tokamak reactors, particularly the spherical Tokamak reactors have the ability to make power commercially economically, the majority of the science is done for Tokamak reactors and the scaling laws are known. They will be too large to be used in portable applications such as powering trains and planes and ships and spacecraft.

This technology is not quite as ready but this system may be able to work for these applications. They believe that at a size of 2-1/2 meters these can produce power even with a PB11-proton system which is aneutronic (produces all charged particles, no neutrons). A deuterium-tritium system can be around 1-1/2 meters. Still too big for a DeLorean but small enough for large aircraft, ships, trucks, trains, and spacecraft.

The spacecraft applications are incredible, this technology could make trips to Mars and even outer planets practical.

Ultra Capacitors

A lot of hype has been given lately to ultra capacitors. They are a new type of capacitor that can theoretically achieve energy densities similar to or even surpassing lithium ion batteries.

The creators of these capacitors hope to replace chemical batteries in everything from laptops to cellphones to electric vehicles. Electric vehicles in particular they claim will benefit because they say ultra capacitors can charge and discharge at higher rates thus allowing more effective regenerative braking.

It is my opinion that much of this hype is overblown. There are issues that I think will severely limit ultra capacitors applications. Chemical batteries maintain a relative constant voltage across the majority of their discharge curve. A lithium ion cell using a graphite anode is typically just under 4 volts fully charged and just over 3 volts fully discharged.

If you had a 4 volt ultracapacitor, it would be 4 volts fully charged but 0 volts fully discharged. At 3volts, you’d only have used 44% of it’s capacity. So to use an ultracapacitors full capacity you have to have equipment that can operate over a wide voltage and current range (because the current will have to increase as the voltage decreases to maintain the same power level).

The advantages of ultra capacitors, their high charge and discharge rate capability has been duplicated in advanced nano-particle based lithium ion batteries. There are lithium ion batteries in production today that can be fully charged in 3 minutes and charged to 80% of their capacity in one.

Present day ultra capacitors do not have the longevity one would expect from a capacitor, down to about 80% of their initial capacity after 1000 charge / discharge cycles.

I’m not saying ultra capacitors aren’t a useful technology, but I do not believe they will displace chemical batteries in all applications like their manufacturers would like to suggest. Rather I think the hype is mostly “investors give us your money” crapola.

Battery Technology

There are many new competing battery and super high density capacitor technologies (ultra capacitors) emerging that promise to make electric vehicles truly viable.

See this article on ultra capacitors as an example of one of these new technologies. These articles often talk of ultra capacitors as if they are equivalent to batteries except that they can achieve ultra high charge and discharge rates.

I am skeptical with respect to the technology described in this particular article because it depends upon changing the dielectric to allow the ultra capacitor to hold a charge of several thousand volts. The problem with this is that what allows these high capacities to start with is a very high surface area electrode with a very thin layer of dielectric insulator. The thicker the dielectric, the less the capacitance and the less total surface area can fit in a given volume. But to withstand high voltages the dielectric has to be thick.

There is another aspect of ultra capacitors that make them a problematic replacement for a battery. A chemical battery maintains a relatively constant voltage across the majority of it’s discharge cycle. An ultra capacitor does not. This means that whatever circuitry feeds power from the ultra-capacitor to a load also needs to dynamically transform the voltage and I’m not really sure how that would be done.

State of the Union

I am so tired of Bush coming on television and telling us the economy is rosy and we must persevere in Iraq.

The economy is NOT rosy. They manipulate the core inflation rate by excluding housing, fuel, and food, the things which are essential to our existence and which have inflated in cost the most.

The economy is NOT rosy. They fake the unemployment figures by not counting what they call “discouraged workers”, those that have been unemployed so long that they have dropped off the unemployment roles.

The economy is NOT rosy. They talk about the number of jobs created, but they don’t tell you they are exceed by the number of workers looking for jobs or that the jobs are largely minimum wage service jobs that nobody can live on.

Bush continues to try to tie Iraq to terrorism even though the CIA has stated that there was no credible link between Iraq and terrorism. The invasion of Iraq has created a whole new generation of terrorists where none existed.

The figures for American deaths in Iraq is bogus. They act as if 3,600 families having lost their children for oil company profits is not tragic. Many more Americans have died than that. If a soldier is seriously wounded, they fly them to Germany right away. If they subsequently die in Germany, they are not counted as an Iraq fatality. Supply line and security, were outsourced in this war. More private citizens in these functions have died than soldiers.

Iraqi deaths don’t count. Estimates range upwards of a million Iraq deaths. In addition to military action, some have starved, or died from heat because electricity to run air conditioning was cut off. Iraqi people died from disease when clean water wasn’t available. People will have to live out the rest of their lives paralyzed or with missing limbs.

This war has created terrorists, destabilized the middle east, reduced Iraqi oil production driving the cost of crude up worldwide, and killed and maimed countless people. But we must stay the course, kill and maim more people, keeping the price of crude, and oil company profits, high.

The truth is the economy is in a serious world of hurt. The fed is caught between raising the interest rate causing an already failing economy to collapse, and not raising it causing foreign investors in the dollar to lose faith in our currency and divest causing the value of our dollar to plummet, and if that were to happen we would not be able to buy the oil we have become dependent upon.

To resurrect the economy we must cease the military adventurism and rapidly eliminate our dependence upon foreign fuel. There is no reason we should be dependent upon foreign fuel. We actually have vast oil reserves in the United States. At one point we did not have the technology to extract oil from oil shale or tar sands, but there are processes now for doing both at under $15/barrel and our oil shale deposits exceed all of the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia several times over.

We also have vast deposits of sour heavy crude, like that in Venezuela. Our refineries are not build to process this oil however. That needs to be remedied. If I were king we’d have a substantial import duty on foreign crude and refined products to encourage the oil companies to build the necessary refinement capacity and shift dependency to domestic sources.

Another source of oil we have is deep deposits under granite capstone, as predicted by the abiotic oil theory. We have super giant fields in the Gulf of Mexico and in Utah. They require drilling some five miles down through granite to tap, but we have the technology to do this.

The Russians became the worlds second largest oil producer, and for a short while the worlds by drilling for this abiotic oil. China has recently discovered abiotic oil in Viet Name and North Korea. This abiotic oil is found under inverted bowl shaped granite formations which trap oil rising from the earth’s mantel below them.

There are many alternatives to oil that can meet our energy needs, and for the sake of avoiding the climate on Venus, we should be vigorously pursuing these.

We need a change in direction. We need to take the money we’re throwing at Iraq, bring our people home, and put that money into energy independence.