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NASA Power Technology

NASA's Basement Nuclear Reactor 368

cylonlover writes "If Joseph Zawodny, a senior scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center, is correct, the future of energy may lie in a nuclear reactor small enough and safe enough to be installed where the home water heater once sat. Using weak nuclear forces that turn nickel and hydrogen into a new source of atomic energy, the process offers a light, portable means of producing tremendous amounts of energy for the amount of fuel used. It could conceivably power homes, revolutionize transportation and even clean the environment."
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NASA's Basement Nuclear Reactor

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  • Re:One small problem (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 22, 2013 @03:21AM (#42977051)
    Warning: Tubgirl alert!
  • Re:One small problem (Score:5, Informative)

    by riverat1 ( 1048260 ) on Friday February 22, 2013 @03:25AM (#42977069)

    If you RTFA you find it is not expected to produce objectionable byproducts like regular reactors. It says that unlike fission and fusion reactions that depend on the strong nuclear force for their energy this is drawing energy from the weak nuclear force. Like fusion though it appears to be mostly in the experimental stage and is years away from practical application. One difficulty they have is they need to generate vibrations in the 5-30 THz range which the researcher calls "the valley of inaccessibility".

  • by Moabz ( 1480009 ) on Friday February 22, 2013 @04:39AM (#42977371)
    There was a colloquium at CERN last year, see http://indico.cern.ch/conferenceDisplay.py?confId=177379 [indico.cern.ch]

    you will find the presentation about the Widom-Larsen-Srivastava that TFA talks about.

    you will also find the slides about the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries transmutation experiment (and the Toyota replication of it) http://indico.cern.ch/getFile.py/access?resId=5&materialId=slides&confId=177379 [indico.cern.ch]

    As mentioned above it was also presented at the American Nuclear Society's winter meeting in Nov 2012:

    "Replication experiments have been performed in some universities or institutes mainly in Japan. T.Higashiyama et al. of Osaka University observed transmutation of Cs into Pr in 2003[7]. H.Yamada et al. performed similar experiments using Cs and detected increase of mass number 137 by TOF-SIMS. They used a couple of nano-structured Pd multilayer thin film and observed the increase of mass number 141 (corresponding to Pr) only when 133Cs was given on the Pd sample [8]. N. Takhashi et al., the researchers of Toyota Central R&D Labs, presented that they detected Pr from the permeated Pd sample using SOR x-ray at Spring-8 and the detected Pr was confirmed by ICP-MS and TOF-SIMS [8]." http://newenergytimes.com/v2/conferences/2012/ANS2012W/2012Iwamura-ANS-LENR-Paper.pdf [newenergytimes.com]
  • by balsy2001 ( 941953 ) on Friday February 22, 2013 @04:47AM (#42977419)
    All kinds of information nuclear reactions and decay is available in "Nuclides and Isotopes", a chart of the nuclides published by KAPL (Knowles Atomic Power Laboratory). I recommend the "chart" in book form as it comes with a bunch of nuclear physics discussion. Based on the description in the article Ni+n=Cu+e. There is only one stable isotope of Ni that has a chance of going through this process and resulting in a stable isotope of copper and that is Ni62. Ni62 is only 3.63% of naturally occurring nickle. The most abundant isotope is Ni58 (68.07%) and it will go to Ni59 with addition of a neutron and will beta decay to Co59. Ni59 has a 7600 year half life so you could continue to change it to Ni60 then Ni61 then Ni62, but all of this wouldn't happen instantaneously as stated in the article (I guess you could start an enrichment plant so you are only using Ni62, but that cost a lot of money and energy and would have to be factored into the energy balance of the final "reactor"). These types of reactions don't take place in nature because the stable isotopes are already at the bottom of the "valley of stability" (have a minimum mass or maximum binding energy, see pages 27-28 of the 16th edition of the "Nuclides and Isotopes"). I guess it is possible that the 30THz vibrations change the local laws of physics, but I will remain skeptical until there is more than speculation. The article states, "LENR is a very long way from the day when you can go out and buy a home nuclear reactor. In fact, it still has to be proven that the phenomenon even exists, but hundreds of experiments worldwide indicate that heat and transmutations with minimal radiation and low energy input do take place with yields of 10 to 100 watts." TFA states that they are not even sure if the phenomenon exists and it doesn't provide the total energy input to the system so you can't tell if 10-100W is noise or error in the measuring equipment (this is one of the things that was going on in the cold fusion of years past).
  • by Stoutlimb ( 143245 ) on Friday February 22, 2013 @05:16AM (#42977519)

    Well, it looks like Dr. Joe Zawodny himself agrees with you that the extraordinary evidence to prove this even works has yet to be demonstrated:

    http://joe.zawodny.com/ [zawodny.com] That's his private blog, and an interesting read. Looks like he's into model rocketry too.

  • by Michael Woodhams ( 112247 ) on Friday February 22, 2013 @05:22AM (#42977543) Journal

    For the purpose of this post, I'll accept that they can convert protons to neutrons as described, although I'm very dubious about this.

    Here [wikipedia.org] is a table of nickel isotopes.
    Here [llnl.gov] is the first source I found for neutron cross sections of nickel isotopes (pdf). (See figure 12, look at the left hand side of each 'destruction channels for ??Ni' plot for what low energy (thermal) neutrons will do.)

    Cross sections are in barns, and are approximate as I'm eyeballing them off a logarithmic scale.
    58Ni [stable, 68% abundant] (0.006 barn) -> 59Ni [-> 59Co, 76000 yr half life]
    59Ni [unstable but long lived] (0.02b) -> 59Co [stable] or (0.005b) ->56 Fe [stable] or (0.004b) -> 60Ni [stable]
    60Ni [stable, 26%] (0.006b) -> 61Ni [stable]
    61Ni [stable, 1%] (0.002b) -> 62Ni [stable]
    62Ni [stable, 4%] (0.006b) -> 63Ni [->63Cu, 100yr]
    63Ni [unstable] (0.001b)-> 64Ni [stable]
    64Ni [stable, 1%] (0.004b) -> 65Ni [->65Cu, 2.5 hr]

    None of the cross sections are hugely larger than the others, so all these reactions will occur with reasonable frequency. So irradiating nickel with thermal neutrons, you are going to produce radioactive 59Co (76000yr), 63Ni (100yr) and 65Ni (2.5hr). The 65Ni isn't a problem - turn off the reactor, wait a couple of days, and it will all be gone. The 59Co is only a bit of a problem - with such a long half life, it isn't very radioactive. The 63Ni however is nasty. Like 137Cs (30yr) from the Fukashima reactors, the half life is short enough to be quite radioactive but long enough that you can't just wait it out. Finally, the nickel won't be 100% pure, so you have to worry about what neutron irradiation will do to the impurities.

    The 65Ni means when you turn off your reactor, it will continue to produce residual heat for hours.

    The article gives the impression that weak nuclear reactions aren't dangerous, but this is not so. If it were, nuclear reactor waste wouldn't be dangerous.

    This reactor will be producing ionizing radiation when running (mostly gamma rays, some beta rays mostly from 65Ni decay, and a tiny amount of alpha particles from 59Co(n,a)56Fe.) This will require some pretty heavy shielding to stop it. (A good sized water bath should work, every 7cm of water [xkcd.com] halves the radiation and you want hot water anyhow. But concrete is less prone to leak away.) You'd also need to worry about stray neutrons, although I expect that can be fixed with a thin layer of something that has very high thermal neutron cross section and no dangerous daughter products.

    In short, I don't think I want this in my basement.

  • Re:One small problem (Score:5, Informative)

    by hrvatska ( 790627 ) on Friday February 22, 2013 @07:35AM (#42978221)
    I thought the one small problem was the one cited in the article.

    LENR is a very long way from the day when you can go out and buy a home nuclear reactor. In fact, it still has to be proven that the phenomenon even exists

  • Re:One small problem (Score:3, Informative)

    by Moabz ( 1480009 ) on Friday February 22, 2013 @08:39AM (#42978651)
    I think the author of the story hasn't completely understood. The phenomenon exists, that's quite clear.

    Robert Duncan, Vice Chancellor for Research University of Missouri: "There have been great advances in this discipline over the last five years by research labs and private institutions around the world, and this work will be explored at ICCF-18. The Naval Research Lab (NRL), and many other excellent laboratories have confirmed that the excess heat effects reported by Fleischmann and Pons are real, and roughly one thousand times larger than can be attributed to a chemical process." http://iccf18.research.missouri.edu/welcome.php [missouri.edu]

    Dennis Bushnell, NASA: "The current situation is that we now have over two decades of hundreds of experiments worldwide indicating heat and transmutations with minimal radiation and low energy input. By any rational measure, this evidence indicates something real is occurring. So, is LENR "Real?" Evidently, from the now long standing and diverse experimental evidence. And, yes - with effects occurring from using diverse materials, methods of energy addition etc. This is far from a "Narrow Band" set of physical phenomena. " http://futureinnovation.larc.nasa.gov/view/articles/futurism/bushnell/low-energy-nuclear-reactions.html [nasa.gov]

    President of the Italian National Agency For Energy (ENEA): "In other words, two government programs – carried out in close interaction and with check of results – have proved the existence of this phenomenon in terms that are not ascribable to a chemical process." http://old.enea.it/produzione_scientifica/volumi/V2008_16_ColdFusion.html [old.enea.it] (foreword of the book)

    What the phenomenon is, that is still unknown.
  • by bleh-of-the-huns ( 17740 ) on Friday February 22, 2013 @08:43AM (#42978681)

    Interesting theory, and that may actually be the case.. however, lets look at the cable industry, specifically Comcast, in my neighbourhood.

    When FIOS was released, about 80% of the people in my little corner of the neighbourhood switched in an instant (for obvious reasons being service sucks, as does customer service and it was over priced). I live in a part of the area where we have around 30 or so houses, and no through street, around 25 or so of those houses now have FIOS.. the remaining few people all have Comcast, and its dirt cheep, they (Comcast) have been throwing freebies and discounted services at those few remaining customers, because if they switch, they lose their foothold in our part of the community.

    So in this instance, the exact opposite of what you propose would happen actually occurred. And they have similar costs when it comes to easement maintenance.

  • by gr8_phk ( 621180 ) on Friday February 22, 2013 @09:38AM (#42979171)
    From TFA:

    The electrons in the metal lattice are made to oscillate so that the energy applied to the electrons is concentrated into only a few of them. When they become energetic enough, the electrons are forced into the hydrogen protons to form slow neutrons. These are immediately drawn into the nickel atoms, making them unstable. This sets off a reaction in which one of the neutrons in the nickel atom splits into a proton, an electron and an antineutrino. This changes the nickel into copper, and releases energy without dangerous ionizing radiation.

    So the mechanism to get the reaction to happen is thought to involve the weak force, the end result is Ni + H -> Cu which is just plain fusion. You can compute the energy output based on the mass difference of the inputs and outputs. The problem is that people are finally reproducing the old Cold Fusion work and getting a better understanding, but they face the problems caused 20 years ago. Problems like the DOE deciding it was all a crock and putting policy in place not to fund any research in that area. Problems like the physics community lashing out saying "it can't be fusion, it must be a chemical reaction" (saying that to chemists working with 4 elements in a jar). Now it has to go by the name LENR, but places like NASA and MIT and (allegedly) some folks in industry are working on this.

  • Re:One small problem (Score:5, Informative)

    by rgbatduke ( 1231380 ) <rgb@[ ].duke.edu ['phy' in gap]> on Friday February 22, 2013 @09:38AM (#42979175) Homepage

    But what about all those reactors that blew up or melted (in TFA)? Or were they cheating and just bombarding the nickel with slow neutrons? One would think that if they produced an exothermic reaction even one time and weren't complete Pons and Fleishman nutcases they'd be able to pick up the beta (if not gamma) signature of the events. I'm also a bit curious as to just where the energy produced "comes out". They assert that no gamma rays happen. They get electron and neutrino out. Presumably we're talking about order of MeV/event, so the reaction produces order of MeV electrons (we hope, as energy going into neutrinos is gone forever) and a certain amount of lattice recoil in the now-copper nucleus. MeV electrons seem to have enough energy to produce an electron-positron cascade and convert at least some of the energy into X-rays (ionizing radiation). Probably relatively easily stopped (as is the beta itself) but the process would likely not be "radiation free". Finally, those same electrons seem as though they have the right general range of energy to be captured by the hydrogen nuclei (or would, if they didn't scatter on the way in and if there was any sort of cross-section) leaving open the possibility that the electrons themselves would create the requisite electron excitation and some sort of chain reaction might be possible.

    Interesting idea, in other words, but TFA doesn't clarify the underlying physics to the point where it is really intelligible.


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