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Technology - Nov 22

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Video: Should Google Go Nuclear? Clean, cheap, nuclear power (no, really)

Robert Bussard, Google Tech Talks on Google Video
This is not your father's fusion reactor! Forget everything you know about conventional ... all thinking on nuclear fusion: high-temperature plasmas, steam turbines, neutron radiation and even nuclear waste are a thing of the past. Goodbye thermonuclear fusion; hello inertial electrostatic confinement fusion (IEC), an old idea that's been made new. While the international community debates the fate of the politically-turmoiled $12 billion ITER (an experimental thermonuclear reactor), simple IEC reactors are being built as high-school science fair projects.

Dr. Robert Bussard, former Asst. Director of the Atomic Energy Commission and founder of Energy Matter Conversion Corporation (EMC2), has spent 17 years perfecting IEC, a fusion process that converts hydrogen and boron directly into electricity producing helium as the only waste product. Most of this work was funded by the Department of Defense, the details of which have been under seal... until now.

Dr. Bussard will discuss his recent results and details of this potentially world-altering technology, whose conception dates back as far as 1924, and even includes a reactor design by Philo T. Farnsworth (inventor of the scanning television).

Can a 100 MW fusion reactor be built for less than Google's annual electricity bill? Come see what's possible when you think outside the thermonuclear box and ignore the herd.
(Recorded 9 Nov 2006)
The Farnsworth designed reactor is also known as the Farnsworth–Hirsch Fusor, or simply fusor. The 'Hirsch' part comes from Robert Hirsch, known to us here at Energy Bulletin more commonly as the primary author of the Deptartment of Energy commissioned SAIC risk assessment report into peak oil. From wikipedia:

In the early 1970s Bussard became Assistant Director under Director Robert Hirsch at the Controlled Thermonuclear Reaction Division of what was then known as the Atomic Energy Commission. They founded the mainline fusion program for the United States: the Tokamak. Later, in June 1995, Bussard claimed in a letter to all fusion laboratories as well as to key members of US Congress, that he, along with the other founders of the program, supported the Tokamak not out of conviction that it was the best technical approach but rather as a vehicle for generating political support, thereby allowing them to pursue "all the hopeful new things the mainline labs would not try".

Here's Ran Prieur's summary of the one and a half hour presentation:

Bussard is a highly respected physicist who spent most of his life working on the Tokamak, a donut-shaped fusion device that served as a way for physics researchers to get massive government funding with no chance of actually developing fusion power and thereby destabilizing society. Finally Bussard saw that it wasn't going to work, and started looking at the Farnsworth-Hirsch fusor, a smaller, simpler device invented in the 1930's. It uses an electric field to hold the ions at high density for fusion, and it generates the electric field by concentrating electrons with a magnetic field. If you use hydrogen and boron as fuel, there's no radiation or radioactive waste -- the only product is helium.

He got funding from the sinister DARPA, on the condition that he couldn't publish anything. After 12 years, just exactly when they got the device working, the funding was cut! And he gave this talk to drum up new investment.

Now, the collapsists are going to say, "It'll never work. It's too late to convert the energy infrastructure. Roving gangs!" But it does work. The physics is solved, and now it's just a matter of engineering and politics. For much less than the cost of a sports stadium, a city could integrate these things into existing power plants and use fusion to make the steam for electricity.

At the other extreme, the techno-utopians are saying, "Woo-hoo! Space travel! All problems solved!" But of course more energy has never solved any problems except a small fraction of the problems it has created. And on an even deeper level, techno-utopia is based on the false assumption that satisfaction of desires is a good use of tools.

Well put I think. Although any untested technology, currently without funding, is at best not going to have much global impact for a couple of decades, so if it does work, it is too late to avoid at least a temporary energy peak. Which I can't help but feel is a good thing in some ways, as we are facing any number of limits to growth, of which peak energy -- while frightening in its implications -- is less malign than overwhelming polution, sea-death, extreme freshwater shortages etc. We need to begin having less negative impact on the planet and more energy, even if the energy source itself is relatively clean, might make our overall impact worse. That said if we could replace coal tomorrow I'd be all for it.

I believe this is the story referred to as the high school science project fusion, although the experiment doesn't seem to be independently varified.

Consulting Nuclear Scientist Stewart Farber suggests that Olsen "Show Me the Neutrons."


Talk of manipulating Earth's climate

John Donnelly, Boston Globe
WASHINGTON -- The idea seems like something out of a Superman comic: A machine or missile shoots tons of particles into the atmosphere that would block the sun's rays, cool down the overheated Earth, and reverse global warming.

But today some of the country's leading minds in science, history, and economics will gather in a closed session organized by NASA and Stanford University to discuss researching such a strategy -- a subject long taboo in environmental circles because so much could go wrong. Some fear it would be seen as a quick fix, replacing the need to reduce fossil fuel emissions, but others contend that the world needs an emergency plan in case global warming triggers a catastrophe, such as a break up of the Greenland ice sheet and massive flooding in coastal regions.

"Is it better to let polar bears go extinct and let the ice sheets melt? Is it worse to inject some aerosols into the stratosphere that could deflect some sunlight?" said Ken Caldeira , a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, which is hosting the two-day meeting.

The idea is called geoengineering: using technology to tinker with the Earth's delicate climate balance. Many scientists doubt it is possible. Even those who have studied the idea worry about the possible misuse of their research.
(17 Nov 2006)
A very good introduction to geoengineering, expressing all the fears, dangers and desperation of out current situation, and possible 'technofix' responses.

UPDATE: After listening to Julia Cole's lecture over at the University of Arizona Climate Lecture Series I'm reminded that none of the geoengineering options offer any solution to ocean acidification from CO2 emissions.

Steven Lesh writes to inform us of this related article, UA astronomer's 'cloud' would fight global warming, about University of Arizona astronomer Roger Angel's geoengineering proposal:

Angel's proposal can be explored in more detail in a podcast (tape) of his lecture, the sixth of seven lectures presented by the University of Arizona. Angel's lecture actually concentrates much more on the things we can and should be doing to avoid the need for his "shade". In his lecture he, if not the local paper covering his proposal, makes it clear "shade" should only be used in the event this country's and the world's leaders fail to take the steps that can be taken at much less cost and with much less risk (sort of like what the professional military says about politicians in describing the resort to war).

Angel's presentation isn't on the web yet, but should be uploaded in the next couple of days. -AF

She harnesses viruses to make things

Andrew Rimas, Boston Globe
Manufacturing was once the province of human hands, then of machines. Angela Belcher, professor of materials science and engineering and biological engineering at MIT, has pushed manufacturing in another, much smaller, direction: Her lab has genetically engineered viruses that can construct useful objects like electrodes and wires.

The secret lies in the way organisms construct hard materials like shells and bones. "We're trying to understand how nature makes these hard materials," says Belcher, 39. "And we're applying those processes to materials that nature didn't have the opportunity to work with." Like cobalt oxide or similar compounds that can be used to make components for batteries, touch-screen technology, and semiconductors. "We're only interested in practical applications."

Belcher came up with the premise while working on her PhD at the University of California, Santa Barbara, studying the shell of the abalone, a marine snail. "In nature, organisms build hard structures in a nontoxic way," says Belcher. "They generate little waste. But organisms haven't built solar cells, or batteries."
(20 Nov 2006)
Of course a leaf is a solar cell in a sense, and the trunk is a battery... But ignoring that, can we study the processes of nature to improve our own manufacturing? Certainly! Using viruses to construct small and fiddly things -- is that the high-tech equivalent of the permaculture practice of having animals do your weeding and digging and fertilizing for you, things they're much better than you are? Seems similarly elegant. But is this just one aspect of a manufacturing process which still involves mining, long supply chains, and an unsustainable economy facing dimishing returns from increasing complexity? Probably...

Waste management: One man's trash...

David Cyranoski, Nature
When landfills overflow, governments need new ways to deal with garbage. David Cyranoski visits a plant in Japan where plasma technology is turning waste into energy.

Michiaki Shigehiro has a rare problem. "I've struggled to find enough garbage," he says, in dead seriousness. He already sees a lot of waste, on average 100 tonnes per day, but he'd be far happier with twice as much.

Shigehiro is general business manager of EcoValley Utashinai, a company named after a remote city in Japan's northern island of Hokkaido. EcoValley converts heaps of refuse into energy using a plasma arc, a jolt of electricity that ionizes gas in a chamber and produces temperatures of up to 16,000 °C, or almost three times hotter than the Sun's surface. The technology is costly and must process massive amounts of trash to recoup EcoValley's ¥7-billion (US$59-million) investment.

...Utashinai's plant pumps out 3,000 megawatts of power per year, all of which is used to run the plant.
(15 Nov 2006)
Tne article is behind a paywall. A plant is planned for St. Lucie, Florida. A more efficient turbine at that plant might make it a net energy exporter, but there are polution concerns and worries that corrosive gases produced along with a carbon monoxide and hydrogen mixture might attack the turbine. Like much hyped thermal depolymerization, this process takes a waste stream and extracts some useful energy from it, and hopefully detoxifies some of the nastier hydrocarbons in the process, but we shouldn't get too exited about it as a major energy source -- even with all the waste from our excessive economies, it can only produce small amounts of energy, and those waste streams will inevitably after oil peaks.

Breaking the H2 Marriage and Reuniting the Couple

Gregory J. Kubas, Science
Molecular hydrogen (H2) is not only a valuable future fuel; it is widely used today in chemical reactions, such as the addition of H2 to organic compounds. These "hydrogenation" processes are among the largest-volume human-made chemical reactions: All crude oil is treated with H2, and 1010 tons of ammonia fertilizer are produced annually via catalytic hydrogenation. Any small improvement in catalyst efficiency, cost, or availability would help to cut the cost of these important processes.

But such improvements are hard to come by. As in a strong marriage, the H2 molecule is held together by a tight bond. It can be split apart in a controlled manner on metal catalysts and a few nonmetal compounds. But reuniting the couple--that is, reversing the process to reform the H-H bond--is more difficult and has never been accomplished on a nonmetal compound. Welch et al. have now accomplished this feat, as described on page 1124 of this issue.
(17 Nov 2006)
Contributor SP writes:

I'm a "hydrogen economy" sceptic... but his article looks at one recent improvement in catalyst technology.

I wasn't (and other EB readers may not be) aware that H2 is added to "all crude oil"!

Hydrogen is used to crack heavier hydrocarbons into ligher ones as well as to remove sulfur from petroleum products (gasoline, diesel fuel, fuel oil, etc.).

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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