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New Wave of Fusion and Robot Innovation at MIT

Soulskill posted more than 6 years ago | from the not-cold-fusion-the-real-kind dept.

Robotics 90

An anonymous reader writes "Popular Mechanics has been getting some great access inside the labs at MIT all week, and they've gotten some interesting looks at developing technologies. Robot-assisted rehab with gaming-style controllers comes out of the biomechanics lab, blind and crash-proof UAV testing with F/X cameras is being done at the aerospace controls lab, and work on electric scooters with super-cheap assembly is proceeding at the Media Lab. Perhaps most exciting is a fight for funding while the holy grail of clean fusion power in reach at the plasma center. The article on fusion predicts, "We'd see economically feasible fusion power by 2035, at the earliest, and increasingly efficient commercial reactors somewhere in the middle of the century."

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Karl Stefanovic (0, Offtopic)

sisko (114628) | more than 6 years ago | (#22596994)

Will this mean that Karl Stefanovic will now gain some siblings?

Re:Karl Stefanovic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22597530)

Gentlemen! Speaking of innovation, check this out. We finished eating dinner tonight right, and my wife wants me to get the crap out of her glass frying pan with the waffle bottom since it's too much of a bitch for her to do it herself and I'm the man, right? Dig it, I'm sitting there looking at this pan like, dammit man, this sucks. Then I get the bright idea. Bust out the dremel tool, put the wire brush attachment thing on it and like 2 minutes, the glass pan is clean as a whistle. No scratches either since the glass is harder than the little bristles.

That's nerd power, people.

Fusion power, always 20 years into the future (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22597012)

Since the 50s.. too cheap to meter, and all that.

Re:Fusion power, always 20 years into the future (3, Funny)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597026)

and what have YOU done about it huh?

Re:Fusion power, always 20 years into the future (5, Funny)

thedarknite (1031380) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597274)

I don't know about anyone else, but I asked some nuclear physicists very nicely and they assured me that they would build me one...

... to power the mecha that I asked some robotics and mechatronics guys to build me.

Re:Fusion power, always 20 years into the future (5, Informative)

Goldsmith (561202) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597448)

That's a great question!

I worked for two years at General Atomics trying to model and understand the interaction of fusion plasmas with the reactor walls. I've seen people here who have done more.

Like many other people who have worked/are working on fusion, I don't think it's going to be commercially viable this century. The problem is materials. It's simply too expensive to build these things.

Re:Fusion power, always 20 years into the future (1)

Dr. Cody (554864) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598256)

Studying material science in the context of fission feels a little bit like powering my car on Fabrigé eggs and bald eagle heads, when you consider the costs of most of the materials in the core. Of course, we all know that fission is wildly economical despite that.

My question is, how insane does it get with fusion material sciences?

Re:Fusion power, always 20 years into the future (1)

Goldsmith (561202) | more than 6 years ago | (#22607334)

Another response to my post (the one by Councilor Hart) gives a really good summary of the problems. You've got to clean/replace the reactor walls periodically if you want it to keep working (assuming you don't consume the walls). You also have huge superconducting magnets to buy.

It adds up to ~$1 billion to buy and you still have significant operating costs.

Re:Fusion power, always 20 years into the future (2, Interesting)

JaredOfEuropa (526365) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598488)

Like many other people who have worked/are working on fusion, I don't think it's going to be commercially viable this century. The problem is materials. It's simply too expensive to build these things.
If the problem is just cost (I know it isn't...), then I think the problem will solve itself. Often the first one of anything is rather expensive to build, then costs come down as we gain more experience and improve production facilities. Or the price will become more and more attractive as the alternatives (oil, etc) become more expensive.

Long before this century is out, I think we'll arrive at the point where we can no longer afford not to build these things (or fission plants as an alternative). So get back in that lab and get back at it!

Re:Fusion power, always 20 years into the future (2, Insightful)

davros-too (987732) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598964)

Often the first one of anything is rather expensive to build, then costs come down as we gain more experience and improve production facilities.

True, but the 'often' in this sentence refers to a select sample, which is the sample of economically viable enterprises. If tokomak fusion is economically viable, it is likely to become more cost-efficient over time. However, if the concept is borderline, it could easily get more expensive over time, as has happened for fission reactors. The physics and engineering of fission are well-understood but costs are not coming down for a wide range of reasons. Plasma fusion on the other hand, requires some difficult physics problems to be solved before we even can build a pilot plant to begin to mature the engineering.

A massive problem for fission reactors is decommissioning costs - what to do with a million tonnes of radioactive reactor? The point that fusion protagonists often overlook is that fusion reactors will face a similar problem decommissioning. In both cases fast neutrons create all sorts of difficult and radioactive materials in and around the core that will be hugely difficult to dispose of. If it were my money, I'd invest in solving the problems with decommissioning and disposal of by-products from fission. But that would not be nearly as cool and sexy as trying to find a brand new way to make the same mistakes.

Re:Fusion power, always 20 years into the future (1)

Councilor Hart (673770) | more than 6 years ago | (#22601864)

The problem is materials

ITER will burn for half an hour or so. Peak power output that the walls have to withstand is 10MW per square meter. That is peak power, not constant. ELM's are the problem. These are violent instabilities that dumps huge amounts of energy and particles onto the wall. Controlling these bastards is essential. If their severity can be reduced (kept under 10MW/m2), even if you get more of them, it's probable going to be okay. To illustrate the 10MW per square meter: only the Arianne V rocket has a larger output, and only for a few seconds at liftoff.
The second thing is that the combination of materials in ITER have never been tried before. Beryllium for the first wall, Tungsten for the large part of the divertor, carbon for the strike points in the divertor. No one knows what will happen if you put them all together in one large reactor.
Of the wall facing materials the carbon will get the blunt of the energy dissipated to the wall. So the carbon will get eroded. Carbon has a lower z value (less protons, thus less electrons to strip off, thus less of energy loss) than tungsten. BUT, carbon will deposit on the walls, incorporating the tritium. This is a problem!. First of all, tritium is radioactive. Safety regulations only allow a limited inventory. Once reached, ITER has to close down for maintenance. No one knows yet when this level will be reached. After a few weeks of a few days? One is acceptable, the other is problematic to say the least. And second, tritium (T) is hard to come by. Commercial fusion reactors, as will iter, will have to breed their own supply (n from the fusion + lithium in the wall will give you tritium). In this sense T is behaving like a catalyst to convert deuterium (D) into helium. If you use one tritium to generate one neutron that will only a problem, because you can't lose anything. And even if you get a bit more out of it, 1.2 T per n, you still can't lose to much of it. Thus you need to clean the reactor walls and reclaim the tritium.

Re:Fusion power, always 20 years into the future (0)

SacredByte (1122105) | more than 6 years ago | (#22603518)

The last time I saw a friend of my fathers (who is part of ODU's experimental nuclear physics group), I asked him about the viability of fusion power. He said something to the effect of "Fusion power is the technology of the future -- and always will be." When I asked him why he said this, he repiled with something to the effect of "When I was in school in the 70's it was 50 years off, and now its 50 years off."

By the way, that same professor has a book coming out this April on estimation........

Prediction: (2, Funny)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597064)

Tokamaks will never be cheap, nor efficient.

Inertial gravitational containment [wikipedia.org] is the holy grail.

Inertial electrostatic containment [google.com] is the next best thing.

Re:Prediction: (1)

confused one (671304) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597114)

http://focusfusion.org/log/index.php [focusfusion.org] may work as well as or better than inertial electrostatic confinement.

Re:Prediction: (1)

OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) | more than 6 years ago | (#22599884)

But ITER is so expensive that these guys can't get funding ... and iter is basically a laboratory experiment, nothing more.

Focus fusion = nonsense (1)

Scareduck (177470) | more than 6 years ago | (#22602908)

Focus fusion is, so far as I can tell, nonsense. Eric Lerner spends way too much time defending his reputation in places like Slashdot [slashdot.org] and Wikipedia [wikipedia.org], defending his dismissal of the Big Bang, a position rejected by most mainstream cosmologists. It is significant that he has been banned from editing his own Wikipedia page [wikipedia.org]. He has never completed an advanced degree anywhere.

Some time ago, I discovered a useful BS detector kit on the Skeptics' Forum [skepticforum.com], and Lerner failed a bunch of these tests, especially test 7 ("Is the development always "on the verge" of being ready? Is the "establishment" always "wrong", and the principal always right?") and test 8 ("Show me peer-reviewed papers and presentations at mainstream scientific conferences by the principals" -- Lerner hasn't published in any of the relevant fusion journals, and most of his peer-reviewed papers are very old and in cosmology journals far afield from fusion).

Re:Prediction: (1)

Dr. Eggman (932300) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597464)

Erm, perhaps I misunderstand you or I have my terms mixed at this late hour, but do maybe mean an Inertial confinement fusion device, like the various laser-driven projects the US have pursued? I usually associate Inertial electrostatic containment with Farnsworth-Hirsch like devices, that seem like a dead research branch to me (for net generation, I mean; for commercial neutron production its a vibrant direction.) Maybe I have my terms mixed abit, but I do think magnetic confinement will not be as cheap as laser driven, but I do think both are valid avenues of research and, given time and funding, produce some form of viable commercial fusion.

The lecture (1)

Dr. Cody (554864) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598176)

While I have no doubt that Dr. Bussard's heart (and science) is in the right place, he wasn't a terribly good frontman for this project in that lecture. He came awfully close to blaming his own failure on a cabal of conspiring fellow scientists--just about the clearest sign of pseudoscience, by anyone's standards.

If you're looking for investors in a room of savvy geeks without a physics background, there's few things you should try harder to avoid than to be mistaken for a quack.

Re:The lecture (3, Interesting)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598292)

It's not just him ya know. Pretty-much every fusion researcher on the planet who isn't working on a Tokamak has had their funding dry up. This isn't because Tokamaks are so close to being ready, quite the opposite.

Re:The lecture (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22599410)

That's interesting to hear. I have a relative who specialized in making a certain measurement on a Tokamak (that's as much as I understood). He left the field entirely, because there wasn't any funding to work with Tokamaks and many of them have shut down. He also always said that a Tokamak would never work for power production and was only used to learn more about how plasma works. He seemed to think this was common knowledge, but I see many angry anti-Tokamak posts here saying otherwise. Luckily for him, there's other reasons beyond fusion to study plasma.

Re:The lecture (2, Informative)

KonoWatakushi (910213) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598364)

Well, perhaps it is in part my physics background, but I didn't get that impression at all. It is a brilliant idea, and even if you aren't familiar with Dr. Bussard, the man knows what he is talking about. He was simply old, somewhat bitter, and impatient--seemingly with good cause. Sadly, he won't see the results of his endeavors, but the research is solid, and thankfully, the navy is following it up.

In any case it has nothing to do with conspiracy theories or blaming fellow scientists. The fact is, basically nothing aside from Tokamak research is funded at a significant level.

20 years... (3, Funny)

1zenerdiode (777004) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597108)

Yes! Clean, reliable fusion power is only twenty years away...remarkably, this has been the case for over 40 years.

Re:20 years... (0)

Heir Of The Mess (939658) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597208)

We should call it a Duke Fusion Nukem Reactor. 20 years indicates that there is some problem that doesn't have a solution. People always imagine that withing 20 years someone will come up with a solution to that problem. So 20 years basically means

1. Attempt to build a fusion reactor with currently known technology
2. ????
3. Profit!

Re:20 years... (1, Interesting)

superash (1045796) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597216)

Well not until the last two years in the last 30 years that the people on this planet realized that we are _really_ going to have a shortage of fossil fuels. You can see a lot of investment starting to pour into the area of Hydrogen cell powered cars because people have realized the issues we will face shortage come ten years from now. Similarly the amount of research going on in the fusion power generation has multiplied 10 times or so in the last 5 years. I think we can surely have some kind of commercial production of power using nuclear fusion by 2035 for sure!

Re:20 years... (2, Interesting)

Chandon Seldon (43083) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597390)

You can see a lot of investment starting to pour into the area of Hydrogen cell powered cars because people have realized the issues we will face shortage come ten years from now.

If anyone had really "realized the issues we will face", they wouldn't have even *considered* hydrogen fuel cells as a solution. Hydrogen fuel cells look great on paper if you assume that the hydrogen and the infrastructure to distribute it will magically appear out of thin air. But it won't, so hydrogen research is just a way for these companies to generate great looking press releases without doing anything useful.

Re:20 years... (1)

superash (1045796) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597440)

Hydrogen fuel cells look great on paper if you assume that the hydrogen and the infrastructure to distribute it will magically appear out of thin air.

What are you implying? If I understand it correctly, going by your logic people will have to buy new cars when a new technology replaces the petrol powered cars so it's a waste researching into those technologies?? Obviously when they were researching into Hydrogen fuel cells the one thing on their mind was *Zero Carbon emission*, but the infrastructure is also coming up and once cars start rolling in full scale things will start catching pace.

Re:20 years... (5, Interesting)

Robert1 (513674) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597618)

Once we discover a large reservoir of concentrated easy to mine hydrogen it will make sense to have a hydrogen energy economy. Currently, I can't think of many things more idiotic than burning carbon fuels to make energy at low efficiency, which is transmitted at low efficiency to a plant, which is harnessed at low efficiency to make hydrogen, which is transported by a familiar large infrastructure of energy using vehicles, to a station where you can fill up your hydrogen car that can burn the hydrogen at low efficiency. I wouldn't be surprised if the amount of energy being consumed (at the plant) compared to the amount actually usable by the hydrogen car is near 1%. What a fucking waste.

Or we could just cut all that shit and have cars that run at 20-40% efficiency burning carbon fuels.

You have GOT to be kidding! (re: hydrogen) (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22598296)

Currently, I can't think of many things more idiotic than burning carbon fuels to make energy at low efficiency, which is transmitted at low efficiency to a plant, which is harnessed at low efficiency to make hydrogen, which is transported by a familiar large infrastructure of energy using vehicles, to a station where you can fill up your hydrogen car that can burn the hydrogen at low efficiency.

That isn't a hydrogen economy.

A hydrogen economy is using renewable but intermittent sources of energy to make & store the hydrogen, then burning the hydrogen in an efficient fuel cell in your electric car, along with other efficiencies such as regenerative braking.

There is no carbon in the cycle at all ... exactly zero carbon emissions. All of your "energy using infrastructure" would also use hydrogen.

And what exactly are "renewable but intermittent sources of energy" you may ask?

The answer is any, or all of the following:
(1) Solar
(2) Artificial photosynthesis (eliminate other steps in the process ... generate hydrogen directly from sunlight),
(3) Wind turbines
(4) Wave energy
(5) Tidal energy
(6) Waste heat (say from a smelter or from a microbiological sewerage treatment plant) coupled with the new high-efficiency thermal engines
(7) Crop waste burn-off
(8) Deep Ocean Thermal Energy
(9) Geothermal

Any source of flaky, "unreliable" (in the sense that it might not be there the exact moment you need it, and it might be abundant when you don't need it) renewable energy is viable in a hydrogen economy. That is because storing the energy as hydrogen removes the imperative of having a power station that can produce "energy on demand".

Re:20 years... (0)

Oktober Sunset (838224) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598354)

Yea, well I own a wind turbine, so fuck you.

Re:20 years... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22599644)

Bully for you. Was it built using materials mined and refined with wind turbines? Transported with sailships? Ohh, I see, it was made 100% with materials from a fossil-fuel source. But it makes you feel better, right?

Re:20 years... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22600096)

Great, a -1 mod. Just stick your fingers in your ears and go "la la la lalaaa" instead of facing the reality that your turbine wasn't made by Smurfs using fantasy-land materials... How's your battery holding up? About time to recycle it and mine some more nickel from Canada to replace it??

Re:20 years... (3, Interesting)

spun (1352) | more than 6 years ago | (#22600362)

Of course the first generation of clean energy infrastructure will have to be built using dirty energy. But then you use the energy from those sources to build the next generation. Like bootstrapping a compiler on a new system. You have to compile it with the old compiler before you can compile it with itself.

I already makes sense today (1)

DrYak (748999) | more than 6 years ago | (#22599722)

Hydrogen already makes sense today. Not from a yield point of view, because as you showed efficiency may not be optimal yet.

But because it concentrates the problem difficulty (creating hydrogen in a carbon neutral way) into one single point (the hydrogen plant) and makes the whole distribution network independent of the solution adopted upstream to produce the fuel.
You will end up in the same situation as the electrical power grid, where the grid itself and the end-user appliance don't need to change or adapt to newer technologies producing electricity. Whereas using coal-burning plants (the ecological equivalent of your description current efficiency in hydrogen production) or nuclear plants, dams, wind, sunlight, etc... : Nothing needs to be adapted, you can always plug the plant to the grid.
In the same way, once there's a distribution network, all that needs to be changed is more efficient methods to produce the hydrogen. The network is already here.

Currently the problems is that if you want to replace current petrol-based car engines with something more ecologically friendly, you have to replace :
- all car engines with the new technology
- create an entirely new distribution network for the new fuel.
All this with the chicken/egg problem, of users not wanting the new technology because there's no useful and practical infrastructure to use it, and industries not want to deploy a new infrastructure because there aren't enough users in the market.

Re:20 years... (2, Interesting)

ztcamper (1051960) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597676)

Some nice batteries are coming up now (someone mentioned we have portable computing to thank for that, which makes sense). I think it's the way to go because infrastructure is already present and just needs to be slightly upgraded. Not to mention it will probably stimulate development of solar power which is nice because it's a way to partially decentralize grid. Hydrogen is a highly volatile fuel that needs to be created and transported. That creates an additional energy cost due to an additional step, which is the case with oil based products as well. Does humanity really need that kind of energy sink due to inefficiency? I mean even if there was an efficient way to produce hydrogen, why add extra production step and a whole new type of infrastructure?

Re:20 years... (1)

gears5665 (699068) | more than 6 years ago | (#22601768)

>why add extra production step and a whole new type of infrastructure? Because Hydrogen can be stored. Electricity cannot be stored easily. Hydrogen is meant to be a battery, not a fuel, in the new economy.

Re:20 years... (1)

wizardforce (1005805) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597686)

there is no infrastructure in place to support current hydrogen fueled cars. About the best thing we could do right now in regard to hydrogen fueled cars would be to have on board reformers that "crack" gasoline/diesel with water to make carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide,light hydrocarbons and hydrogen. filter out the hydrogen whilst sending everything not CO2 back through again. use the hydrogen produced to power fuel cells. The big problem here of course is getting the hydrogen pure enough as to not poison the catalysts. perhaps a zeolite based high temperature fuel cell [not as easily poisoned] but they need to run at a very high temperature, good for cracking the hydrocarbons but bad for getting it to just start up. At least this way we wouldn't need the hydrogen tanks everyone was so freaked out about the other day, nor would we need to immediately create a whole separate infrastructure. It's by definition not zero emission in any way but it opens the door to building a more efficient hydrogen producing infrastructure.

Re:20 years... (2, Insightful)

Ihlosi (895663) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598014)

Obviously when they were researching into Hydrogen fuel cells the one thing on their mind was *Zero Carbon emission*, but the infrastructure is also coming up and once cars start rolling in full scale things will start catching pace.

If you can _make_ all tha hydrogen without emitting any CO2, that would be nice, because it means that you've found an energy source that doesn't emit any CO2.

However, if you have such an energy source, what keeps you from directly or indirectly drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere and produce a hydrocarbon fuel instead of hydrogen ? You'd still have zero net CO2 emissions and would need far fewer changes to the existing infrastructure.

Re:20 years... (2, Informative)

darthdavid (835069) | more than 6 years ago | (#22599106)

I'll give your a hint about just such an energy source. It starts with N and ends with uclear Power.

Re:20 years... (1)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 6 years ago | (#22602486)

I'll give your a hint about just such an energy source. It starts with N and ends with uclear Power.

There's no reason it can't be solar. The crap thing about solar is that it doesn't produce on your schedule. The (only) positive thing about Hydrogen is that you can store it easier and cheaper than electricity in batteries and refuel quicker than you can charge a battery.

If we ever get cheap supercapacitors then there will be basically no reason left to use liquid fuels anywhere but maybe spacecraft. And until we find something better they should probably be nuclear. Build them big enough and you have room for a breeder reactor for reprocessing fuel.

In fact, hydrogen makes less sense with nuclear than with solar because nuclear has high production and runs all the time. Solar is most likely to produce at times of highest demand. But of course either way unused output could be used to produce hydrogen. However, I see this being most practical at a power station, where the hydrogen can be burned in a large stationary turbine for maximum efficiency. (If hydrogen fuel cells actually get good enough for imminent use in street vehicles soon, then I will see more purpose behind the things. Microturbines could also be used for series hybrids but that is less compelling.)

Re:20 years... (4, Insightful)

UbuntuDupe (970646) | more than 6 years ago | (#22599652)

Yes, this is what I had suggested before: "nuclear-powered octane". Run a nuclear plant to get the energy to make octane, using the CO2 in the atmosphere. And yep, a federal lab [nytimes.com] is a few steps ahead of all of us on this one. Like you said, zero net carbon emissions, becuase you're just returning to the atmosphere what you took from it, no need to change the infrastructure, you can make it arbitrarily safe (since the nuclear plant can be located far from populated areas), and you can avoid buying oil from questionable regimes.

WAIT! Quick, environmentalists, rationalize how it's not good enough!

Hydrogen needs a carrier (4, Insightful)

CustomDesigned (250089) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598758)

Putting compressed/liquified hydrogen in tanks is the stupidest possible way to have a hydrogen powered car. Even with future carbon nanotube tanks (like the space elevator), the energy density is still less than current batteries. Steel tanks are a joke. The energy lost in compressing/liquifying the H2 is ridiculous.

To make hydrogen practical requires a carrier. There has been some experimentation with metal carriers, but by far the most efficient hydrogen carrier, packing in far more hydrogen per unit volume than even liquid H2, is carbon. Amazingly, someone/something long ago put huge deposits of carbon-encapsulated hydrogen in giant underground reservoirs for us to use.

The only problem is, the carbon carrier is *supposed* to be recycled, and we haven't bothered doing that, and instead have just dumped all the hydrogen stripped carbon into the atmosphere as CO2, in quantities large enough to alter the atmospheric CO2 levels to a worrisome extent. As soon as we start recycling the carbon like we're supposed to, hydrogen cars will take off. In fact, the infrastructure is already built!

Re:Hydrogen needs a carrier (1)

OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) | more than 6 years ago | (#22599940)

Except ... we don't have the energy for doing that. Solar, wind cannot provide it. Nuclear could maybe provide it for a few dozen years, but not indefineately. Fusion could provide it, but is an unsolved problem ...

That's the sad truth behind it all : we have nuclear power that could help out for, say, 50 years. Perhaps solar and wind can extend that 50 years to 75 or maybe even 100 years. If, by then, we don't have either trivial access to space to place solar panels in space or have fusion power, then it's over. If we don't start building nuclear plants now, in that case, it's over.

"It's over" means, in case anyone really wants to know this : wars until 95% of the population is dead, then back to the farm (no you do not get to skip the first phase), with no medical care, no unemployment (in fact making a stupid mistake will result in starvation), ... in other words, back to the middle ages.

Re:Hydrogen needs a carrier (1)

clonan (64380) | more than 6 years ago | (#22600314)

I understand where you are coming from but I have to disagree on several points...

#1 Malthusian perdictions for certain doom in 50-100 years have been around for almost 400 years in the current form and more religious forms before that but it hasn't happened yet because people invent new things or societies to compensate.

#2 There is no reason to expect the entier industrialized world to collapse all at once. While resource limits WILL cause major problems, why would you expect China to fal at the same time as the US or Europe etc. Historically this has not been the case. So while some areas will regress, other areas are likley to maintain modern level technology, by taking the resources from other areas.

#3 Your senario is predicated on the idea that oil will just "run out" which will not be the case. As we are seeing, as demand for oil goes up (because of increased use and or decreased supply) the price goes up which makes it profitable to extract it from less viable fields. But at the same time, the higher oil prices makes it more economically fesable to say purchase solar power for your house along with an electric car...and this increases the demand there which speeds development. Eventually the cost of extracting oil will be higher than a different energy source, say solar with 50% efficiency, cracking CO2 and water into fuel. When that happens you will see an extremly rapid shift to alternate power. The solar falling on the earth is enough to provide for our predicted energy growth for the next few hundred years WITHOUT miracle technolgy.

#4 With current nuclear technology we could support our energy consumption almost indeffinetly. Thorium reactors are extremly safe, create relativly little radioactivity and can even "burn up" highly radioactive waste with nutron bombardment. We can make bio-disel from essentially large ponds at very little cost (almost competitive with oil). There are many other examples we could use.

#4 if society trully collapsed from oil going away, it wouldn't go back to the middle ages, it would go back to about 1750 and quickly advance since many texts will remain. In order to go back farther you would need an active diruption (like nuclear winter type senarios) for more than 50 years (the likley span of 2 generations). Unless you prevent effective education of everyone, society won't fall much past 1750 levels and if you do we will end up in the stone age, hunter-gatherer level.

Now with all this said, you are right, finding a sustainable energy source is important. However we are not at an emergency really and I doubt we will every actually get there. Economics will garuntee that alternatives are developed before we crash.

Cycle of Civilization (1)

CustomDesigned (250089) | more than 6 years ago | (#22600402)

There is lots historical precedent for your depressing prognosis. But there is usually the "next" civilization waiting to take the place of the one going down in flames. That was the case with Babylon -> Medo-Persia -> Greece -> Rome. In the aftermath of Rome, we have had Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Britain take center stage (not in that order) for their 100 years of world dominion - the offspring of Rome. Then came the US - the offspring of Britain, with its rival USSR (like Carthage against Rome), but now both on their way out. Who's next? China? India? Africa? China looks like the obvious candidate, but I think Africa will surprise us one day. And India (also offspring of Britain in many ways) has the population, technology base, and less of an oppressive government than China.

If I'm still around, I hope it's India and not China coming up next. One thing I'll say for Britain, their colonies, however peaceful or violent their bids for independence, have retained a great deal of freedom for individuals.

Re:Cycle of Civilization (1)

OeLeWaPpErKe (412765) | more than 6 years ago | (#22610040)

I have to disagree. Rome died because of unchecked immigration, not because of lack of energy (they're all good people right ? 10 years later "Oh hmmm I thought Rome was here"), and because of a refusal to defend itself from agressors.

It was not followed by the countries you mention but by "darkness" ie. people who didn't care to write down their history, but lived more in denial of their own history, and what happened isn't clear. 200 years later however the Franks (not the french) were the first to restore order and the rule of law. The greatest desire of basically everyone on the European continent was recreating the Roman empire.

After Rome refused to defend itself, life expectancy of europeans dropped from about 65 years to below 30, and remained below 40 for 1000 years.

Rome's demise had nothing to do with a lack of energy, or even a lack of ability to defend itself. It was conquered because it allowed massive immigration to occur, and presumed these "vandals" (the name had no negative connotations at the time, it was just a name like "the French" is today) would peacefully compete in the existing economic system. They couldn't imagine that people who regularly killed their own children might ... lie. In short Rome fell, because of the same reason poland fell so easy to germany in 1939 : hitler said "I want peace", and they forced their military to retreat "to avoid a war". After the war it became clear that the order to invade poland was given 8,5 hours before hitler declared to want peace with poland if only they would retreat. Oops. In fact the german troops had started to move before this "peace" speech was delivered.

If you're wondering why people went along with hitler, it has to do with 1) hitler being extreme-left 2) the rest of europe WANTING to be extreme-left. Hitler was the man that would make every human equal, instead of there being "poor" and "rich" people. It was VERY politically incorrect to go against him until 1941 (which is why it created such a big fuss in England). Obviously the nazis immediately started to kill off people, and mainly their supporters.

The invaders of Rome started on a killing spree to steal the Roman richess (and eachother's richess) and didn't stop killing for over 150 years. Few parts of Europe were spared from these wars. Lots of people, totally dependant on Rome for their own food, started stealing, looting the Roman infrastructure, which, obviously, immediately failed to provide food and sustinence for the locals. In less than 10 years they killed of their main source of food, and instead of stopping and rebuildling they kept killing and killing some more. Every conquest allowed their army to survive maybe 2-3 years, and so after a year they had to attack again. They did not rebuild (kind of like the muslim wars in north africa). Soon they only had eachother to kill though, and so massive numbers of people were lost, a majority of the victims were part of the invading force, and not of the romans.

(much like one of their contemporaries did, except this guy called it a religion)

Re:20 years... (3, Funny)

jd (1658) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597318)

Froma researcher's point of view, it's more profitable to have further research. Actually getting things into production would eliminate the chance of pushing the research costs up. Investors would look at it as further research tidying up the details and cleaning up loose ends. It is in their interests never to have a final conclusion. The best answer is to give them a significantly larger budget and a restricted timeline. Give the researchers ten times the budget, lock them in a research facility in North Dakota. Tie the air conditioning and heating to a timer. Each year, reduce the power. Either they build a reactor in the designated time, or suffer the climate. The ultimate in extreme reality shows, where getting kicked off is not a good idea.

Re:20 years... (1)

JaredOfEuropa (526365) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598518)

Yes, I also remember how fission plants would give us electricity so cheap that it wouldn't be worthwhile to meter it.

However there are proposed roadmaps to commercial fusion [iter.org] that are a bit more detailed than "ask me again in 20 years". The plan in that link puts the first commercial fusion reactor at around 2050 though.

Re:20 years... (1)

kidtexas (525194) | more than 6 years ago | (#22599570)

HAHA... If funding was not so horrendous, maybe it would have happened, or at least be a lot closer. Fusion funding went from around $400 mill/year to around $200 mill in the early 90's. It's finally crept back up to ~$300 mill now, and this year was supposed to be the first big year of ITER funding, but Congress zeroed out the ITER budget with little warning. With the prospect of continuing resolutions for the FY09 budget highly likely, chances are, ITER will not be funded by the US for the first 2 years. Theres a lot more to the story than it is just a hard problem. It is. I feel confident that we can do it. ITER *should* demonstrate a burning plasma in the 2020 time frame (I think the DT experiments are around 2022?), and the next step (DEMO) should be a functioning demontstration reactor, which will be the prototype for a commercial reactor. Of course, there's a CTF (component test facility) tucked in there somewhere. Take with a grain of salt - ITER has been years in the making and won't start running until 10 years after construction starts. So you figure even if everyone stays on time and on budget, and we say that these things take 10 years minimum to build, you have 10 (ITER) + 10 (DEMO) + 10 (commercial reactor) = 30 years before power is on the grid. And that is super optimistic. So say 50ish. But we are within striking distance.

fusion energy (1)

nicknack (123089) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597132)

economically feasible fusion power by 2035
again? that confirms the suspicion that viable fusion-energy always has and will be around 30 years in the future. people have been saying this for decades. they should just say "when it's done!".

Re:fusion energy (3, Insightful)

NorbrookC (674063) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597180)

I don't know if you can say "always will be" 30 years in the future, but I'll admit it seems that way. I remember the same stories back in the 70's, and yes, we were supposed to be building our first commercial fusion plants right about now.

I have to wonder if other approaches, or a look at possibly some new ones wouldn't be a better idea. It seems that the constant with that 30 years is that it always involves "a bigger tokamak than we have now."

Re:fusion energy (1)

Wildclaw (15718) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597388)

Saying something like

economically feasible fusion power by 2035
is the equivalent of saying. We have no idea when and if fusion is going to be readily availible, so we are going to estimate a date so far into the future that noone will remember this article if the prediction fails, but not far enough for it to be seen as impossible.

Duh... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22597166)

In the "future" things will be "better"...

From TFA... (1)

djupedal (584558) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597196)

"And then, there's the inevitable bad news: The first-gen RoboScooter will not be very robotic. The original concept developed by the Media Lab's Smart Cities research group called for wheels that were essentially self-contained robots, with dedicated processors that could optimize braking and suspension. In a four-wheel configuration, these wheeled bots would also control steering. The group's City Car design, for example, allows each wheel to turn independently. For a scooter, computer-controlled steering isn't necessarily more efficient than old-fashioned handlebars. But for now, the point is moot, because the first RoboScooters to hit the streets won't have wheels any more intelligent than a Vespa's."

Does the 2035 RoboScooter sound a bit too much like a SegWay?

I'll believe it when.. (1)

quetzalblue (953290) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597210)

I see that flying car or something else that's been on Popular Science's front page in real life. Glad I canceled that stupid magazine subscription thirty some odd years ago. BTW, anybody know if Scientific American has been following Popular Science into the crapper too ?

Re:I'll believe it when.. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22597430)

BTW, anybody know if Scientific American has been following Popular Science into the crapper too ?

Never read Popular Science, but if I had to describe how SciAm appears to me after not having a subscription for 15 years I'd say "It looks like Popular Science."

Meaning it seems considerably dumbed down since the last time I had a subscription. Only reason I have a subscription now is the airlines kept bugging me to spend the few leftover frequent flier miles I had and SciAm was one of the magazine offerings.

Re:I'll believe it when.. (1)

SpaceWanderer (1181589) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597726)

Just go for Pop Mechanics. IMO, it has interesting articles thAT are written on the same level as today's sctAm, but it doesn't pretend to be more intellectual than it really is. It's watered down for the public.

Re:I'll believe it when.. (2, Insightful)

ResidntGeek (772730) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598012)

Why not Nature? Their News and Views section explains the important papers at a layman's level, and the papers are, of course, the real science uncorrupted by journalism.

Re:I'll believe it when.. (1)

kalirion (728907) | more than 6 years ago | (#22602898)

Well, the technology is definitely there to make an affordable flying car (in the same way that a Porsche is affordable at least.) The technology isn't there to ensure that thousands of people in the same airspace don't crash into one another on a regular basis.

We don't understand plasmas. (4, Interesting)

mako1138 (837520) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597232)

The truth is, we still don't fully understand how plasmas act in the real world. The article alludes to this, by mentioning turbulence and instability. Fluid models and magnetohydrodynamics just aren't detailed enough, and full-blown simulations are far too complex to be of much use on a fusion-reactor scale.

A key concept is "transport". What a fusion reactor requires is to keep heat bottled up. The ions in particular need to be kept hot so that they can fuse. What happens, though, is that heat gets dumped from the ions into the electrons (which are useless for fusion) at a rate which exceeds theoretical predictions -- one of many "anomalous transport" phenomena. (Great phrase, which you may recognize from HL.)

Bottom line: we need to do more research on fundamental plasma physics for fusion. Yet for whatever reason, fusion funding has been dropping for decades.

Heat transfer (2, Interesting)

Dr. Cody (554864) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598236)

A nagging question about these fusion devices they've been talking about: How do they plan on extracting the energy from the reaction?

By convection/conduction with waste products being ejected from the "reactor" (not a bad term, imho)? By radiation?

Are they intended to be connected to some thermodynamic cycle or something more exotic? What kind of heat transfer temperatures are people talking about? Several thousand kelvins, or something more conventional?

Re:Heat transfer (3, Interesting)

mako1138 (837520) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598348)

Most of the energy from DT fusion comes out in the form of fast neutrons. What's envisioned (emphasis on envisioned) is to have a lithium "blanket" surrounding the first reactor wall that will 1) be heated by neutrons 2) breed tritium for the fuel cycle. For bonus points make this a molten lithium system and run it through a heat exchanger. The rest is just a standard balance of plant: steam generator and turbine. Nothing exotic.

The main problem is dealing with all these pesky neutrons. Aneutronic fusion avoids them, but is far more difficult than DT fusion.

no one single problem (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22599322)

Those fast neutrons are a big deal, but it isn't the only 'main problem.' The instabilities and distruptions of the plasma discharge and the thermal requirements for the vessel 'first wall' are a huge impediment as well. If any single one of these issues are unresolved there is NOT going to be a power producing reactor.

ITER, for example (1)

iamlucky13 (795185) | more than 6 years ago | (#22604320)

The walls of the reactor will heat up due to neutron collisions and radiative heat transfer. In ITER, this heat will be conducted to a water cooling system. Temperatures in the plasma will be millions of degrees. Temperatures at the first structural layer, the "blanket" will be somewhere around 1000 K, I believe. Definitely below the melting temperature of reasonable materials. The gigantic electromagnets keep the superhot plasma stable and away from the walls, as much to keep the plasma hot as to keep the walls "cold."

ITER, however, will not operate as a power plant. The cooling water will just dump heat through cooling towers. It's purely a research reactor to study the stability and sustainability of plasma's with Q > 1, and establish operational conditions for the next reactor, known as DEMO. Because it's not really intended to run for more than about 500 seconds at a shot, it's not economical to try to get useful amounts of electricity out of ITER, although adding a turbine in loop with the cooling system is not fundamentally out of the question.

DEMO will be designed for continuous or near-continuous operation. Depending how successful ITER is (and the International Fusion Materials Irradiation Facility, which will develop the appropriate materials for the high neutron flux in a fusion reactor), DEMO may be another intermediate research reactor to finalize a workable commercial design, or it may be the final prototype, with other commercial reactors starting construction about the same time. The plan is to use a similar cooling system, but connect a steam turbine to it.

Regarding the operational byproducts (primarily stable helium), there is a feature in the bottom of the reactor called a diverter. I'm not sure exactly how it works, but my understanding is the helium reaction product being heavier, it tends to the bottom of the plasma, where being on the periphery it cools more and falls out the vents or is magnetically guided out. Moving away from your question, the article says the first commercial reactors will be built in the 2035 time frame. Oddly the ITER team doesn't think so [iter.org]. My understanding is 2035 is potentially feasible if they are able to build DEMO as an operational prototype rather than an additional research plant, but if they need to do further research with DEMO, it will be at least 10, probably more like 15 more years before commercial plants will be available.

Of course, all of this assumes the member countries follow through on their financial and in-kind committments in a timely manner. The US butchered our budget for ITER contributions for 2008. Not a good move on our part, IMO.

As a final note, the article makes a big deal about MIT's PSFC. This strikes me as slightly odd. I'm sure the work being done at MIT is valuable for understanding plasma stability, but in my opinion the Japanese JT-60 reactor, which holds the endurance record for a sustaining a 28 second plasma burn and achieving conditions which with a different fuel mix would have exceeded unity, or the Joint European Torus, which is currently the largest Tokamak in operation (and fuels the reaction by shooting frozen pellets of deuterium into the core 50 times per second...how cool is that?) are both much more exciting.

Re:Heat transfer (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22605452)

"How do they plan on extracting the energy from the reaction?"

The Focus Fusion project has an interesting suggestion to convert the energy, which comes out in the form of x-rays and fast moving electrons (IIRC) directly to electricity, skipping the steam turbines. The x-rays would be converted to electricity with thousands of layers of metal foil, via the photoelectric effect. The energy of the electrons (or was it ions?) is captured by a coil that is colinear with the particle stream emitted by the reaction.

It's a cool idea. I have no idea if it is possible or practical, but I like that it skips the heat engine.

Re:We don't understand plasmas. (1)

Eukariote (881204) | more than 6 years ago | (#22599442)

Yet for whatever reason, fusion funding has been dropping for decades.

The reason is simple: unrealistic always 30-years-away hot fusion schemes (Tokomak-based, mostly) are being promoted to take attention and funding away from cheap energy alternatives and preserve the money-spinning oil/gas/coal/nuclear energy status quo. Much cheaper alternatives do exist. Thin film solar in combination with cheap storage http://www.google.com/search?q=eestor&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8 [google.com] for example.

The US has pulled funding of ITER (the planned international Tokokmak research reactor) http://www.spiked-online.com/index.php?/site/article/4559/ [spiked-online.com] Let's hope that this is in indication that the hot-fusion farce is about to end.

FYI (5, Informative)

djupedal (584558) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597246)

Link directly to the cities.media.mit.edu info/scoot photo... [mit.edu]

Bypassing the ever-silly: /.Soulskill/anonymous(again /.)/PM biz ...enjoy.
-=-=-= -=-=-=

Scooter with ITRI and Sanyang Motors

RoboScooter - Clean, Green Mobility for Today's Crowded Cities

The RoboScooter is a lightweight, folding, electric motor scooter. It is designed to provide convenient, inexpensive mobility in urban areas while radically reducing the negative effects of extensive vehicle use - road congestion, excessive consumption of space for parking, traffic noise, air pollution, carbon emissions that exacerbate global warming, and energy use. It is clean, green, silent, and compact.

People Ryan Chin, PhD Candidate, Smart Cities, Media Lab Yaniv Fain, Sloan School Michael Chia-Liang Lin, MSc Candidate, Smart Cities, Media Lab Arthur Petron, Mechanical Engineering Raul-David "Retro" Poblano, MSc Candidate, Smart Cities, Media Lab Andres Sevtsuk, PhD Candidate, Dept. of Urban Studies & Planning

SYM/Sanyang Motors Grand Wu Wan Ching Chang

ITRI Wen-Jean Hsueh Eugene Hsiao Ying-Tzu Lin Barbara Yeh

You know what is screwed up (1, Troll)

lordvalrole (886029) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597770)

" Even that protracted timeline now appears optimistic. Since 2006, when seven member countries committed to the ITER's $10 billion budget, federal funding for scientific research in the United States appears to have bottomed out. The U.S. agreed to pay 9.1 percent of the project's total cost--but of the $160 million contribution planned for this year, Congress has approved just $10.7 million. Porkolab says eight ITER engineers had been laid off without severance pay. "

I love how we can spend a shit ton of money on a ridiculous fantasy war and we wont actually fund something that actually has some merit. Too bad the terrorists missed and got the wrong people, they should of went after our congress. What a bunch of worthless old people that run our country.

These articles are about the only things that restores my faith about humanity. That is sad.

Re:You know what is screwed up (1)

damburger (981828) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598244)

Probably has something to do with it being built in France. The US government seems to have a big chip on it's shoulder about being top in science, gets pissy in international collaborations, and shoots itself in the foot by sabotaging its own science prospects and driving American scientists elsewhere.

Re:You know what is screwed up (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22604440)

But it's being built in France partially because we didn't push heavily for the project early on. In fact, we temporarily withdrew from the project under Clinton, which was when ITER really got rolling. From that point on, there was no chance of a US site being selected.

However, the ITER team was not insensitive to politics, which is partially why a large part of the member country committments are "in-kind" material contributions or data processing once it's operating. In other words, most of the jobs from the US contribution stay in the US.

Re:You know what is screwed up (1)

oldbamboo (936359) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598338)

I thought the same, but there is a school of thought, backed up historically, that any kind of government sanction, expenditure, funding and protection of science is worthless, and that the real great leaps forward in science (Industrial revolution, rennaisance) took place at a time when it was absent. I don't want to put on my laissez faire capitalist hat here, but you only have to look at what is happening in the area of patents lately, to wonder what good the policing and management of science serves. And MIT must get nearly all their money from the private sector, like a good many universities surely. Should government be involved at all? For me, all I want is for them to make sure my bins get emptied, the streets are lit, and there are emergency services and schools etc. And also, that they are able to rain clinical death on anyone who disagrees with us... :-)

Re:You know what is screwed up (1)

TheLink (130905) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598586)

"that any kind of government sanction, expenditure, funding and protection of science is worthless"

There were plenty of advances.
The atom bomb and fission reactors (Manhattan project etc).
The Apollo project got people to the moon. There were missions to Mars, Mercury, Venus etc.
The Internet kind of works - except they should have not gone for 32 bit IP addresses.

Unfortunately after about 1980 we've been mostly seeing "reruns" ;).

I think people started spending a lot more time and resources trying to patent crap (or sue people) instead of actually coming up with something new.

Re:You know what is screwed up (1)

c6gunner (950153) | more than 6 years ago | (#22598740)

I love how we can spend a shit ton of money on a ridiculous fantasy war and we wont actually fund something that actually has some merit.
And what exactly does war have to do with fusion research? You may as well complain that the US spends billions on welfare and medicaid, instead of funding fusion. At least with war you have something to show for it: we get to see shit blow up! Meanwhile welfare just sucks money out of the budget year after year, with no visible results. You've been funding it for DECADES, with no progress! In fact, it's only getting worse! It's a quagmire! Pull out now!

Obviously I'm being sarcastic, but you're being a troll so I figure we're even.

These articles are about the only things that restores my faith about humanity. That is sad.
Yes, yes it is.

Re:You know what is screwed up (1)

lordvalrole (886029) | more than 6 years ago | (#22603128)

I am not even close to being a troll. If American congress actually focused on the right things instead of things like war then we would be in much better shape. The war has made things worse not better.

You are right though, Medicaid and welfare are major problems, but you have to fix one thing before you can start on another. War has a lot to do with fusion research. Everyone knows the reason why we are over there is energy (oil). We need to secure the oil because US depends on it so heavily that with out it, our economy starts to take a dump. We need to do exactly what we did with the Manhattan project. Give all the funding we need to, to leading world scientists and essentially lock them in a room and figure this shit out.

It is very relevant because there are a lot of things we could of done with the money. Yet our congress keeps funding this war. Afghanistan was the only place we should of gone but our mighty cowboy of a leader had to get greedy. Anyone who says we are fighting terrorists over there so we don't fight them over here is just fooling themselves. First of all you can't fight terrorism. I am sorry but if anything this war has pissed off a lot more people and made things a lot worse. So, yes I get a little agro when I see science and math and projects go out the window because our congress is dumb. After all our interwebz is run on tubez.

http://www.commondreams.org/archive/2008/01/21/6507/ [commondreams.org]

2035 (1)

nguy (1207026) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597824)

Cheap fusion is just around the corner--20 years from now. It's been that way for 30 years, and it will continue to be that way for the next 50 years.

Scooter? Look China! (3, Interesting)

sam0737 (648914) | more than 6 years ago | (#22597962)

You should look China when you are talking about Scooter.

They have a wide selections in Carrefour, or whatever Supermarket.
Price tag: ~1200RMB (150USD). Probably can goes up to 30MPH.

May be not as stylish as the MIT one, but definitely cheap, usable and actually are all over the streets. And there are more scooter than bicycle on the street.

Some models looks just like more than a hack of Bicycle + Motor + Battery pack, but works! Most design with battery pack can be swap out, and can be plugged to the main directly for charging. I have seen the janitor in Office bringing her pack upstair for charging.

It's just cheap!

Heim Drive = Gravioty confinement! (1)

jameskojiro (705701) | more than 6 years ago | (#22600266)

Create a localized intense gravity field using a Heim drive = really easy confinement!

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