Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fusion or Illusion?

Writing last week in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman referred to fusion energy as The Next Really Cool Thing. On a recent visit to the auspiciously named National Ignition Facility, or N.I.F., at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 50 miles east of San Francisco, Friedman reports on touring a facility that could be what Metro Green likes to refer to as the Central Front in war on fossil fuel.
"Cynics often say that viable fusion energy or hydrogen-powered cars are “20 years away and always will be.”

But what if this time is different? What if a laser-powered fusion energy power plant that would have all the reliability of coal, without the carbon dioxide, all the cleanliness of wind and solar, without having to worry about the sun not shining or the wind not blowing, and all the scale of nuclear, without all the waste, was indeed just 10 years away or less? That would be a holy cow game-changer.

Are we there?

That is the tantalizing question I was left with..."
In case the fusion concept is new to you, here's Friedman's description:
I began my tour there with the N.I.F. director, Edward Moses. He was holding up a tiny gold can the size of a Tylenol tablet, and inside it was plastic pellet, the size of a single peppercorn, that would be filled with frozen hydrogen.

The way the N.I.F. works is that all 192 lasers pour their energy into a target chamber, which looks like a giant, spherical, steel bathysphere that you would normally use for deep-sea exploration. At the center of this target chamber is that gold can with its frozen hydrogen pellet. Once one of those pellets is heated and compressed by the lasers, it reaches temperatures over 800 million degrees Fahrenheit, “far greater than exists at the center of our sun,” said Moses.

More importantly, each crushed pellet gives off a burst of energy that can then be harnessed to heat up liquid salt and produce massive amounts of steam to drive a turbine and create electricity for your home — just like coal does today. Only this energy would be carbon-free, globally available, safe and secure and could be integrated seamlessly into our current electric grid.
But if the notion is not so far out, or far off, InventorSpot,
a website billing itself as "Serious Fun For The Inventor In All Of Us," brings realistic news from a European research facility, HiPER (High Power laser Energy Research):

Perhaps a lesser known alternative is nuclear fusion--the same process that fuels the sun and the stars. To hear its potential--a method that offers enough energy for the world's power, a limitless fuel supply, and no greenhouse gas emissions--it sounds like an ideal solution.

But while it's one of the only foreseeable methods to completely eliminate our reliance on natural gas, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 0%, development of a nuclear fusion reactor will take time. Actually, it already has--one of the biggest criticisms of the idea is that, after 40 years of research, there have been no significant breakthroughs. Most dishearteningly, scientists have not yet been able to contain a nuclear fusion reaction long enough to produce more energy than is required to perform the reaction.

If it's hard to know exactly what to make of these reports, it's equally hard not to be enthusiastic. No GHGs, clean, renewable power and all based on the underpinning principle of nuclear power: E=MC2.

Assuming it can be made to work, what's not to like?

1 comment:

  1. all the cleanliness of wind and solar, without having to worry about the sun not shining or the wind not blowing, and all the scale of nuclear