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Power The Almighty Buck

Fusion Power By 2020? Researchers Say Yes and Turn To Crowdfunding. 280

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the will-research-particle-physics-for-food dept.
Luminary Crush (109477) writes "To date, the bulk of fusion research has been channelled towards a plasma containment and stabilization method. This is the approach used by ITER's tokamak reactor, the cost of which could exceed US$13.7 billion before it's online in the year 2027 (barring further delays). Researchers at LPP Fusion, in a project partially financed by NASA-JPL, are working in a different direction: focus fusion, which focuses the plasma in a very small area to produce fusion and an ion beam which could then be harnessed to produce electricity. It is small enough to fit in a shipping container, can double as a rocket engine, and would cost US$50 million to produce the working 5 MW prototype. To reach the next hurdle and demonstrate feasibility, LPP Fusion has started an Indiegogo campaign to raise $200K."
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Fusion Power By 2020? Researchers Say Yes and Turn To Crowdfunding.

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @05:47AM (#47044699)

    The article states that operations are to begin at ITER in 2027. This is actually the date where ITER will be operated using a Tritium and Deuterium plasma, as opposed to a Deuterium only plasma. Nearly all tokamak experiments currently undertaken are using Deuterium-only plasmas to investigate how the devices operate. Adding Tritium to the mix means that a Tokamak can reach fusion temperatures, but it requires extremely delicate handling. A Tritium plasma is safe, but it's important to keep track of all of it (and that includes losses to the vacuum vessel of the tokamak, we really don't want any going missing!).

    Plasma experiments are set to begin in ITER much earlier, with a `first plasma' date in November of 2020 using a Deuterium plasma. It should not be understated what we can gain from experiments using a Deuterium-only (which means no fusion) plasma. ITER will be used in this manner for several years, while we gain better understanding of plasma physics on these scales. When we have a good feel for the machine, then we will start to produce fusion with a `DT' (Deuterium-Tritium) plasma.

    I'm very busy right now and have only had a cursory glance at the article, but I'm reading things such as `Moreover, because the end product of the reaction is moving charged particles, those can be converted into electricity directly', and thinking that at least the writers do not have a detailed knowledge of plasma physics. Tokamak power plants would use the energy of the 14MeV neutron produced by the DT fusion reaction to heat water to steam and generate it directly. `Moving charged particles' is just a plasma, just like in a flurorescent light bulb. You can make a current out of it, but not electricity.

  • by benjfowler (239527) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @06:57AM (#47044887)

    Quote from Professor Brian Cox: Britain spends more on ringtones than fusion research.

    Goes to show you where our priorities lie as a nation; and how our worthless so-called leaders are asleep at the switch, as usual.

  • Re:Bad move (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Rei (128717) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @07:23AM (#47044951) Homepage

    I expected to see Slashdot drooling and rushing to catch a ride on the latest "ITER = Bad; everyone without much funding = good but repressed" bandwagon. Good to see the discourse is higher than that.

    That doesn't mean that ITER (or NIF, or any of the other major names) is going to be the best solution. Honestly, while there's little doubt in even most critics mind that ITER *could* lead to (via DEMO) a viable way to produce power, I seriously doubt it'll lead to an *economical* way to produce power. But the concept that none of the world's energy companies had an interest in a $200k power source that will change the world... sorry, but no. They looked at it, checked the science, and all decided it was a big "pass".

    Personally, I have the most hope for HiPER [wikipedia.org] leading to an economical fusion source. It's like NIF (ICF fusion), but uses far weaker (and thus dramatically cheaper) compression pulse, and makes up for the difference with a heating pulse. Basically, the capital costs are far lower and it gives more than an order of magnitude better gain than standard ICF. It piggybacks on the data from existing ICF fusion research, adding only a few new requirements of its own (such as research on how the heating pulse will interact with the high-energy state resulting from the compression pulse). And there's the standard challenges of any such pulsed fusion system, mainly about achieving a sufficient repeat rate. But it looks doable.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @07:27AM (#47044965)

    This article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aneutronic_fusion describes the pros and cons of using different fuels for radiation free fusion. By using Hydrogen-Boron you can avoid the neutron radiation problem. But in exchange you have to have a temperature 10 times what we've failed to produce for a long enough time to get energy back from the more common fuels. The article also mentions that a lot of the energy released would be photons, which are harder to convert into electricity.

    Hydrogen-Boron and radiation free would be nice and so raises the profile of this work and perhaps makes it more crowd funding friendly. But without more explanation makes me even more suspicious that they are saying all the too good to be true parts and skipped mentioning all the reasons it's not likely to work. On the other hand it would be nice if boards of competent scientists could invest some real money in slightly crazy ideas that were allowed to fail without politicians going nutso that when you tried 10 things with a chance of success of 10% only one worked.

  • by leomekenkamp (566309) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @08:14AM (#47045155)
    Do I understand correctly that you have worked on that project? If so, could you comment on what the people on LPP Fusion are doing? Is is feasible / safe / sustainable?
  • by jythie (914043) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @08:48AM (#47045333)
    Kickstarter and Indigogo are new venues for this kind of scam, I see 'alternative tech' projects pop up (and get wiped) from kickstarer every couple weeks. Most people do not have the first hand domain knowledge to evaluate physics heavy projects, so the posters depend on pulling people's mythology and trying to tie their project to some kind of anti-status-quo narrative.
  • Re:Bad move (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bloodhawk (813939) on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:39AM (#47045633)

    you have fallen for there bullshit marketing blurb hook line and sinker. That is NOT how venture capitalists invest at all, in fact it is exactly the opposite of the way they work, They never put all there eggs in one basket and they weigh up the potential returns verses the risk and investment costs, any successful one also knows when to cut losses and switch horses at a moments notice (don't throw good money after bad if a new horse has arrived on the scene). Given the absolutely massive returns here and very low entry bar the only logical conclusion is they are a complete scam that doesn't hold up to even the most basic of scrutiny that is required by most investors or they would be having investors fighting over each other to get in on the deal. the whole thing seems to be targeted at suckering the uneducated out of there money.

  • Re:Oh, sure (Score:0, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @09:54AM (#47045751)

    Given how ideas speak for themselves in physics (and science in general) more than their messengers

    Unfortunately it is more complicated than that, and in this case the messenger has some baggage due to his other work. Also, some amount of politics and annoying issues pop up at nearly any level, including the office of fusion energy sciences at the DoE.

    That said, the DoE does fund a couple dozen smaller projects, as they have a line item in their budget of $10 M a year for "Experimental Plasma Research" which covers both university and small business projects. There has been some recent issues with them asking that all such projects try to be relevant to tokamak research (which isn't that hard since there are a lot of components plasma physics shared between even very different devices), but also have a line item of $15 M a year for basic plasma science research that covers also some small university projects that are weird fusion ideas. It is a tough area to get funding though, and there are more applications than they have funding for. I've been involved in one project that was cut that got good reviews on their proposal, but not as good as other proposals. It is a tricky thing to work on, as eventually small projects get to a point saying "We need money to try a bigger one" but there is only so much money to try bigger ones (which the DoE also funds, with things like NSTX and MST as line items, plus their big domestic tokamaks).

    And that kind of leads into another problem, that there are a lot of "alternative" designs that have some amount of track record, that have some interesting properties such as being cheap to build, or requiring lower powered magnets, or requiring simple heating mechanism that could pave the way to cheaper fusion plants. Optimistically many of these will be cheaper than a tokamak, but still result in a power plant that is very large scale and expensive, in the $100M to couple billion dollar price range. And there is no shortage of advocates for each design that thinks it can be built in less than ten years. Although many of the designs find new problems when stepping up in size, almost like the same trials and tribulations the tokamak went through the last 50 years of research gets repeated for other designs (although quite a bit faster as we have accumulated knowledge on many fronts in the field),. Unfortunately I've heard too many of the "less than 10 year" proponents of different designs get asked at a conference what they thought of various specific problems other similar experiments had to learn about and over come, and the response is, "Well we don't have that one problem, which is why we're promoting the design... I didn't think of that other one or third one though, but don't think it will matter...". It is unfortunately a field where things can't just be swept under the carpet.

    The result is I have mixed feelings about projects like this that are crowd funded, without even considering the specifics of the design. I think it is great to get more funding, to try new things, and to hope that there is some untested simple idea that can achieve things a lot cheaper and or faster than current major projects. The problem is there are going to be a lot of projects that don't achieve that. And when some such projects fail, considering people already view fusion as an overly optimistic field, is that going to poison the well for further funding? What if an even better design comes along second, or what if a bad design turns to crowd funding because scientists recognize it as a bad design? I've already seen funding efforts for things like a fusor that not only had little chance of achieving fusion power, but was doing so at ten times the cost of what high school students can do the project for, amounting only to crowd sourcing a guy's tinkering hobby with little prospect of learning anything new in the big picture. Sometimes the problem isn't the design or science, but the management.

    And that comes back to the issue

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 20, 2014 @10:26AM (#47046025)

    You don't have to run the aluminum smelters off wind and solar. (There's a reason Aluminum is often referred to as 'condensed electricity')
    What you can do is supplant the grid with clean energy that reduces or eliminates the need for new plowerplants and lets us retire some old dirty ones. Nobody is seriously proposing an all-or-nothing cutover, but a gradual transition.

    Think outside the box. Imagine a decentralized power grid with a more robust infrastructure. Imagine everyone having solar cells for roofing tiles and a little bit of local storage to smooth out demand spikes. Too much power? Backfeed to the grid, dump it in to a large regional molten salt energy storage faccility where it will be used at night.

    This will require serious infrastructure. So much that we'll likely need to remove one or two large political parties to make it happen. It will be worth it, though, when the hydrocarbons stop being cheap and we need to save them for chemical feedstock instead of burning.

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