atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#4166: Science!

Borepatch has a bit up today about the National Ignition Facility and "another crummy press release".

Fusion has been REAL SOON NOW ("RSN" in hacker-speak) for about forty years. Limitless, safe, clean, cheap power is right around the corner! So we don't need to build any of those dangerous, leaky, radioactive fission reactors. Our "dubious flirtation" with fission power (quoth Mr. Spock) will be brief, because we're gonna invent fusion REALLY SOON NOW!

I guess I can't blame people for being optimistic. Look: we discovered nuclear fission in 1938; the first nuclear pile was being run by Enrico Fermi a scant three years later. The first atomic bomb went off in 1945, and after that the sky was the limit. The USSR built the first commercial power reactor, which went on line in 1954--a mere 16 years after the principle of atomic fission was discovered and explained.

Well, we've known about fusion for quite a long while, now, and we've been building fusion bombs (hydrogen bombs) for over fifty years. You would think that--given the history of technological advancement in the 20th century--we'd have it by now.

Think about it: the first airplane flew in 1903. We had jet aircraft forty years later, broke the sound barrier forty-four years after that first flight, and put men on the moon a mere 66 years after that rickety box kite crawled into the sky. Fission power--we talked about that. Computers went from huge machines to things that fit in your pocket in forty years, and the power of the machines increased as their sizes shrank. Fusion: yeah.

Fusion is hard.

That is to say, fusion is hard to accomplish in a small and controllable fashion. Nature does it by piling uncountable millions of tons of hydrogen in a relatively compact space, and using its accumulated weight to crush the hydrogen atoms together. We call these objects "stars".

Another way is to light off a fission bomb and focus its radiation on a bunch of heavy hydrogen and lithium-3. We call this device a "hydrogen bomb" and it makes a hell of a lot of energy very fast...but it can do it once and it can be neither throttled or metered, and when the reaction is taking place it has a rather deleterious effect on property values in its immediate vicinity.

So what we have to do is to manage very small and very repeatable miniature fusion reactions, working uphill against just about all the goddamned laws of physics to do it. It's not impossible to manage--there is a great deal of energy available in a typical deuterium-tritium fusion reaction, and there's a great deal of deuterium in the Earth's oceans--but it is very difficult.

Fission has the advantage that it's all downhill. You don't have to pump any energy into a fission reaction to get it started; all you have to do is to arrange the fissionable metal in the right geometry with the right moderator, and it'll go off spontaneously. You need to have control rods to disrupt the reaction, that's how eager it is to go.

But when you want a fusion reaction, before you get the energy out you have to push two positively-charged particles together--and you have to push hard.

It's the inverse square law in reverse: every time you halve the distance between protons the their positive charges repel each other with a force that goes up four times. Pretty soon the repulsive force is pretty damned strong--but just past that blammo they merge and you get a fusion reaction, which spits out more energy (lots more!) than you put into it. We've seen this work on sub-stellar scale, with hydrogen bombs.

That uphill climb is the problem. That's why fusion is hard, and that's why we're not going to be seeing GE building fusion reactors any time soon. least as long as government is in charge.

I do think that commericial fusion power is possible, and--same as fission power--I think it's going to turn out to be dumbfoundingly simple to put into practice; I also think that it's not going to come out of huge government-funded research facilities like NIF.

Fission is elegant; it's a deft maniuplation of the shape of space, the laws of physics, to a desired outcome. Fusion power, when we have it, will also be elegant. Present-day high-energy fusion research relies on brute force, and while that might (eventually) end up working I think it's not going to be the way future people generate power with fusion. (It may be--probably is--a necessary step on the road there.)

* * *

"Well, The Chinese Aren't Waiting," says Karl Denninger--and they are wise not to wait.

The simple fact is that fission power offers us everything fusion promises to be, and it offers it right now. And because of the Laws of Thermodynamics, a fission reactor produces much more heat than can be converted into electricity...and that waste heat can be used for other things, such as the synthesis of hydrocarbons. Or cracking tar into useful hydrocarbon fractions (Alberta tar sands anyone?). Or--

When you're building a reactor to generate electricity and--as a byproduct--you can generate synthetic diesel fuel or crack tar or-or-or you are involved in a win-win proposition, because an industrial civilization needs energy to run on and environmentalists are an expensive luxury should energy starvation rear its ugly head.

* * *

Now let's talk about schooling again.

Karl Denninger talks about an incident where an 18-year-old attending his high school was jailed for two weeks because--locked in the trunk of his car, out in the parking lot--there was a three-inch folding knife, which was part of the equipment he used in his training as an emergency medical technician.

A) Why was the school searching his car?

B) Why does the presence of a pocketknife, locked in the trunk of his car, justify arresting the kid?

C) Why can the people responsible for this nonsense even manage to look at themselves in the mirror?

As near as I can tell, here are the answers to the questions I posed above:

A) Because they can.

B) Because a 3" knife, regardless of its intended use, is a "dangerous weapon" and must be criminalized.

C) Because they think they know better than any of the neanderthals around them, and RESPECT THEIR AUTHORITAH AND SHUT UP, that's why!

Public schools are not places where the free expression of ideas is welcome, anyway; when I was in high school I felt like I was in a gulag--it was restrictive and I was powerless to do anything to improve my situation. Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day off isn't even a caricature of a typical high school administrator; that's why the character wasn't funny to me. "When he looks back at the wreckage of his life," the principal vows to his skeptical secretary, "he'll remember Ed Rooney!"

But as time has passed the schools have become more totalitarian. "Zero tolerance" policies have led to this kind of shit, while political correctness has led to a suppression of expressions of patriotism that you'd think a government school would encourage.

And schools encourage, rather than discourage, bullying. Unless the bullies are going after the gay kids, in which case it's a national crisis and must be stopped. Yeah.

And respecting the establishment of religion has become a constitutional mandate so long as the religion in question isn't Christianity.

Or something.


I take a very, very dim view of the socialized educational system of this country because I was very ill-served by it, and even at age 17 I could see how awful the system was at doing anything other than indoctrinating kids to act like good little socialists who conform and consume. It has only gotten worse in the intervening thirty years.

* * *

Well, that's a nicely dreary ending for a post on a dreary day. Rain, melting snow, mud; the back yard is a swamp, and water is now draining into the basement because the ground is just saturated with water and it doesn't have anywhere else to go.

If I had unlimited funds, I think I would have a drain put into the middle of the back yard and tile run to the street, because I think that's probably the only way to keep water out of the basement when there's this much of it all over the place.

Well, it could be worse, you know. 40 days and 40 nights, you know.

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