Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Our friend the atom

Yesterday the nations of Europe as well as China, Japan, the US, Russia and South Korea all finalized a deal to build the experimental ITER fusion reactor in Cadarache, France. I'm not wildly optimistic of the prospects for ITER - even it's proponents acknowledge it won't be ready for commercialization for decades (2040?) and cost billions.

Let me say very briefly that if we haven't solved our energy problems (and the climate crisis they produce) by 2040, ITER will be much too little, much too late.

There are two other methods I've been learning about for fusion. One, which I've written about before, is Focus Fusion's dense plasma focus. The other, and this I've just read about recently, is from Robert Bussard, who I confess I thought was dead.

(The nerdy will recognize Bussard's name from the Bussard Ramjet, his hypothetical design for a starship that scoops hydrogen fuel out of the interstellar medium.)

Both Bussard and Focus Fusion are working on much smaller designs than the ITER project, and both have as their eventual goal fusing hydrogen and boron, to produce electricity with extremely minimal radioactive products. Instead of the decades-long time horizon of ITER, both projects are claiming a 5-year timeline.

Now, I'm not a physicist and am wary of talking too much about either of these groups, simply because western countries have fallen for the "limitless, cheap power of the atom" ploy before. That, and I am in no way competent to evaluate their claims. If you think you are, you can watch Bussard's very, very technical lecture to the staff of Google here.

I'm a big fan of solar, wind, and other forms of renewables. But the promise of actually getting fusion right is huge, and I don't think we should be too pessimistic.

2 comments:

adam said...

Hey, that just about fits in with the Conservatives' environmental plan! This way, they can just say they're waiting around for the fusion reactor to be ready, and then BAM! We'll just build some reactors around 2045 and slip in under the 2050 deadline.

Easy.

M. Simon said...

The Bussard Fusion Reactor would be done in about 5 years. At the end of that time it is either yes or no.