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Z Machine Advances Fusion Race

kdawson posted more than 7 years ago | from the collaborating-with-Siberians dept.

Power 220

Sandia Labs has announced a new milestone in Linear Transformer Driver technology that aims to solve one of the biggest obstacles to practical fusion reactors. Getting the current needed to "spark" a burst of fusion is doable; getting a constant series of sparks going to create a continuous chain of fusion bursts has never been achieved. The LTD, which allows the Sandia Z machine to fire once every 10.2 seconds, makes it look achievable. The press release (which has been picked up in a few places, but with no further analysis) says that practical fusion power could now be 20 years off.

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20 years off? (4, Funny)

AvitarX (172628) | more than 7 years ago | (#18883969)

Weren't we closer 30 years ago?

Re:20 years off? (4, Informative)

aadvancedGIR (959466) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884107)

That's the funny thing with science or advanced engineering. Initially, everything looks easy, but the harder you work on it, the more difficulties you understand you will have to deal with. So a) We are indeed closer to a practical solution than 30 years ago and b) we have more realistic timeframes estimations.

Re:20 years off? (4, Funny)

rumblin'rabbit (711865) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884185)

You're telling this to programmers? The ones who coined the phrase "it's 90% done and always will be"? The ones who invented the software crisis?

Re:20 years off? (1)

aadvancedGIR (959466) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884561)

Actually, I'm a programmer myself and currently working on an embeded driver that is complete and running except for a nasty bug that may cause the whole project to be canceled. And for historical examples more in programming, we can cite sentient AI, which was at hand in the 60's. Plus the space elevator, or the dream of a complete understanding of physics about a century ago.

Good developpers never commit on dates.

Re:20 years off? (2, Informative)

VernonNemitz (581327) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885035)

Slashdot is News for Nerds, not just programmers.

According to Bussard [google.com] , practical fusion power is nearly as available as the money we decide to put into his system. He specifically says in the video that "the physics is done" --which means that only engineering problems remain.

Re:20 years off? (4, Funny)

Gilmoure (18428) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885239)

Grue is in the details?

Re:20 years off? (1)

metlin (258108) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885479)

I think there is a little computer programmer in all of us - programming by itself isn't particularly hard, it's just the esoteric knowledge that is hard to master. Of course, actual CS is different (graphics, algorithms, machine learning, theory, network algorithms) but programming isn't particularly special.

Besides, everybody in every area does some amount of programming these days - embedded programming for chips and the like, programming in electronics for FPGAs and ICs, simulation and modelling in physics, mathematics, finance and economics etc. I programming is a useful skill to have, but isn't very special in and of itself.

And for historical examples more in programming, we can cite sentient AI


I doubt the development of sentient AI is related to programming; it's got more to do with other areas such as machine learning, statistics, cognitive science and the like.

Re:20 years off? (1)

fredrated (639554) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885431)

No kidding, every project I've ever worked on (many of them estimated by me, sigh) took longer than we thought. Thankfully they eventually got done, but I still can't seem to get it right.

Re:20 years off? (2, Insightful)

inviolet (797804) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884163)

Weren't we closer 30 years ago?

Yeah. I came here to make the same quip.

Then I realized a possible explanation. Perhaps every time another milestone is passed, the new understanding moves us closer to fusion and thus on to the next unexpected hurdle. Sort of like being able to see the second mountain that was previously obscured by the first.

Or maybe it's just researchers looking to grab headlines in order to obtain more funding. Either way. :)

Millions of Dollars Away (2, Interesting)

vortex2.71 (802986) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884425)

I think the 30 years joke is a bit passe. In realilty, the funding for fusion has suffred some major hits in the last 30 years after the big spike in the 70's. To measure a field's achievment in years is somewhat nieve, as total funding dollars is more realistic. If 1970 funding dollars had continued for the next 40 years, I think we would be there now, but alas we will have to wait for the money to trickle in. Iter is a great step forward, but work in innovative concepts that are alternatives to the tokamak are also good in looking for economically viable fusion schemes.

Re:Millions of Dollars Away (1)

rubycodez (864176) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885611)

no, you're assuming that problems can be solved by throwing x dollars at it. Today we could have abundant limitless cheap energy if we didn't waste our time on needless sidetracks such as fusion for commercial power. We could have had thorium breeder reactors with sufficient reserves for centuries, and be burning our spent fuel from older reactor designs in them to boot. but no, let's waste our money on pipe dreams and continue the big oil/big corp oligarchy. we're no closer to practical commercial fusion now than in 1970, and it will be that way for another 50 years at least. Meanwhile, the big fusion reactor in the sky already puts more energy in one year into deserts and wastelands than we use in 10 years.

20 years! (1, Funny)

mdsolar (1045926) | more than 7 years ago | (#18883971)

And to think they said it would be forty years off twenty years ago!

Redundant? (1)

bloobloo (957543) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885077)

It's a joke, people

20 years off? (2, Insightful)

Firethorn (177587) | more than 7 years ago | (#18883991)

Wasn't it 20 years off 20 years ago?

I think that I'll stand by my idea that even if/when we crack fusion enough to be able to build a fusion power plant it'll have to be so big to be worth it, that they won't be able to get the funding to do so.

Basically, Containment costs go up by the square, while energy release goes up by the cube. To make it worth it, we might be looking at a 100 gigawatt reactor*, of which half goes towards sustaining the reaction.

*1-2 gigawatts is a pretty big reactor today.

Re:20 years off? (5, Funny)

tom17 (659054) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884049)

*1-2 gigawatts is a pretty big reactor today.
You mean 1.21, right?

Re:20 years off? (2, Funny)

Firethorn (177587) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884143)

Naw, that'd be 1.21 jigawatts.

Re:20 years off? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884371)

jigga, gigga, any other *igga.

Re:20 years off? (2, Funny)

MightyYar (622222) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884833)

Slashdot isn't the same now that Don Imus posts on here anonymously in his ample free time.

Re:20 years off? (0, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18885207)

How much energy does it take to build a railroad.
5000 nigger watts

Re:20 years off? (1)

Caffeinate (1031648) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884929)

I've always wondered; was that simply a mispronunciation of gigawatts or was it an imaginary unit in the line of zillions?

I'm sure this is overanalysing the phrase, but this is how my mind works. I also wonder why we can compel, repel, impel and expel but we can't just pel.

Re:20 years off? (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884205)

From TFA:

"It's like building a tinker toy," says Matzen. "We think we need 60 megamperes to make large fusion yields. But though our simulations show it can be done, we won't know for certain until we actually build it."

Re:20 years off? (1)

enziarro (641783) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884819)

All "LOL 20 MORE YEARZ" jokes aside, I really think if there's anyone out there who can get this done, it's the fucking geniuses at Sandia. Seriously.

Re:20 years off? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884979)

Yeah, the virgin geniuses at other labs just don't cut it.

Re:20 years off? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18885581)

It does make sense though if you think about it. Don't you feel much better after a good fuck? High energy physics will turn out to be the strongest aphrodisiac ever, everyone will study a little or do a little work and then want to fuck.

Bunnies, apt.

Re:20 years off? (1)

Firethorn (177587) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885109)

60 megaamps at 6 megavolts, as mentioned in the article adds up to 360 gigawatts.

The only time measures I saw associated in the article is 1 microsecond(.000001) to 100 nanoseconds(.0000001).

36 kilowatts sustained operation, assuming I didn't mess my math up. That's taking the microsecond figure. 3.6kilowatts for the nanoseconds. The first is within reach of a standard household circuit, the second could be powered, easily, with a dryer circuit.

Still, from what I'm seeing this doesn't address containment at all, merely detonation.

Re:20 years off? (1)

CreatureComfort (741652) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885549)


You get 36 kW/microsecond out of your household circuit? You using nitrogen cooling on those wires in your walls?

Depends on what you mean by containment (2, Insightful)

mdsolar (1045926) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884247)

Fusion reactors could produce some short lived waste, but they are not prone to melt down and so don't need the heavy containment that fission reactors require in most countries. Table top fusion is also advancing so I'm not so sure things have to be big to be useful. For Tokomaks this probably is a requirement but not neccessarily for other methods.
--
Mr. Fusion on your roof: http://mdsolar.blogspot.com/2007/01/slashdot-users -selling-solar.html [blogspot.com]

Re:Depends on what you mean by containment (2, Informative)

renoX (11677) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884737)

>Table top fusion is also advancing so I'm not so sure things have to be big to be useful.

Table top fusion is useful sure but not for producing energy so I don't see how it's related to the current subject.

Re:Depends on what you mean by containment (1)

mdsolar (1045926) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884901)

I suppose because inertial confinement is not useful for producing energy either (yet). Advances are needed in all fields of fusion research. This article http://hardware.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=07/04/ 22/2115249 [slashdot.org] would anticipate a fairly small scale reactor for example.
--
Really BIG fusion: http://mdsolar.blogspot.com/2007/01/slashdot-users -selling-solar.html [blogspot.com]

Re:Depends on what you mean by containment (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884915)

How will I power my tabletop then?

Re:20 years off? (1)

foniksonik (573572) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884331)

That just means the installation must be really efficient to compete with existing energy providers... or existing energy providers must become as expensive as this new energy producer. I suspect that in 20 years they will be close to meeting in the middle.

Depends on operating costs for a Fusion reactor... if the upfront cost can be paid back in another 20 years and operating expenses do not eat up more than half the revenue.. it will do well. If operating costs/upgrades/maintenance/etc. do eat up the majority of revenues and it has to be subsidized for very long well may as well leave it as experimental tech that we may use for a spaceship or something (after we spend big bucks to miniaturize it somehow).

Re:20 years off? (3, Informative)

Firethorn (177587) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885337)

That just means the installation must be really efficient to compete with existing energy providers... or existing energy providers must become as expensive as this new energy producer. I suspect that in 20 years they will be close to meeting in the middle.

From my understanding of the problems, that'd require a HUGE plant. Right now they're talking about building the largest fusion test reactor yet. One telling thing about the design: It's as large as a modern gigawatt nuke/coal plant, yet has absolutely no provisions for making power from the reactions.

Now, I admit that my figures are estimates, based roughly on the idea that contaiment can be roughly approximated as surface area, while fusion mass is volume based. Thus, square vs. cube.

Take the test plant*, it's as large as a gigawatt reactor. Since they aren't putting any means to generate electricity in, they're obviously not planning on it producing enough power to even offset the cost of the generating equipment. IE not enough power for it's containment costs.

Now, lets pretend that we had many issues solved and could merely double the size of it**. 4 times the containment energy cost, 8 times the power produced. If we have a self-sustaining plant, where enough power is generated for it to continue operating with no external power, the doubling would give us 4X the original capacity available to sell.

Still, even if the first doubling made it self-sufficient, and the second one to produce usefull amounts of power, we're talking about a plant with 16 times the footprint of a gigawatt nuclear plant, half it's power goes to maintaining the reaction systems, and we haven't even gotten to the area need for the steam systems. Call it 20 times the footprint of a gigawatt plant.

We have a huge way to go on efficiency before it'll be practical. This may help, but I still see fusion plants as a long way away.

*last I'd heard, they're fighting over which country to build it in.
**I'm talking about the reaction area size itself. Due to inefficiencies, the rest of the equipment will likely more than double in size.

Re:20 years off? (2, Informative)

91degrees (207121) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884759)

20 years is a lifetime in technology terms. It took less than that for practical nulear fission from the first nuclear reactor. 20 years before sputnik, rocketry was a fe hobbyists causing bangs.

Look at it this way - pHd students who will be working on that generation are about 10 years old right now.

Re:20 years off? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884775)

Wasn't it 20 years off 20 years ago?

It was, but then the government cut funding for it. Been done over and over, we're now decades behind other countries in fission power thanks to government after government killing research into safer reactors, breeder reactors, and so on. And of course, the government is of the people, scared so senseless of nuclear that they refuse to even upgrade old reactors to newer and safer designs.

Re:20 years off? (1)

Amouth (879122) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885165)

"scared so senseless of nuclear that they refuse to even upgrade old reactors to newer and safer designs."

nahh - that is us just being lazy

And if my grandmother had wheels, she'd be a wagon (4, Funny)

Etherwalk (681268) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884019)

> says that practical fusion power could now be 20 years off.

Twenty years off what? And are they light years or dog years?

Re:And if my grandmother had wheels, she'd be a wa (1)

mwvdlee (775178) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884157)

For that matter, when is "now"?
Is it when the original article was written, when it was linked from slashdot, is it when I type this post, when I click the submit button, when the site stores it in it's database, when you're reading it. And is it "now" in our dimension or in some parallel dimension?

Re:And if my grandmother had wheels, she'd be a wa (5, Funny)

ivan256 (17499) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884215)

Actually, measured in light years, practical fusion is only 1.58e-5 light years away.

Re:And if my grandmother had wheels, she'd be a wa (1)

SQLGuru (980662) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885319)

Actually, the article was referring to practical fusion being 20 [light] years away.....on the new planet that was discovered.

http://science.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=07/04/2 5/0024257 [slashdot.org]

Layne

Re:And if my grandmother had wheels, she'd be a wa (1)

arktemplar (1060050) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885471)

baah I can make happen so that it makes the run in 11 parsecs.

Only 20 years away! (0, Redundant)

pepax (748182) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884025)

Isn't that the way it has been for the past 50 years?

Re:Only 20 years away! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884115)

Nope. In 1960 it was only 10 years away. I remember it well - power was going to be so cheap it would not be metered.

Then came the 1970s, and a huge scare about global cooling, AKA the next ice age.

Ahh - happy days!

Re:Only 20 years away! (0, Redundant)

qwijibo (101731) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884137)

And the way it will be for the next 100. Haven't you noticed that the people saying it is only 20 years out are in fields that need a lot of funding and don't produce results? Hint: in 20 years, they'll be retired.

In Siberia... (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884027)

Cold fuses you!

20 more years (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884039)

Practical fusion has been 20 years off for at least the last 40 years if not longer.

In fact, it might be just 20 years off if we would actually commit to making it work. Remember the Apollo program? Put a man on the moon and safely return him in a decade? If humans can do that, they can certainly develop working fusion power generation.

If they want to.

Re:20 more years (1)

Gospodin (547743) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885175)

Mod parent to the moon! I figure if we can do that, and then safely mod him back down to Earth, we can certainly develop a dupe-free Slashdot. It just stands to reason.

Z-Machine? (4, Funny)

Reverend528 (585549) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884095)

The horizon is lost in the glare of morning upon the Great Sea. You shield your eyes to sweep the shore below, where a village lies nestled beside a quiet cove.

A stunted oak tree shades the inland road.

Re:Z-Machine? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884249)

Yes, but does it run Quake [loonyboi.com] ?

Re:Z-Machine? (4, Informative)

Lorkki (863577) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884385)

Some harsh moderators we have here.

For those who don't know or remember, the Z-machine [wikipedia.org] was the virtual machine environment used to develop the famous Infocom [wikipedia.org] interactive fiction titles, such as Zork and its sequels. Incidentally it was also the first thing that sprang to my mind when reading the title.

Re:Z-Machine? (4, Funny)

moosesocks (264553) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885281)

Possible exits are North, South, or Dennis.

Z-Machine (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884113)

Bad choice of name. The Z-Machine is a type of virtual machine used mostly for running interactive fiction, interactive tutorials, and the like, and has been for the past few decades. Its specifications are freely available and anyone can implement their own:

Versions have been implemented in C, Java, XUL/JavaScript, and even NewtonScript.

Z-Machine (4, Informative)

vortex2.71 (802986) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884553)

Bad choice of name. The Z-Machine, which is short for Z-Pinch Machine is a fusion confinement machine that has been around for five and a half decades. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Z-Pinch [wikipedia.org] Numerous experimental devices have been built around the world in government labs and universities.

phew... (1)

Floritard (1058660) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884129)

When I first saw the headline I read "Saudi" and thought, well there goes all western dominance in the world for the next few centuries. Oh, and the now obligatory 20 years away! Egad!

20 year off == 20 good funding years (4, Insightful)

i_should_be_working (720372) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884141)

Well, since every comment here is about that "20 years off" quote, I'll add mine.

That twenty years (here and decades ago) assumes that governments won't pull funding for fusion research. But they did, and will again. ITER could have been built years ago. It wasn't a lack technology holding it back, it was a lack of money. So don't blame the scientists who give those 20 year estimates, blame your governments.

Re:20 year off == 20 good funding years (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884485)

Actually, there were some technological barriers in the control systems required to sustain the stability in the circulating plasma. The longer time frames now possible(in theory) make ITER a much more reasonable machine to build.

Re:20 year off == 20 good funding years (2, Interesting)

Kjella (173770) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884529)

It wasn't a lack technology holding it back, it was a lack of money.

So all the countries of the world that's economically hogtied to the Middle East doesn't like the idea of vast, cheap energy sources. Right... From what I've understood, getting it started is only a very tiny part of the problem, the biggest problem is "Here's the particles that'll fly out of a fusion reactor. Make electricity out of it". If there really was a clear consensus that it'd be a godsend if we just got it started, it'd have happened long ago.

Re:20 year off == 20 good funding years (4, Informative)

homer_ca (144738) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884711)

Here's the particles that'll fly out of a fusion reactor. Make electricity out of it

They do have a plan for that. A blanket around the reactor containing lithium will both capture heat and breed tritium that's needed for the fusion reaction. One big problem for commercial generation though is the logistical bottleneck of producing enough tritium. Just ITER will use a significant fraction of the world's supply of tritium. The lithium blanket will breed enough tritium for itself and maybe to seed another reactor.

http://www-fusion-magnetique.cea.fr/gb/cea/next/co uvertures/blk.htm [www-fusion...que.cea.fr]

Re:20 year off == 20 good funding years (1)

Kohath (38547) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885361)

...the idea of vast, cheap energy sources...

If it were more than an "idea" then it would be easier to find funding for it.

It's interesting that this so-called "cheap energy" source needs 10s of billions of dollars of funding for many, many years to get started.

I have no doubt that someday, fusion will be a vast, cheap energy source. But right now, it's a hugely expensive energy-sink with no foreseeable return on investment for anyone. Funding for something like that is a gift, not something anyone should expect they have a right to.

Re:20 year off == 20 good funding years (1)

SevenHands (984677) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884691)

And like most funded projects, if governments were to throw more money than currently being funded into this project, those 20 years could be reduced by a significant amount.

Re:20 year off == 20 good funding years (1)

MagusSlurpy (592575) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885299)

blame your governments.
Isn't that always applicable?

Do we need such "estimates"? (2, Insightful)

Nuffsaid (855987) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884165)

Wouldn't be more honest to say "We have no clue when fusion energy will be practical. Maybe some fundamental research breakthrough will make it doable next year, maybe we need to struggle with the current approach for another thirty years. Please fund research" ?

Re:Do we need such "estimates"? (4, Insightful)

Firethorn (177587) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884311)

Even if we had a breakthrough and suddenly we had all the equations and knowledge to build practical fusion reactors, fusion power would still be at least a decade away.

5 years to design it into a power plant, find and obtain a site, necessary permits, etc... Then 5 years to actually build the thing.

I'll believe that it's twenty years away when we have a working plant sustaining a fusion reaction for testing purposes. IE operating the thing for days/weeks, not seconds/minutes.

We had [umr.edu] the first nuclear pile in 1942. The first nuclear reactor to produce electricity came online in 1951. It wasn't until 1957 when the first commercial fission plant came online. 15 years from the first pile until a commercial plant. All signs point towards fusion being bigger and more difficult, so I figure one will take even longer to build than a fission plant.

Re:Do we need such "estimates"? (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884927)

The poll you give to the gun-control side of people who click on your sig is really loaded (no pun intended). For example, the question about drive-by shootings has no option for banning all guns.

So fuck you, and fuck people like you.

Re:Do we need such "estimates"? (0, Troll)

Jerry (6400) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885217)

Commercial reactors only 10 Years after sustained fusion is achieved.?

Na. Not even 50 years, or 100 years.

The lawsuits by the Environmental groups, the Green Groups, the Carbon Credits groups, the ACLU, the United Nations and the DOE will make building the commercial fusion reactor TOO expensive to build. The Environmental Impact Study alone will require at least 10-15 years, even if it is filled with techno babel written on toilet paper.

Besides, I doubt that a fusion reactor will solve the radioactive waste problem. More than likely it will add to the waste problem because all it takes to create radioactive particles is to heat any matter to extremely high temperatures.

Re:Do we need such "estimates"? (2, Insightful)

AWeishaupt (917501) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885345)

"Besides, I doubt that a fusion reactor will solve the radioactive waste problem. More than likely it will add to the waste problem because all it takes to create radioactive particles is to heat any matter to extremely high temperatures." Please excuse me for putting this a little bluntly. What the fuck are you talking about?! If you don't know anything about the physics involved, then please don't pretend that you do.

Re:Do we need such "estimates"? (1)

herve_masson (104332) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885225)

I'm not qualified to know if your parallel with the 1942-1957 period stands, but I have the feeling that the pressure (commercial and environmental) is much higher now to escape from oil (and now fission) that it used to be back at that time.

This plus -maybe- a more rapid and efficient research effort might make the 15 years period shorter. I hope so at least.

Re:Do we need such "estimates"? (1)

Firethorn (177587) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885453)

And back then they had a huge pressure to compete with and show up the commies*, and nuclear power was going to be the new great thing.

There was also orders of magnitude less red tape.

I don't see things going very quickly even if they can promise no waste if the fusion reactor costs 10X as much as a fission plant, even if it produces 10X the power.

Build time on a nuclear reactor today is pretty much a minimum of 3 years. A fusion plant's going to be a lot more complicated.

Never! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18885315)

I'll believe that it's twenty years away when we have a working plant sustaining a fusion reaction for testing purposes. IE operating the thing for days/weeks, not seconds/minutes.
This is a terrible idea. It would be a disaster to have Internet Explorer run a fusion reaction for even a couple minutes.

Teller's Classical Super and the tritium problem (5, Informative)

Latent Heat (558884) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885399)

Power reactor fusion has the same problem as Edward Teller's original hydrogen bomb concept.

The original hydrogen bomb was known as the "Super" before it was called a hydrogen bomb, and the idea is what every wide-eyed geek in elementary school imagines the H-bomb to be -- put an A-bomb next to a vat of deuterium, and the A-bomb blasts the deuterium hot enough to make it fuse.

As the dudes as Los Alamos started building computers to do numerical models of fluids and radiation and everything, it became apparent that Teller's Super was a dud. The physics of radiation were such that simply sticking a fission bomb next to a pile of heavy hydrogen was simply not going to do anything. What if you sweetened the deuterium with tritium -- then what? As it turned out, you would need gobs of tritium, so the whole thing was a non-starter.

As it turns out, Stanislaw Ulam came up with the idea of a staged atom bomb -- a small atom bomb would provide the shock to compress a big freepin pile of plutonium to make a big honkin atom bomb, and Teller got ahold of that idea to make the staged H-bomb. The staged H-bomb used to be a very dark secret, but the combination of Richard Rhodes "Dark Sun" and that Progressive Magazine article kind of let out at least the general H-bomb concept. Teller's stamp on the staged bomb was that prompt x-rays from the atom bomb would be the way of getting compression instead of Ulam's original idea of the shock wave, but that the radiation would act first is obvious once anyone with physics knowledge starts working on a staged design, and Teller kind of took all the credit.

But the actual staged H-bomb not only focuses A-bomb radiation to compress a pile of deuterium, it also compresses a plutonium "spark plug" in the middle to make Ulam's staged A-bomb. The combination of heat and pressure from the radiation compression along with the flood of fast neutrons from the plutonium spark plug manage to fuse the deuterium, which produces its yield mainly in the form of yet more neutrons, which provides fission of a U-238 blanket to provide much of the explosive power of the bomb.

Fusion is really, really hard, even with the heat and pressure from an atom bomb, and the real H-bomb is a Rube Goldberg set of multiple effects which use fission-driven neutrons to produce fusion neutrons to produce gobs of explosive power from non-critical fission of U-238. Fusion is really, really hard, even for the Sun, because while the Sun is not using deuterium but straight hydrogen, for all of the intense heat and pressure in the interior of the Sun, the reaction rates are really, really low, which is a good thing, because otherwise the Sun wouldn't have lasted 5 billion years to allow us to be here.

So back to the fusion power reactor. All of the claims of imminent fusion power are based on using lots of tritium for D-T fusion for the same reason that Teller's Classical Super would have needed gobs of tritium and for the same reason that the actual H-bomb that burns D-D needs three stages of fission to get its explosive power. Just as the need for tons of T made Teller's Super a non-starter, the need for tritium means that the current frontier of fusion power is a non-starter. Yes, you breed tritium in the lithium blanket, but you have to compare the breeding doubling time with the half life of tritium and wonder how much seed tritium will you need to get a fusion power economy going and how many decades of breeding tritium will be required to switch the economy over the fusion power before the oil runs out.

Wow.... (1)

Firethorn (177587) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885599)

Very interesting post.

But I think that it kinda points out where we're at. Fusion is VERY HARD. It gets somewhat easier if you 'spike' the mix with tritium, and larger reactions, while taking more power to initiate, generally release more power as well.

My point is that I figure that we're going to figure out how to make it workable sooner or later. It's just that version 1 will have a practical plant pushing the size limits. Imagine a plant the size of your average military base. Large enough they build a rail system to shuttle workers from one end to another. Heck, picture a Black Mesa.

tags (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884233)

Everyone, please be sure to tag this article "infocom". Thanks.

Re:tags (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18885095)

done

Fusion race advanced by 30 year old game tech? (0, Redundant)

Orion_ (83461) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884269)

Am I the only one that read the article title and thought they were referring to Infocom [wikipedia.org] ?

Probably a little redundant... (0, Redundant)

Wilson_6500 (896824) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884279)

Fusion power has _always_ been 20 years off. This isn't some 1984 groupthink bullcrap: it really is just always 20 years out of our reach by general consensus.

ICF, not MCF (5, Informative)

generic-nickname596 (1035978) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884323)

It is worth noting (and it is also mentioned in TFA) that this development advances the field of Inertial Confinement Fusion, which is an area that has not traditionally been considered the most likely candidate for commercial fusion power generation. ITER and all other experimental tokamak reactors are of the other variety (magnetic confinement fusion), where a magnetic field is used to keep the plasma in place during the reaction. During ICF, each fusion reaction has a duration short enough that it isn't necessary to hold the plasma back against the forces of gravity. Hence the need to produce a "spark" quickly and efficiently, as many consecutive reactions are necessary to produce any significant amount of power. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inertial_confinement_ fusion [wikipedia.org]

Re:ICF, not MCF (4, Interesting)

nietsch (112711) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884677)

A few nitpickings: A fusor as invented by Farnsworth et al. (and ongoing navy-funded research by Bussard et al.) does not use magnetism to hold the plasma in place, not all fusion research is done with tokamaks (although most money is spent on them).
The plasma in a fusion reaction does not fall apart due to gravity. The effects of heat (and thus pressure) is much higher than those of gravity.

ICF in this form may work, but do they have a method to harvest energy yet? are they close to break even? In theory one could capture emitted alpha particles (they have an energy/speed of several million electron volts, which translates to a very small current of a few million volts), but AFAIK, nobody has done such a feat yet.

Re:ICF, not MCF (1)

generic-nickname596 (1035978) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885355)

According to Wikipedia, the HiPER project (which is currently in the initial design stage in Europe) looks very promising with regards to breaking even on energy out vs. energy in. They are looking at using laser diodes instead of Xenon flash lamps to generate the energy for the lasers (increasing laser efficiency by a factor of ten), as well as using a secondary laser to provide energy densities in the fuel high enough to ensure ignition, not relying on the shock wave alone. Problems that still seem open are transporting the generated energy out of the fusion chamber, as well as managing the intense neutron radiation that will result. Other experimental facilities have jotted down some considerations/ideas for solutions to these problems, but nothing conclusive yet. Another obvious problem is of course the need to perform frequent firings to get any decent energy output, which as of today is not possible due to the cooling requirements of the flash lamps.

Sandia Labs (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884343)

In case anyone wonders who Sandia Labs are, from the article:

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Donation... (1)

Mockylock (1087585) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884353)

I've got an old Cyrix PC to donate, if it will bring them any closer to achieving their goal. It should bring the bursts down to at LEAST 5 seconds per burst.

Re:Donation... (1)

SnarfQuest (469614) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885103)

Sorry! They're not talking about the length of time from boot to bluescreen.

If this is the best establishment physicists can.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884355)

do, then alternatives to conventional fusion have to be found. Because really this is a disgrace. As many have said they've been saying Fusion would be a reality in 20 years for the past 40 years.

So the two best options besides conventional fusion, which really is an illusion, would be:

The Plasma Focus Device

Low Temperature Nuclear Reactions

Because really at this point after wasting 50 years and billions of dollars we have to try something different.

See the Z Machine (5, Interesting)

Ambitwistor (1041236) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884393)

The article lacked a photo of the Z Machine in operation [aip.org] . Amazing!

Beautiful blue Star Trek glow (1)

Weaselmancer (533834) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884839)

It has pretty much the same color glow that every power generating thingy in Star Trek does. It looks like a pile of warp cores, doesn't it?

According to the FA ... (1)

Bearpaw (13080) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884937)

Happily for Sandia accountants but sadly to those who love the widely distributed arcs-and-sparks photo of Z firing by Sandia photographer Randy Montoya, the new switch eliminates the need for the hundreds of thousands of gallons of insulating water and oil carried by the present Z structure. It was over the surface of that water that the electrical arcing of Z became a phenomenon as much appreciated by graphic artists as it was loathed by engineers (who saw it as wasted energy).

Anyone notice where the LTD's were developed? (1)

keysdisease (1093663) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884409)

The linear transformer driver (LTD), that's central to this approach, was created at the Institute of High Current Electronics in Tomsk, Russia. Nice of them to sell them to Sandia....

Re:Anyone notice where the LTD's were developed? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884939)

Yeah but Sandia also made a huge contribution:

"... was urged by Sandia manager Dillon McDaniel, and encouraged by Sandia managers Rick Spielman and Ken Struve"

No hurry ! (1)

Liquid Len (739188) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884417)

says that practical fusion power could now be 20 years off
Surely they meant 20 years after Duke Nukem Forever is out... There's still time.

Constant of nature (2, Funny)

J.R. Random (801334) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884481)

Practical fusion power is always 20 years from the present. That was true 40 years ago, it is true today, and will be true 40 years from now. This is a little known consequence of general relativity.

niG6a (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18884495)

with THOUSANDS OfF there are about 700

not 20 years off (1)

HateBreeder (656491) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884513)

After actually reading TFA:

But fired repeatedly, the machine could well be the fusion machine that could form the basis of an electrical generating plant only two decades away.


I understand this as "this machine could be the basis for a new power plant design within 20 years from now".

seems like a long wait just for a theoretical power-plant draft...

The Saint (1)

jlebrech (810586) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884519)

Where's Simon Templar when we need him?

I still think.. (1)

bigattichouse (527527) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884875)

I still think there will be some kind of radiation or gas/plasma that will act to allow quantum tunnelling of some kind.. sort of a fusion catalyst.

No, it WASNT always 20 years (5, Informative)

BlueParrot (965239) | more than 7 years ago | (#18884899)

Contrary to the misconception people keep throwing arround, it wasn't 20 years of 20 years ago. The confusion arises because one was talking about different things. One estimate was when we would reach break-even. That eastimate was for year 2000, and at the time ( 1970) it was 30 years into the future. As it happens, the JET reactor has managed to heat a plasma to the temperatures needed for break-even, but that doesn't mean it is practical as a powerplant. I have a 30 year old book about electricity generation, which estimates the first powerplant for 2050. Furthermore, last time I heard "it was always X years ago", X was 30. Before that X was and had "always" been 50 years ( Tho my Swedish book still says 2050 and was written in the 70ies ). I bet in 2040 we will hear people saying how widescale worldwide deployment of fusion powerplants was "always" 10 more years. When in fact, the estimate of today is that the technology needed to build a practical powerplant ( not necessarily an economically competative one ) is 2027. These "that is what they said back then" quotes usually have no substance in reality. It is just like saying "well they said chernobyl was safe", which of course nobody ever claimed ( in contrast the department of energy stated that no water cooled graphite moderated reactor would be licensed in the US ). However, the claim sounds so damning that people want to believe it. It is the same thing with fusion. The scientists never claimed we would be using fusion plants today. They claimed that IF funding was continued, and IF projects were not cancelled, then we would be able to have a controlled fusion reaction by the year 2000. As it happens we have done better than that. We have managed to initiate fusion reactions that produce more energy than is needed to sustain them. This is however not the same thing as an economically competative powerplant, and it is not the same as ignition ( a fusion plasma that needs no external energy input once it is burning). If you keep changing the goal to be something more difficult, then yes, the goal will always be in the future, that doesn't mean the original estimate was wrong tho. It just mean you were talking about something else.

I don't know about this... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18885159)

I've seen their PCs so I'm not sure how much faith I'd have in a reactor they built.

That's Pretty Impressive (1)

Blakey Rat (99501) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885385)

I thought all it could do was play old Infocom text adventures!

putting a zippo to a flame? (1)

Gearoid_Murphy (976819) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885501)

hmmm, I was under the impression that fusion was meant to be self sustaining, ie once the lasers had fired and the nuclear fire had started to burn, no further external input would be needed. The impression I get from this article is that the z machine would be continuously zapping the fusion core????. Also, as far as i'm aware, this is just a glorified capcitator circuit, am I wrong?, have I drifted away from reality and crossed into the realm of wild and unsubstansiated claims? mooooo.

I worked in that department for 3 summers (4, Interesting)

brian0918 (638904) | more than 7 years ago | (#18885545)

I remember seeing a powerpoint lecture given by one of the researchers there, who calculated that to make the Z machine feasible for providing fusion power, they would need to fire one of these off every 0.1 second, so once every 10 seconds is not even close. Plus, the simple fact that there's an enormous explosion going off ten times a second, which destroys the chamber that holds the capsule, makes it seem like there's a definite engineering feat to overcome, otherwise the whole thing is liable to crumble to bits. Right now, they only fire off the Z machine a few hundred times a year... going from that to a few hundred times a minute is a big step.

I also wouldn't want to live anywhere near there; it feels like a moderately strong earthquake in the area everytime they fire that thing; it seems like the ground beneath and around a rapid-fire facility would quickly weaken and collapse.

So yes, the Z machine is an excellent source of x-rays, and those x-rays can definitely be used to collapse a fusion capsule, but how applicable is it for fusion power?
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