Saturday, June 14, 2008

Fusion update: WB7 Polywell "runs like a top"...

As you will know, your humble Devil is a big believer in the idea that technology will save us from any impending oil crisis, climate change disaster, or what have you. Call it my faith, if you will.

One of the technologies that I have been following for a few years is the Polywell fusion reactor, first proposed by Philo T Farnsworth and recently ressurrected by the late Dr Robert Bussard.

I am delighted to report therefore, via the IEC Fusion Technology blog, that the machine appears to be coming along pretty well.
Alan Boyle has a new report on the goings on in New Mexico at EMC2 Fusion Labs.
Emc2 Fusion's Richard Nebel can't say yet whether his team's garage-shop plasma experiment will lead to cheap, abundant fusion power. But he can say that after months of tweaking, the WB-7 device "runs like a top" - and he's hoping to get definitive answers about a technology that has tantalized grass-roots fusion fans for years.

Dr Nebel has been rather quiet lately in the usual forum he frequents, so this update is very welcome to all us grass-roots fusion fans.
"We're kind of a combination of high tech and Home Depot, because a lot of this stuff we make ourselves," Nebel told me today. "We're operating out of a glorified garage, but it's appropriate for what we're doing."

The Emc2 team has been ramping up its tests over the past few months, with the aim of using WB-7 to verify Bussard's WB-6 results. Today, Nebel said he's confident that the answers will be forthcoming, one way or the other.

"We're fully operational and we're getting data," Nebel said. "The machine runs like a top. You can just sit there and take data all afternoon."

Now compare "We're operating out of a glorified garage..." with ITER's 30% cost over run so far.

ITER is, of course, the tokamac style fusion reactor that a number of countries (including the EU) have agreed to fund.
On November 21, 2006, the seven participants formally agreed to fund the project. The program is anticipated to last for 30 years—10 for construction, and 20 of operation—and cost approximately US$ 9.3 billion, which would make it one of the most expensive modern technoscientific megaprojects. It will be based in Cadarache, France. It is technically ready to start construction and the first plasma operation is expected in 2016.

Those who have been paying attention at The Kitchen will remember that the WB7 Polywell reactor achieved first plasma back in January of this year. When one looks at the cost of ITER, it is also worth remembering what the EMC2 Corporation are estimating in terms of costs.

Fusion R&D Phase 1—Validate and review WB-6 results:
1.5–2 years / $3-5M

Fusion R&D Phase 2—Design, build and test full scale 100 MW Fusion System:
5 years / $200M

Successful Phase 2 marks the end of fossil fuels

If the Polywell model works—and it does seem to be bowling along nicely or, as Dr Nebel put it, "The machine runs like a top"—then we have a real possility of being able to generate cheap, clean power for the forseeable future. It will be nothing less than a revolution.

There certainly seems to be little hope as far as the ITER is concerned, as Power and Control blog puts it.
Let me see if I can guess a little about the problems. This phrase "coordinating between the participant nations" particularly stood out. Usually what that means in government speak is lavish parties disguised as conferences at exotic destinations.

And the redesign? Some of the problems were known for twenty years. They were only addressed after the initial design was completed. First you sell the sizzle. Then, when the customer has bought in, you advise that the steak will cost extra.

I hinted at this in my piece The Secret Of The Tokamak.
Here is the dirty little tokamak secret—"The last one didn't work, shows no promise of working, and new difficulties have been encountered. I have a plan. We will make the next one 3X bigger." For 40 years.

Eventually the marks wise up.

The US cut ITER out of the Federal Budget earlier this year. Maybe it was not just a move by Congress to PO Bush. Maybe it had something to do with Congress actually paying attention to the real experts.

Hmmm, so the US marks seem to have wised up: have our politicians done the same? Have they fuck.
I have heard rumors that Congress is interested in the Bussard Fusion Reactor. If it works out (Bussard Fusion Reactor Funded) ITER (a tokamak design) would be a waste. Or as Plasma Physicist Dr. Nicholas Krall said, "We spent $15 billion dollars studying tokamaks and what we learned about them is that they are no damn good."

I think the problem with the Euros is that they are slow learners. Stephen Dean nails it at the end of the piece quoted above:
Dean anticipates that the new budget will ultimately be approved. “This thing has gotten a life of its own—it’s almost irrelevant how much it costs or what it’s for.”

At least it is on their dime. Mostly.

Strangely, that quote reminds me of another EU technical endeavour: the Galileo satellite system which is also completely pointless, massively expensive and will be utterly superannuated by the time that it is completed. Oh, and like ITER, Galileo is part-funded by the cuddly People's Republic of China.

Meanwhile, the Polywell fusion reactor has been funded by the US Navy for some years now, a fact that is rumoured to be not entirely unconnected with the awesome power needed to fire an effective rail gun of a type not unadjacent to the one fired by the US Navy in February this year.

Anyway, let us hope that the Polywell does work out; I shall continue to follow its progress with a great deal of interest. And, if you have a few grand to spare, you could even have a go at starting a fusion programme in your home town...


Kay Tie said...

Galileo is based on the premise that Europe cannot trust the Americans to not threaten to switch off GPS. And let's face it, it's not a wild fantasy given what Bush has done all over the world, is it?

There are some splendid technical features to Galileo that could enable all kinds of interesting applications (e.g. self-driving cars). The cost is mere chump change compared to what's whizzed up the wall by New Labour every week (how many Galileos do you get for 1 ID card scheme?).

Anonymous said...

Galileo would also allow ZaNuLabour or more likely their EU masters to track your car continuously and issue speeding tickets relentlessly. Are you sure you trust them with this kind of power? Personally I would trust the Americans more than the piss pots in Brussels, or is it Strasbourg this week?

Anonymous said...

"Galileo would also allow ZaNuLabour or more likely their EU masters to track your car continuously and issue speeding tickets relentlessly."

Only if you don't put tin foil around the antenna...

"Are you sure you trust them with this kind of power?"

Of course not.

a very public sociologist said...

Being ignorant of techie things, as more GPS systems are manufactured surely they will place more demand on the satellite network? Won't the Galileo system at least double the available tracking capacity?

Kay Tie said...

"Being ignorant of techie things, as more GPS systems are manufactured surely they will place more demand on the satellite network? Won't the Galileo system at least double the available tracking capacity?"

Ah bless. Let me give you an analogy:

"Being ignorant of techie things, as more FM radios are manufactured, surely they will place more demand on the transmitters? Won't the new Five Live FM service at least double the number of FM radios that can be used?"

knirirr said...

... technology will save us from ... climate change disaster

Indeed so — bring on the fusion power!

CountingCats said...

Galileo is based on the premise that Europe cannot trust the Americans to not threaten to switch off GPS.

My understanding is the Yanks can't "switch off" the civilian component without depriving themselves of the facility, and we have been assured, promised, guaranteed, that Galileo will have "no military application whatsoever, promise guv".

Billll said...

The big selling point of liquid fuels, (think oil and its derivatives) is that it lends itself to use in a mobile environment, such as planes, trains, and automobiles.

I don't know how it's done in England, but in the US, most electricity is generated using coal, which is easily handled and cheap in bulk, requiring mostly just enough space to do the handling.

Fusion, if it works, could certainly displace coal as a significantly cleaner stationary power source, but I'm not seeing it as much of a mobile source with the exception of marine applications, where space and weight are less of a consideration.

Oil will continue to be the fuel of choice for cars and planes, and of course feedstock for the plastics industries.

As to GPS systems: any system that can guide your car across town to a specific address, can guide a missile across your border with the same accuracy.

Vasey said...

Fusion power would have a hard time replacing oil directly - though recent research work in battery technology may finally make electric cars truly viable if it can make mass production - but massively abundant and cheap electricity would render the extraction of oil from now uneconomical sources, such as oil shale in the US, much more viable. Dodgy as the Americans can be, better them than the bloody Saudis.

Roger Thornhill said...

1. The US can switch on Selective Access which degrades the signal, reducing the accuracy. However, eggheads out there have managed to interpolate the accuracy back in to a significant degree (I admire those guys who are so scary smart).

2. Galileo would enable the EU to operate if China took out the US system, which I suspect it may do if a Taiwan Situation kicked off.

3. Fusion CAN replace most uses of fuel oil, for the electricity produced by the Fusion power can be used to synthesize hydrocarbons like Methanol and on to more petrol and diesel forms using CO2 and Water as the base materials (for that is basically what is produced when it is burnt, and you are just reversing the process to create a store of energy). The only reason we do not do that now is it is DAFT considering we still burn the stuff to PRODUCE electricity!

4. Galileo will attempt to charge us for each access, via some form of licensing of the decoder algorithms on the chipset. One reason for a push to road pricing - the MUST have a way to FORCE people to buy these chipsets so it all can be paid for. Nice fat wedges of cash for their mates at Siemens etc.

Anonymous said...

There's a petition up, for all the good it'll do.