Friday, December 23, 2016

Alternative Fusion Power - Still Underfunded and At-Risk - Sees a Tenth Project Launched

23 December 2016

If you've been following my posts on fusion power, you'll know that I've been tracking nine alternative fusion reactor designs. 

I do check the news semi-regularly to see what's new, and due to the fact that almost nobody anywhere is investing in fusion power research, there usually isn't much to be found. However, on today's search, I found good news. The US Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (Princeton was Dr. Einstein's old hangout) is now planning to move ahead with a spherical tokamak design, which, due to being shaped more like a cored apple than a doughnut, will be about half the volume of a tokamak (click here for link).

Now, I suspect that Mr Trump plans to take us back to the stone age in science, in which case, this project could be at risk (thankfully, there are nine others). 

Ten Alternative fusion reactor designs and associated companies/sponsors

§  Levitated Dipole Experiment (MIT “plasma pinch”)
§  Compact Spherical Tokamak - Tokamak Energy Ltd. - spherical tokamaks + high-temperature superconductors (see also “Spherical Tokamak” PPPL below)
§  Colliding beam reactor - Tri Alpha Energy Ion beams - aneutronic fusion power.
§  Polywell - EMC2 company
§  Magnetized target reactor (acoustic fusion) – General Fusion (Richmond, British Columbia)
§  Dense Plasma Focus - LPP Fusion
§  Compact Fusion - Lockheed Martin (Skunkworks)
§  Sheared Flow Stabilized Z-PinchUniversity of Washington & Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (added by L. Hunt)
§  Spherical  Tokamak - US Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) – announced 16 August 2016 (added by L. Hunt)

I do favour government funding of fusion power research, as the trillion dollar plus investment is and will remain a barrier to entry in the marketplace, and basic science is one of the areas where government spending has often produced positive results (the government did bring us the internet and almost every basic advance in computer science, not to mention the space program, multiple lifesaving medical treatments, etc.). 

On the private side, Lockheed Martin has a great little compact fusion reactor design, but I don't think it's a funding priority there either --- they've published nothing since 2014. 

So, commendations to the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL)! And maybe it's time to cut the whole ITER project and rethink the design of that white elephant (it will be useful for research, but it WILL NOT ever be a prototype for a commercial fusion reactor)..........

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Something Happened in 2001 --- and Nothing Shows It More Clearly Than the Gold Price

27 October 2016

Gold attained its intraday high price of $887.50 USD per troy ounce in early 1980, after climbing from its (fixed) 1934-1968 level of $35 in a steady and exponential march. From 1980 - 2001, the gold price didn't really do much, except mostly fall. I hope that even to the naive observer, however, it is evident that something changed in 2001 --- and that was central bank experimentation with money printing and ultralow interest rates that is unprecedented in all of human history (combined with a series of out and out crashes --- not yet done --- that have wracked the inflated markets and made mainstream investors increasingly insecure). 

After peaking in September 2011, the gold price fell until December 2015 --- and this occurred because market participants believed the moneyprinting and low/negative rates were working to boost the economy. 

What is now becoming apparent is that moneyprinting and low rates actually create a trickle-up economy, in which funds flow to those who can afford to borrow and leverage up at low rates and speculate. Investment in truly productive projects has remained neglected --- almost stagnant --- while speculators occupy themselves with paper gains, stock buybacks, leveraged buyouts encumbered with unpayable debt, showpiece projects (Trump Towers, anyone?) and other unproductive or even destructive misallocations of capital. 

Live 24 hour Gold Chart

This post is just meant to be a heads-up. The moneyprinting and free money don't actually make the economy grow... they just take it off-track in unproductive dead-ends. If I'm right, then, from here, gold is headed much, much higher than its 2011 peak of $1934 USD. Decide for yourself. I've made my decision....

Saturday, October 15, 2016

ITER Is NOT the Only News in Fusion Power Development --- There Are Nine Alternative Projects That Are Equally or More Interesting!

15 October 2016

I fully support the development of the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) Project, located in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, France. We have spent almost nothing on fusion power development over the past half-century (the US, which is the largest player, has invested only about a billion dollars a year, and presently spends less than that annually). 

By way of contrast, over the past decade, there has been a $50 billion per year investment in hydrocarbon fracking in the US alone. I maintain that had we put that one trillion dollars into fusion power development, we'd have working prototypes today. 

Watching this recent (well-produced) video reinforces my conviction that almost nobody understands the unique challenges and opportunities posed by the task of figuring out how to contain fusion power and make it work on earth. This video offers the "standard line" on the ITER reactor, which is the world's most expensive and most advanced fusion power project --- but almost certainly not the "best." 

As pointed out here, ITER is presently projected to cost $20 billion (it was originally priced at $5 billion), and let's round that up to $50 billion, just to allow some leeway. As noted, that amount is only one year's investment in hydrocarbon fracking in the United States alone. In other words, this project is not an over-priced albatross (I think it is "too big," but that is a separate problem). 

Rather, the fact that ITER is now 12 years behind schedule is simply another piece of evidence that our species is extraordinarily unfocused in its efforts to develop the only technological strategy that offers hope of powering the electrical grid for, say, 10 billion humans around the world, 10 or 20 years or so down the road from now. 

The Joint European Torus (JET) experiment in the UK is another large-scale, "mainstream" fusion project. It was originally developed by EUROfusion as a prototype for the larger ITER project. In turn, a DEMO project is intended to provide power to the grid --- though far in the future. 

I have so far identified nine much smaller, alternative fusion power development programs now underway in the world (one of them, General Fusion, based in Richmond, British Columbia, in Canada). 

I argue that ITER should be much more richly funded than it is, as should the nine alternative ("small") fusion power projects currently under development (see below):

Alternative designs and associated companies

        Levitated Dipole Experiment (MIT “plasma pinch”)
        Compact Spherical Tokamak - Tokamak Energy Ltd. - spherical tokamaks + high-temperature superconductors
        Colliding beam reactor - Tri Alpha Energy Ion beams - aneutronic fusion power.
        Polywell - EMC2 company
        Magnetized target reactor (acoustic fusion) – General Fusion (Richmond, British Columbia)
        Dense Plasma Focus - LPP Fusion
        Compact Fusion - Lockheed Martin (Skunkworks)
        Sheared Flow Stabilized Z-Pinch – University of Washington & Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (added by L. Hunt)
        Wendelstein 7-X - Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) in Greifswald, Germany (added by L. Hunt: one of 11 operational stellarators, two more planned)

I have provided links to each of the nine projects I have identified (seven are from Fusion Wiki). I encourage the interested reader to explore all nine. 

For the super-motivated reader, check out the World Nuclear Association progress review, or examine this very exhaustive (US-focused) summary of fusion projects and resources from the US Department of Energy: Fusion Energy Sciences Research Summary

In my view, fusion power development is so important that all of these projects should be running ahead of schedule, rather than running behind, and certainly not lying dormant (as some are). Fusion is the future, and for some reason, we're not getting ourselves ready for it......

Recently, I came across a great article by one of the technology leads at ITER, which offers the best overview I've seen so far about what fusion power is and why it is the answer to the power needs of a world soon to support ten billion humans (I think that's too many people, but it's a fact I accept). 

The author --- Sir Christopher Llewellyn Smith - understands the theoretical context of fusion power in a way that no one else does. Here's a little information about him, from Wikipedia.

Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Smith points out that the release of energy from a fusion reaction is ten million times greater than from a typical chemical reaction (both hydrocarbon and solar technologies produce power through chemical reactions). It is also 3-4 times more energetic than fission power, and dramatically safer (down the road, boronic (or aneutronic) fusion produces an electrical current without emitting neutrons or any other dangerous radiation, promising perhaps the ultimate power source for life on earth).

I suggest a simple strategy going forward.

Fusion power is too important NOT to develop. Every scientifically-defensible fusion power project currently under development should be richly and fully funded, which will enable us to learn rapidly what works and what doesn't work. 

I'm a liberal libertarian in political philosophy, which, in brief, means that I see a role for government primarily in infrastructure development (with corresponding limited interference in markets). There is no infrastructure more important for humans at this time than fusion power. Thus, I am wide open to whatever public-private partnerships can be struck (and I'm totally fine if some bold investor or group of investors is richly rewarded for making an early investment in fusion technology --- this is why capitalism works and nothing else does). 

I've written before that perhaps only a half century down the road, we will have advanced sufficiently in bringing forward fusion power, artificial intelligence and robotics that we will be forced into a post-capitalist society (and I write this as an avid proponent of capitalism as the only viable economic system for the management of scarcity). But with the moving forward of these three technologies, we will see the end of scarcity, and thus the need for the development of a new post-scarcity economics

We'd be wise to begin thinking about it now, but also to magnify greatly our efforts to get ourselves there! 

23 November 2016: Here is a link to a very friendly video on fusion power that is easy to follow and exceptionally well-produced. This video will also help you understand why we may end up mining helium on the moon: Fusion Energy Explained – Future or Failure.

Ten Septillion Planets, Moons and Smaller Bodies in the Universe Could Support Life

15 October 2016

I've been counting galaxies for quite a few years now, as the scientific consensus on how many of them there are keeps expanding. Only two to three years ago, the official estimate was that there are about 100 billion galaxies in the universe. Then a new Hubble image revealed more galaxies than we expected, bumping the estimate up to somewhere between 100 billion and a trillion. Remember, that's galaxies we're talking about, not stars. Now the estimate has been bumped up again --- to two trillion galaxies.

As we know, our galaxy has 300 billion stars in it or so, and our neighbour, Andromeda, with which a merger is planned in about 5 billion years, has 600 billion stars. One of the new factors in this estimate is that there are going to be relatively more galaxies with only, say, a billion stars in them. On the other side, some are also far larger than Andromeda... an elliptical galaxy can hold 100 trillion stars (making it 300 times larger than our galaxy).

So, if you multiply the number of galaxies times the average number of stars in a galaxy, you certainly get a really big number. One generally accepted rule is that the average galaxy may hold 100 billion stars (only 1/3 the size of our galaxy). Then, if you multiply 2 trillion times 100 billion, you get roughly 200 sextillion, which is 2 followed by 23 zeroes.

Now the most interesting question in my view is whether there is life in the universe. We now believe that almost all stars have planets, and let's be conservative, and give them 5 planets each. That yields 1 septillion planets, or 1 followed by 24 zeroes. Our planet happens to have life on it... and we haven't ruled out that some planetary moons, asteroids and comets --- of which there are many --- may also support life. So let's multiply the number of planets times 10, to get 10 septillion bodies that could possibly support life (that is 1 followed by 25 zeroes).

In summary, all we really know is that there are a lot of places where life could possibly exist. We do rule out galactic centres. Not only are they crowded, but they are filled with dense radiation that almost certainly will make life impossible. Also, supernovas emit massive amounts of radiation, sufficient to eliminate life on nearby planets or moons, so you have to factor that in (our planet is at risk from Betelgeuse, which is familiar to us as Orion's right shoulder).

So you mostly have to consider the galactic suburbs to identify areas that could support life, and areas of lower stellar density are probably going to be friendlier... which tells us that moons or planets supporting life may not be that close to each other. Still, bottom line, everything we're learning about the universe tells us that we're very unlikely to be alone... It's just that we're also very unlikely to be near to other stars that also support life! I personally favour keeping our very imperfect species alive, and that does increase the chances that we may find other life forms.

Now there is also the question of whether the advanced life forms are friendly or not. On that question, I have no answer. We're not necessarily that friendly ourselves! However, regardless of their threat level, it's probably still to our advantage to find them first. Once that has happened, we'll most likely have at least several millennia, and very likely a few million years, to figure out what to do about it!

As an aside, the classic text, Intelligent Life in the Universeby Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii, remains the authoritative reference on the topic of life in the universe, despite its seeing its 50th anniversary of publication (1966) this year! (Thanks to Dr. Jon Culbertson for providing a tutorial in this text at New College of Florida in 1969). 

Monday, March 07, 2016


7 March 2016

A couple of months ago, I took an online political quiz that classed me as a “liberal libertarian,” a phrase I had not previously heard, possibly because I'm pretty sure there are very, very few of us (most prominent libertarians are socially conservative, and I'm not). As a consequence of my way of understanding the world, on political issues, I both agree and disagree with almost all, if not all, of my friends, on one major point or another. Fortunately, and very much like me, my friends are for the most part a tolerant and independent-thinking lot. Nobody has unfriended me for my outlying political views – to my knowledge, at least.

The above said, there are real-world politicians with whom I am considerably more than 50% in accord, and at the top of my list would be such names as, in Canada, Tommy Douglas (by chance a fiscally conservative socialist; probably my ultimate political hero) and Paul Martin (a fiscally conservative political liberal who advocated and ran balanced budgets), and, in the US, Ron Paul and David Stockman (both somewhat socially conservative libertarians). Internationally, I am very much in accord with the thinking of Muhammad Yunus and Hernando DeSoto, though neither is a politician, per se.

Those I almost never agree with include such diverse persons as Donald Trump on the right (no wonder he keeps failing at business, except during episodes of “bubble” economics), Paul Krugman on the left (who invariably favours more intervention in markets when less is almost always what is needed), and most all extremists of the right and left, from the National Front and the Ku Klux Klan on the right to the Communist Party and the kleptocracies of Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Greece on the left. Oh yeah, I probably have many points of difference with other liberal libertarians.... That's how it goes, isn't it!
In brief, what do I believe?
1. Building and maintaining social and physical infrastructure is the first priority of government (and thus, government is legitimate, in that it acts as an arbiter of competing social interests). This is a focus that is distinct from regulation (governments use regulation to create jobs for bureaucrats, so it always gets overdone everywhere, as bureaucrats seem to exist to create more jobs for other bureaucrats). I also look askance on efforts of government to intervene in most aspects of public affairs, particularly in markets and in establishing or maintaining social norms. I do consider the rule of law to be a legitimate component of infrastructure, based on the principle that all human lives are equally valuable, and also that private property and free trade are the ultimate foundations of social security and financial health.

2. Governments should spend less than they take in – always. The balance should be set aside as a fiscal hedge for unanticipated future events. This also means that government spending is not useful as so-called “fiscal stimulus” (it fails in that respect every single time). However, of the funds that governments spend, the priority should continue to be #1 above – social and physical infrastructure, which means that no one is without food, shelter, the protection of the law, and access to equitable health and educational services.

3. Science is the ultimate arbiter of material truth. Even if science were to come at odds with religion, I would choose science 100% of the time, though this has not stopped me from being religious. There is a very large domain on which science by necessity must reserve judgement, from the randomness of the quantum realm, to the unknowableness of first causes (or, if you prefer, the mysteries of acausaility). Science leaves ample room for the practice of religious faith, in my view. I am a universalist in the sense that whatever creator we all respect or worship in our diverse ways, that must be the very same creator. Thus I strive to be respectful of religious views different than my own, and I shun religious teachings that divide versus unite (which is not to say that I accept religion as a justification for any kind of political oppression).

4. Following from #4 (based on the principle that science yields the best approximation of the truth that is achievable), global warming is real, and the current spike in global mean temperature is caused by human activity. Both climate change and human population growth threaten ecological diversity and the carrying capacity of our planet. However, secondary to this, solutions to ecological problems have to happen in the real world. I'm impatient with my friends who want to tax carbon emissions (that just employs more bureaucrats), shut down pipelines, or otherwise constrain the carbon infrastructure, when we presently require carbon energy to keep our power grid running. Additionally, I'm not “against” renewable power, I just don't regard it as a replacement for carbon. As I'm sure all of my friends know, the fusion scientists are telling us that they're ready to build prototype fusion power generators now. We have spent enough on fracking in North America in the past decade alone to have gotten many competing fusion prototypes up and running by now (honestly, we could have done this – albeit more primitively – 2 or 3 decades ago if we’d been properly focused). I favour continuing to use carbon energy until we get fusion going – it’s just that we need to light a fire under our fusion power development program. As an aside, what an opportunity it would be for Canada to choose to be the global leader in fusion power development. (My interest in space exploration is entirely apart from the issue of our threatened global habitat, except that having non-Earth settlements is a safeguard against catastrophes in a universe that is catastrophic in its very nature.)

5. I could go on from here. For example, I think problems in public morality (for example, the “right to life” issue, which is an example of a social problem that lacks any kind of “ideal” solution) should be settled by a “marketplace” of private donations, outside the government sphere. Thus, the best ideas could compete for the most charitable donations. In my ideal world, government would be small enough that the private charitable sphere could be much larger and healthier than it is today. Regarding taxation, I favour a simple flat tax. Everybody would pay 17% (or so) on all income, from the poorest to the richest, and there would be no deductions or complicated tax codes (though there would be social infrastructure to safeguard the poorest). Government revenue collection departments could thus be all but shut down. I regard foreign military intervention as the most likely to fail of all international actions we can take, and thus reserve military deployment primarily for cooperative and multimodal international responses to the systemic victimization of vulnerable peoples, particularly in situations of lawlessness. I favour keeping other countries liveable over bringing people here (though that is a last resort for humanitarian reasons), and observe that most of the world’s current hotspots are unstable precisely because of excessive past military interventions (including weapons trading). Specifically, we had no business attempting to undermine the Russians in Afghanistan, Saddam in Iraq, Qaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria, and so on. I would terminate the war on drugs immediately and fund addiction treatment as a component of social infrastructure. Nor would I populate the prisons with persons involved in the drug trade (which would cease to be profitable with decriminalization). 

I also believe that good infrastructure has many secondary economic advantages. For example, in Canada, if the TransCanada Highway were divided (dual) coast to coast, we’d be dealing with lower accident and injury rates. I would also prioritize the completion of a real coast-to-coast TransCanada Trail, suitable for walking, skiing and biking every foot of the way across the country. Not only would that boost tourism, it would strengthen Canada’s relations with the people of other nations. With that, I’ll leave it here, for now….

Saturday, January 02, 2016

LPP Fusion Is Making Rapid Advances in Fusion Power Technology

Based on a technological concept originating in 1964, LPP Fusion is developing a dense plasma focus (DPF) device. No external magnetic field is required, since the method generates its own magnetic field --- making it potentially much more compact than mainstream fusion technologies.
For a few millionths of a second, an intense current flows from an outer to an inner electrode through a low pressure gas. This current starts to heat the gas, creating an intense magnetic field. This in turn generates a super-dense plasma, condensed into a tiny ball only a few thousandths of an inch across called a plasmoid. Again, all of this happens without being guided by external magnets.
The magnetic fields very quickly collapse, and these changing magnetic fields induce an electric field which causes a beam of electrons to flow in one direction and a beam of ions – atoms that have lost electrons – in the other. The electron beam heats the plasmoid to extremely high temperatures, the equivalent of billions of degrees C (particles energies of 100 keV or more). (This temperature level is orders of magnitude hotter than the core of the sun, and many times hotter than alternative fusion power technologies.)
This technology can in principle be used to produce X-rays or to generate fusion power.
To create fusion power, energy can be transferred from the electrons to the ions using the magnetic field effect. Collisions of the ions with each other cause fusion reactions, which add more energy to the plasmoid. Thus, in the end, the ion beam contains more energy than was input by the original electric current. (The energy of the electron beam is dissipated inside the plasmoid to heat it.) This happens even though the plasmoid only lasts 10 ns (billionths of a second) or so, because of the very high density in the plasmoid, which is close to solid density. This level of density makes nuclear collisions (and thus fusion reactions) very likely, and they occur extremely rapidly.
The ion beam of charged particles is then directed into a decelerator which acts like a particle accelerator in reverse. Instead of using electricity to accelerate charged particles, they decelerate charged particles and generate electricity. Some of this electricity is recycled to power the next fusion pulse while the excess (net) energy is the electricity produced by the fusion power plant. Some of the X-ray energy produced by the plasmoid can also be directly converted to electricity through the photoelectric effect (as occurs in solar panels).
An interesting aspect of the DPF design is that it generates sufficient temperature levels to power fusion reactions in elements with higher molecular weights, which in turn holds out the promise of a shortcut to boronic fusion, the "holy grail" of fusion power research, as this particular fusion reaction generates electricity rather than neutron radiation... and electricity is what we actually want!
Another interesting feature here is that LPP Fusion is an incorporated company (in this sense, similar to General Fusion), and thus they accept investments from private contributors. Again, this is all "micro" scale when compared, say, to Exxon Mobil or Conoco Phillips, but at least a base has been established to which further investments can be added.....