Archives For nuclear fusion

national ignition facility

Generally, I don’t like making two posts linking to the same source back to back, but in the case of the egregious wall of sophomoric bile vomited by Charles Seife, I’m going to let myself make a rare exception. As written here many times before, making fusion energy a viable power source is hard. Really, really hard. It involves very complicated high energy physics that we’re only now starting to understand. When the first ideas for commercial fusion plants were just germinating, we didn’t have the technology or the knowledge base to accurately map out the challenges and as a result, as the machines, computers, and research advance, we’re only now starting to get a more accurate picture of what it would take to make industrial fusion work. But if you listen to the fact free rants of Seife, the only people supporting the idea of viable fusion are cranks, nutjobs, or naive futurists divorced from reality, and every research project from ITER to the NIF is ran by idiots who have no idea what they’re doing and exist only to waste taxpayer money.

While I’d love to tackle scientific arguments as to why this is the case, Seife presents exactly no factual reasoning behind his obnoxious and snide dismissals. The only science we get is in his critique of cold fusion — which, of course, lured LENR cranks to the comments — before which he presents Martin Fleischmann of Fleischmann and Pons fame as a leading fusion researcher whose zeal for fusion fueled the rest of the field apparently populated by idiots and cranks who convince gullible politicians to waste billions on their pipe dreams. This is like naming a random cancer quack who achieved notoriety with a failed experiment and then arguing that all oncology and basic cancer research is being done by ignoramuses just like him. Not only is this a childish and incredibly ignorant thing to do, but this should’ve alerted Slate’s editors to tell Seife that his column isn’t going to be published unless he can actually get his facts together rather than fume about money and politics and call every researcher in the field incompetent in what reads like an insult comic’s act on amateur night with the punchlines left out of the final product.

If Seife wants to call all of fusion research crap, it’s certainly his right to do so. But as he does, it becomes apparent that his entire argument boils down to "if you can’t make this work right now, you’re all a waste of space and this whole idea is impossible." I suppose this is an easier stance to take than figuring out that fusion research has been funded with a fraction of a fraction of the pittance that governments force themselves to give to basic science or actually studying how all of the proposed confinement and ignition methods work, as well as why milestones are delayed as energy levels go up and reaction times increase. Why bother with any of that when you could just act like a political talk show pundit? Nature doesn’t give a damn about your dreams, hopes, guidelines, or budgets. Basic research like fusion has a solid theory behind it and no amount of foaming at the mouth about time and money is going to make the theory any less solid. Likewise, no amount of unwarranted insults is going to make scientists discover things any harder. If a pop science writer doesn’t understand that, he doesn’t understand how science works.

Last week, I wrote a follow up post on the living alt med conspiracy klaxon we know as Mike Adams and how he sees most of the world around him, i.e. though the standard issue crank goggles. After a furious fit which was written to slime his skeptics by using his nearly non-existent knowledge of science as a bludgeon and parading his 9/11 Truther convictions with the kind of condescension you can only get from those who are so utterly oblivious to what they say in public, they’d try to argue with you that the sky is actually purple, he decided to throw all his energies at the recent retraction of the Wakefield study which spawned today’s anti-vaxers. And to make his point, he decided to once again probe the seemingly bottomless pits of his inflamed paranoia to produce a scathing rebuke of a conspiracy to suppress cold fusion by the agents of the “hot fusion” industry…

There are three steps at being a professional conspiracy theorist. The first is to create some sort of a sinister conspiracy. No surprise there, I’m sure. However, the trick is that the conspiracy theory doesn’t need to have a connection to your field of commercial interest. It need only to exist. If you’ve already used every conspiracy you can think of, create one on the fly. Step two is to find a villain, which shouldn’t be all that tough. Just chalk it up to a big something and its nefarious agents in the media and corporations, and you’ll be fine. You can use the good old standbys like Big Pharma or Big Oil or Big Government and its subsets like military black ops, legal machinations by lobbyists, or just big businesses in general. The last step is to use this conspiracy to attract the attention of people who vehemently oppose anything conventional and eagerly rush to embrace anything contrarian as infallible, and sell them your product using the Galileo Gambit and a quick nod to the conspiracy theory you’ve detailed. This will serve as proof that because you say something seemingly wrong, you should actually be right by the very virtue of being different, just like the poor, oppressed victims of the Big Blank. This, in a nutshell, is Mike Adams’ general business plan.

So how exactly does the great hot fusion conspiracy have anything to do with Wakefield? Well, you see, when the maverick doctor working for trial lawyers interested in suing major pharmaceutical companies and using his work to create his own version of the MMR vaccines, announced his ground-breaking results, Big Pharma tried to silence him for over a decade. Just like the evil scientists working on hot fusion tried to silence a cold fusion discovery by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons by viciously discrediting them to maintain their “hot fusion” monopoly in the apparently booming business of nuclear fusion

The conventional physics community went berserk, attacking Fleischmann and Pons relentlessly, attempting to destroy their character and any scientific credibility they might have held. [Physicists] paraded a gang of “hot fusion” scientists through the mainstream media, telling everyone it was “impossible” to create nuclear fusion at tabletop temperatures. Through a repetition of lies, they convinced the world that Fleischmann and Pons were frauds.

Yeah, that’s a great story and all. The only problem is that it never happened. Scientists did what they do with any claim. They tested the claim that something odd was going on when current was fed through a palladium cathode in heavy water. After replicating the original setup and feeding current to the fuel cell for weeks, there was an elevation in temperature as some reaction was taking place in the heavy water. However, it wasn’t the dramatic 20°C rise reported by Fleischmann and Pons, and teams of experts couldn’t detect the tell-tale signs of fusion. There was no elevation in gamma rays or flow of neutrons in the heavy water. In fact a trial by experts from Brookhaven and Yale found an unremarkable 0.4°C rise in temperature instead. Likewise, the study by nuclear experts in the UK showed no dramatic effects and both teams ruled that the slight interactions in the fuel cell may have been problems with the instruments or the effect of cosmic rays which constantly rain down on us from the upper atmosphere, or in other words, nothing as exotic as nuclear fusion.

But forget all that scientific mumbo-jumbo about peer review and subsequent testing. Our little conspiratorial airhead has no use for those elitist tools of our invisible oppressors. Instead he insists that the only reason a cold fusion reactor isn’t supplying power to our cities today is because billions of dollars were invested in hot fusion technology and tens of thousands of lives hinge on it, which is why Fleischmann and Pons were tarred and attacked so badly that scientists went so far as to shrug at their claims and said they couldn’t replicate the results of their experiment. Their original paper was never even retracted or threatened, that’s how furious the sinister agents of the hot fusion lobby were. Really, at this point I wonder if in math class, when Adams wrote that 2 + 2 = 5 and got points off his work, he blamed his mistake on a conspiracy by Big Math and it’s insidious Big Integer agents in schools…

Despite the constant grumbling of naysayers, tiny budgets and disappointment from impatient media outlets, fusion researchers haven’t given up. Igniting a self-sustaining fusion reaction that produces at least ten times the power that was put into it may be an extremely challenging task, but the rewards would simply be too big to ignore. Today, the next big attempt to kick fusion into high gear is the ITER reactor being assembled by a team of scientists and engineers in the south of France. While other researchers have been focused on a reliable, effective method of ignition, the ITER team is aiming far higher. Their goal is to make fusion industrially viable and provide an effective proof of concept test for utility companies interested in building their own artificial sun.

plasma ball

Theoretically, fusion is much more energetic than nuclear fission being used across the world today and it’s a lot safer. It produces little waste which decays relatively quickly and a fusion reactor can’t melt down because as soon as the temperature drops even a notch below insanely blistering, the process winds down unlike the runaway chain reactions possible with fission. Of course, to contain the kind of ferocious reactions produced by nuclear fusion can strip away the lining of the reactor and searing hot plasma that would register at around 150 million degrees (at this temperature the measurement system is pretty much irrelevant) would need to be cooled to remove helium and other byproducts to keep the reaction going. The materials needed to build the reaction chamber and its supporting components? Stainless steel, beryllium, tungsten and carbon fiber. And of course there have to be enough magnets to keep a firm grip on the device’s churning innards.

Now, you can already hear the skeptics. The project will cost billions of dollars, it will only be done by 2018 or so, fusion power has been promised for more than half a century now and we’re still a long ways away. All the same criticisms leveled at countless complex and time consuming projects. And they are valid to a degree. If you’re going to promise something to the public, don’t look to become a media darling and make claims that you can’t back up in reality. If you’re going to take on a challenging project, make good use of your money. But at the same time, what the skeptics need to realize here is that replicating what happens in the core of a star isn’t exactly like boiling an egg. High energy physics aren’t mastered overnight and if you really want to make a machine that can do spectacular things, it will take time and money. Nature doesn’t give you anything for free. You have to work for it.

The $10 billion being allotted for ITER is not even a drop in the bucket when it comes to the kinds of subsidies and credits oil companies and existing utility providers will get on a regular basis. If we allow even less money and demand that scientists somehow cough up new a working fusion reactor, it’ll take even longer to fulfill the stated goal. When it comes to radical new technologies that push our technology to the limits, it’s a question of how badly we want it, how much effort we’re willing invest and how patient we want to be. And right now, as far as fusion is concerned, our lack of will and determination is disturbingly glaring.