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New Wave of Fusion and Robot Innovation at MIT 90

Posted by Soulskill
from the not-cold-fusion-the-real-kind dept.
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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New Wave of Fusion and Robot Innovation at MIT

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  • Prediction: (Score:3, Funny)

    by QuantumG (50515) <qg@biodome.org> on Friday February 29, 2008 @12:33AM (#22597064) Homepage Journal
    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.

    • http://focusfusion.org/log/index.php [focusfusion.org] may work as well as or better than inertial electrostatic confinement.
    • 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
    • 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 (Score:4, Interesting)

        by QuantumG (50515) <qg@biodome.org> on Friday February 29, 2008 @05:56AM (#22598292) Homepage Journal
        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: (Score:3, Informative)

        by KonoWatakushi (910213)
        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, ba
    • by Sproggit (18426)
      Yah, someone tell Eddie to get the hell out of the plasma
  • 20 years... (Score:3, Funny)

    by 1zenerdiode (777004) on Friday February 29, 2008 @12:39AM (#22597108)
    Yes! Clean, reliable fusion power is only twenty years away...remarkably, this has been the case for over 40 years.
    • 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: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by superash (1045796)
      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
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Chandon Seldon (43083)

        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

        • by superash (1045796)
          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
          • Re:20 years... (Score:5, Interesting)

            by Robert1 (513674) on Friday February 29, 2008 @02:44AM (#22597618) Homepage
            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.
            • Yea, well I own a wind turbine, so fuck you.
            • 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 ada
          • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

            by ztcamper (1051960)
            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, whi
          • 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 poi
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Ihlosi (895663)
            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 atmospher

            • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

              by darthdavid (835069)
              I'll give your a hint about just such an energy source. It starts with N and ends with uclear Power.
              • by drinkypoo (153816)

                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 r

            • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

              by UbuntuDupe (970646) *
              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
          • by CustomDesigned (250089) on Friday February 29, 2008 @08:33AM (#22598758) Homepage Journal
            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!

            • 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'
              • by clonan (64380)
                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 tim
              • 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 agains
                • 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 restor
    • by jd (1658) <imipak@@@yahoo...com> on Friday February 29, 2008 @01:27AM (#22597318) Homepage Journal
      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.
      • by Dr. Cody (554864)
        This is at once brilliant and deeply evil.

        If I had mod points you'd be "+5 Underrated"
    • 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.
    • by kidtexas (525194)
      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 yea
  • 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 (Score:4, Insightful)

      by NorbrookC (674063) on Friday February 29, 2008 @12:54AM (#22597180) Journal

      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."

    • by Wildclaw (15718)
      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.
  • "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
  • 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 ?
    • by kalirion (728907)
      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.
  • by mako1138 (837520) on Friday February 29, 2008 @01:13AM (#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.
    • Funding chart (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
    • Which leads to a resonance cascade scenario, ands ends with you rescuing the scientist's beautiful daughter.
    • Heat transfer (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Dr. Cody (554864)
      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 (Score:4, Interesting)

        by mako1138 (837520) on Friday February 29, 2008 @06:18AM (#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.
      • 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
    • by Eukariote (881204)

      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 fun

  • FYI (Score:5, Informative)

    by djupedal (584558) on Friday February 29, 2008 @01:15AM (#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
  • how do you create tags? I'd love to see something like 'MITlove'
  • " 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
    • by damburger (981828)
      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.
    • by oldbamboo (936359)
      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. A
      • by TheLink (130905)
        "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
    • by c6gunner (950153)

      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 D

      • 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
  • by nguy (1207026)
    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.
  • cool then i can have my flying car and house on the moon.
  • Scooter? Look China! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by sam0737 (648914) <sam@NOSPam.chowchi.com> on Friday February 29, 2008 @04:12AM (#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!
  • Create a localized intense gravity field using a Heim drive = really easy confinement!

Forty two.

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