Wednesday, March 11, 2015

(Related Update 4): If we figure out how to harness fusion reactions, the energy game is over

Related update 4: Things maybe starting to get real with the Lockheed project, at least that's my takeaway from this very recent article from Physics-Astronomy. Here are two excerpts backing my point:
 This is an invention that might possibly modify the civilization as we know it: A compact fusion reactor presented by Skunk Works, the stealth experimental technology section of Lockheed Martin. It's about the size of a jet engine and it can power airplanes, most likely spaceships, and cities. Skunk Works state that it will be operational in 10 years.Aviation Week had completeaccess to their stealthy workshops and spoke to Dr. Thomas McGuire, the leader of Skunk Work's Revolutionary Technology section. And ground-breaking it is, certainly: Instead of utilizing the similar strategy that everyone else is using........Skunk Works' Compact Fusion Reactor has a fundamentally different methodology to anything people have tried before.
The one thing here to remind everyone is that Lockheed Martin is not a stupid dude working in a garage. It's one of the world's major aerospace and military corporations. McGuire also understands that they are just starting now, but he says that the architecture of this compact fusion reactor is sound and they will progress rapidly until its final operation in just a decade...
This sounds so exciting, and so massively important, that it's probably best not to get too excited about it.  I guess that's why I've made four posts on the subject. Of course, if it pans out, I'll have exhibited some degree of prescience, I suppose.  And that's would be nice!.

Related update 3 10/22/14:  In reaction to the recent hub bub about Lockheed's announcement about future plans to harness fusion energy, the folks at MIT Technology offer an assessment that provides some serious contrary thought to the issue.  Here's an excerpt from this really interesting article:
But many scientists are unconvinced. Ian Hutchinson, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT and one of the principal investigators at the MIT fusion research reactor, says the type of confinement described by Lockheed had long been studied without much success.
Hutchinson says he was only able to comment on what Lockheed has released—some pictures, diagrams, and commentary, which can be foundhere. “Based on that, as far as I can tell, they aren’t paying attention to the basic physics of magnetic-confinement fusion energy. And so I’m highly skeptical that they have anything interesting to offer,” he says. “It seems purely speculative, as if someone has drawn a cartoon and said they are going to fly to Mars with it.”
Related update 2 (10/19/14):  This story has been making the rounds on some of the science-friendly blogs I frequent, so I decided to aid the cause, so to speak, and share here at OLS.  Looks like some major corporate power (pun intended!) is getting behind the fusion energy efforts in the US, a potentially huge development.  If this endeavor works out for Lockheed, expect other firms to want to jump on board.  And competition fosters advancement.  Anyway, here's an excerpt from a news story at Aviation Week:
Hidden away in the secret depths of the Skunk Works, a Lockheed Martin research team has been working quietly on a nuclear energy concept they believe has the potential to meet, if not eventually decrease, the world’s insatiable demand for power.
Dubbed the compact fusion reactor (CFR), the device is conceptually safer, cleaner and more powerful than much larger, current nuclear systems that rely on fission, the process of splitting atoms to release energy. Crucially, by being “compact,” Lockheed believes its scalable concept will also be small and practical enough for applications ranging from interplanetary spacecraft and commercial ships to city power stations. It may even revive the concept of large, nuclear-powered aircraft that virtually never require refueling—ideas of which were largely abandoned more than 50 years ago because of the dangers and complexities involved with nuclear fission reactors.
Related update 1 (10/9/13):  In a potentially huge breakthrough, US scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) have taken a major step towards the development of nuclear fusion energy.  From an account by BBC []:
The BBC understands that during an experiment in late September, the amount of energy released through the fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel - the first time this had been achieved at any fusion facility in the world...
But the latest achievement has been described as the single most meaningful step for fusion in recent years, and demonstrates NIF is well on its way towards the coveted target of ignition and self-sustaining fusion.
Original post:  Energy can be generated from nuclear processes in two ways: via fission reactions or fusion reactions.  Energy released from atoms colliding and fusing is 4X as powerful than energy released from an atom being split (fission).  More importantly, the material required for fusion reactions is virtually unlimited, whereas the material needs for fission are massively more restrictive, and are comparatively rare.  We already do fission power -- nuclear power plants, for example.  And though scientists can induce fusion reactions, thus far they have a failing track record in terms of developing a method of generating practical fusion energy. Why? Because fusion reactions require the temperature and pressure conditions equivalent to that inside stars, and creating those conditions on earth is an incredibly difficult task.

National Geographic had a very interesting article earlier this week that summarizes the status of current efforts by fusion scientists within the context of declining political support and a relative lack of success.  It's a fascinating account of this important human endeavor and I strongly suggest you check it out if you find this topic interesting.