written for Canadian Community News by Mike Sterling
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The long sought after Holy Grail of the Nuclear age, 'Fusion', has gone private of late. Can private investment, scientists and engineers do what more than 60 years of effort by governments has not done?
What if fusion is a success in 20 or 30 years? Will it help with the accumulated nuclear waste from fission plants? If so, should we wait and bet on it?
It's really a long shot on any manageable and predictable time scale.
Most experts agree that it will come some day, but there is no consensus on when. It's always 30 years away.
Researchers have designed a theoretical hybrid reactor where the fusion part incinerates the fission waste. This is really complicated from a safety and engineering standpoint. But first they must have safe and reliable fusion.
Can you imagine how the anti-DGR side would react to a proposal like that? How many interventions and deputations would ensue? How many protest billboards would go up? How many open houses and hearings?
The anti-side would object to a pure research project being counted on for a solution. They'd be right. The present DGR projects in Canada are not unproven science, they are well known process engineering backed up by decades of peer reviewed science.
To date no fusion test has produced economical energy. It's all taking place in a plasma that has to be controlled too.
Not a good thing to bet on a schedule after more than 50 years of trying. Energy out of the process has to exceed energy in to the process. That's economics not science. Deficits won't do. So far energy in has exceeded energy out.
Time magazine's November 2, 2015 issue devotes 10 full pages to the almost forgotten quest for fusion. A very good article. A little bit awe struck by the private money, however.
To write the article at all is unusual for Time as they struggle for print readers and the Internet overwhelms them. The article would not have made it to print without the investors in fusion being so well known.
Time of late does not use pages without ads for big science articles. Science has been placed back there someplace around new movies deaths of celebrities.
The article is called 'A Star is Born'. It is named aptly for the power of the Sun, which produces energy by fusion using carbon ... the most available element in the universe.
Why all the recent flurry of startups working on finding the elusive fusion solution? It has a lot to do with trying to do good with big money earned. Bill Gates an investor is not only smart, he's a good human being. Yes I mean Bill Gates of Microsoft fame and fortune.
The plasma and heat produced by fusion are severe beyond imagination. Instrumentation and anything near the plasma is in jeopardy of immediate destruction, so exotic means have to be brought to the table. This requires a marriage of science, engineering and big money. The bad news is that it's hard to start a fusion reaction. The good news is that it is hard to keep it going.
Can the scientists control the plasma long enough and with enough power to produce the fusion reaction? It's right at a spot that defies study because elements get into states that are not familiar to us and not easily analyzed.
The big problem is not if, but when fusion will be viable. So Canada is wise to do what they've been attempting in recommending DGRs. Meanwhile for Canada nuclear power is the base aided by wind and solar. The latter two are not the power base, however.
Canada has reduced coal fired plants, invested in clean energy and used as the first and most reliable power source ... Nuclear Power plants which are known and tested since the late 50s and early 60s. It's all about process and safety. When you introduce a startlingly new idea, you have to build the process around it.
Gates understands all this, but he wants to leave a legacy. As someone whose fortune came from innovation and keeping schedules, he trusts unencumbered innovation. He'll find out however, that fusion cannot so easily be pushed into production.
Gates and others are counting on the innovation of private industry vs. the slow pace of government sponsored projects, which are constantly being cut by the US Congress.
With a Congress so unfriendly to Science, innovative programs are underfunded or cut completely. It's a shame because so much has come out of government agencies and their sponsored research programs in Europe, Canada and the United States.
But fusion is a big, big puzzle and it does not like to be scheduled.
Again, a perfect brew of scientists and engineers has to be brought together, along with a lot of money. The money however, cannot be tied to a time schedule and budget, but does have to be well managed. If it isn't, then even Gates' money will be incinerated. The investors have to be believers. So, it's like unleashing a power like the Sun but with big managed money.
Where the Sun has a mass 330,000 times that of earth and has a temperature of 17 million degrees Celsius, it produces fusion as its occupation. On earth, however, fusion is hard to produce because it requires huge amounts of power as input.
But input power is not enough. The process has to control that most elusive of states of matter .... plasma
The desired reaction is not to split the atom like in fission, but to crush or fuse atoms in a an ongoing safe reaction that produces more energy out than energy in using another aspect of E=MC2. It has to sustain itself and be safe too.
DGRs are understandable by most people with careful study. They are large engineering projects with process and safety at the forefront. The storage process is known.
Fusion is on the edge of theoretical vs. practical. It is altogether another story.
Thanks Bill Gates for thinking beyond your lifetime.
Have a DGR question? Search Canadian Community News Archives. As of December 7th, 2015 there are 5140 references to the term DGR
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Friday, December 11, 2015