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).