Strategic Fusion

September 6, 2007 | 1 Comment

With all the news about fusion from the Bussard, Rostoker, and Lerner camps, plus the information about the multinational tokamak effort a lot of people must wonder why these seemingly far-fetched ideas get so much money and attention.  Opposite of that is the small proportion of the population that understands if even only in part, why it’s so important.

Right now all over the world coal, oil and natural gas power the largest share of electrical power generation and make up virtually all of the transport fuel needs and power mechanized food production.  Beyond that a great deal of what we need in the more modern economies is made from, made using, made with or transported to us by coal, oil, and natural gas.

They are without doubt the single most strategic commodities in the world today.  Often we will read about or hear the snooty complaint that this government activity or another is just a cover or an outright act to get, protect or insure the access to particularly oil products. The informed reader or listener disregards the notion that petroleum isn’t a critical aspect to our way of life.  The people who think more deeply soon realize that petroleum makes it possible for the quantity of people living now to exist.  If just half of the petroleum that comes from the exporting countries suddenly was not available the food, heating and transport needs simply couldn’t be met.  Absent food, a warm home, the means to get to work, produce, care for our families, or any of the list of activities needed for survival would be put in jeopardy or cease to be possible.  Even the most passive people faced with empty stomachs, freezing or sweltering would soon be willing to commit national resources to reacquire these strategic commodities.  A sudden drop in petroleum production, or a disruption for a long enough time would be measured in the loss of human life.  It would become a case of we die or the others die and the vast bulk of people will choose to survive.  Admittedly, some people are not going to get it, leaving those who do get it to act to protect everyone.

This situation and the possibilities put those whose lives are dedicated to the defense of everyone else at risk.  Of course the free and unimpeded extraction by the indigenous people where the resources are and the transportation to those who wish to trade for the resources must be protected.  That should be an immediate, short and long-term objective, and it is, albeit fraught with risk and danger.  But the larger strategic picture is substituting that feeding of a population and its economy the energy needed to keep them alive and in an improving standard of living.  That makes solving the production of energy a strategy to reduce the risk and danger.  Once solved, the risk of conflict is greatly reduced.

Suppose you are a military officer in a country who has a need for energy beyond its means to produce.  The first order of business is devise a strategy and tactics to insure the access to the fuels that power the economy.  Or buy time if you like.  The second strategy could be to mitigate the situation that creates the risk in the first place, making good use of your time.  You are faced with two huge problems, one is to come up with alternatives that can be used by your people and your allies’ people and second is to do this in a way that doesn’t obliterate the investment already existent in the economy.  You have the strongest allies known to any defense, a vibrant and innovative market and the strength of freethinking people to invent and develop ideas and concepts that will provide your answer.  That leaves the strategist facing the political and financial issues in making use of the social, cultural and intellectual resources that could be utilized to get a solution.

The scale of the problem facing the defenders of the free nations and the industrialized and developed world is daunting.  The total annual mega joules of petroleum use is a huge number.  This quantity by dimension alone narrows the possibilities.  The market and government policy have and are making small inroads to the solution, but a huge gap remains.  The only solution with the dimensions is fusion.

Fusion is a physics concept from the early 20th century.  Early on the math made clear that fission, the breaking of an atomic nucleus, would be much more easy to accomplish than the fusion of nuclei.  That realization drove the early research and the weapons development to work at the fission of very large atoms.  The two elements that would work within the engineering abilities are made from uranium and plutonium.  These metals, properly refined to isolate the most unstable forms, provide the fuel that serve in atomic bombs.  Less unstable forms make reactor fuel that can be controlled during the fission to make enormous amounts of heat that can be used to make steam that powers electrical generators.

Fusion became a workable idea when the realization that an atomic fission reaction would provide the energy to force a nuclear fusion event.  Essentially, a fusion bomb is a fusible core within a fission bomb so that when the fission material detonates the pressure and heat are concentrated at the core which then is energized enough to fuse.

That process mimics what takes place in nature.  A star’s core is another place of intense pressure and heat that compels the light gases such as hydrogen and helium to fuse.  Of course a star is a much more dynamic place than a simple fusion reactor, but the model for mankind to harness the power of nuclear fusion started with the nature of stars and was reinforced by weapons development.  The state of the art today on this path is the multinational tokamak program called ITER.  It’s where mankind is trying to fuse light elements using intense pressure and heat to trigger a continuous fusion reaction releasing huge amounts of energy.

Most of the industrialized countries are committed to this multinational program.  The physics, the engineering and the financial needs are stunning.  Each country has dedicated bureaucracies working to promote the project and solve the problems inherent in trying to mimic nature and control the energies of the equivalent to a slow detonation of an atomic bomb.  It seems that it can be made to work; although there is a growing sense of doubt that when completed such a device would be economical. Then there are the problems of running this form of reaction whose byproducts are much less toxic than a fission plant but are created in quite substantial amounts.  Added to that the device itself is subjected to the pressures and temperatures and the fusion events own radiation that sets up a very short lifespan.  The project remains decades away from being viable. Not much strategic use here.

Mankind is blessed with other concepts.  The matter of getting the atoms own protons in close enough to each other is the problem.  The protons have a positive charge rather like the + pole of a magnet.  If you’ve tried to push the like poles of two magnets together you’ve just illustrated the problem.  It can be done with a steadily increasing push.  Pushing them together just takes pressure, just like ITER proposes to use.

Another idea is to use speed as a substitute for the steadily increasing pressure.  Or just slap those magnets together.  It doesn’t have to be full contact, or for a long time.  It only needs to be close enough and for a brief enough instant, as fusion happens pretty fast.  Do this with light elements often enough and you have a fusion reactor.

Its already been done in part.  There are multiple device ideas out there.  Some are already well funded, some are looking for ways to explain their physics and some just won’t work.  A good strategist asks the question, “How many tools can you get to try to solve the problem?”

All this might seem, well, contrite. It is – it’s a blog post after all.  But when you think through the issue from energy sourced to consumed and view the whole total consumed volume planet wide there really isn’t another good answer.  That’s because the extraction and transport of the current source, petroleum, is relatively inexpensive and so astonishingly vulnerable.  The alternative could be solar, but to get to the volume and economies of scale solar will need to be done outside of the atmosphere.  Wind is useful, but the investment required is stupendous as are most other useable forms.

Time is not on mankind’s side.  As the world population continues to increase and more people aspire to higher energy consumption the tensions are going to increase.

The other prospect, a fusion solution in hand, would over a not very long period of time just take the energy risk out of economic, national and military affairs.  A strategy indeed, in need of some strategic foresight, management and commitment.


1 Comment so far

  1. JD on September 6, 2007 12:45 PM

    Good summation. Few people bother to do the math. Take wind for example. To equal the output of a 1GW coal fired plant using wind you would need over 600 5 MW wind turbines (using the average 25-30% output). These would need to be situated at 10 blades radius min (preferably 20) from each other to prevent interference in a good wind area. Call it a 15×15 mile block of land. Now you need power lines, roads, dispatch centers etc.. After all this you still don’t have a reliable base load power source and you’ve taken 225 square miles of land out of use from humans for habitation due to safety or aesthetic reasons.

    I think I would prefer a nice, compact nuclear plant (of either type).

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