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Sandia Labs Takes First Steps Toward Fusion 371

robosmall writes "Sandia Labs has successfully demostrated the emission of neutrons (a side effect of thermonuclear fusion) from a BB-sized capsule of deuterium using using their venerable Z-Machine (eye-candy!). With this achievement they enter the race to create sustained fusion reactions."
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Sandia Labs Takes First Steps Toward Fusion

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  • by dtolton ( 162216 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @08:12PM (#5682527) Homepage
    Fusion seems to be the ultimate goal for energy. Offering a
    clean and abundant power supply that could potentially alter our
    entire power production system. One of the problems with the
    transition to a hydrogen based economy has been that energy is
    required to extract the hydrogen from known reserves (petroleum,
    water, etc). The most common solution offered seems to be solar
    powered systems, however fusion could offer a great alternative
    which in the long run may prove more viable and more extensively
    useable than solar, hydro-electric, or wind power individually,
    maybe even collectively.

    It's particularly encouraging to see the scientists questioned
    their results and tested for extraneous sources before
    publishing preliminary findings.
    • Fusion+Hydrogen, all our energy problems solved. That would be great. I hop I get to see it in my life time.
    • ...however fusion could offer a great alternative which in the long run may prove more viable and more extensively useable than solar, hydro-electric, or wind power individually, maybe even collectively.

      Yeah, but can I hook one up to a DeLorean and do time travel?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 07, 2003 @08:23PM (#5682595)
      It's particularly encouraging to see the scientists questioned their results and tested for extraneous sources before publishing preliminary findings.

      what do u think they are? programmers?
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Not even close. Matter / anti-matter based reactors would be orders of magnitude more efficient.
    • Amen to that.

      This is is really big. This is like reading the first articles about gas engines, or steam power.

      With luck they'll keep this quiet until it's really working, and not pull another cold fusion. The masses don't want to hear about something coming down the road. They want to hear about one going up down the road.

    • by Dukeofshadows ( 607689 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @08:52PM (#5682742) Journal
      Fusion would be a dream come true in every respect if it can actually be done on a commercial level. That we have succeeded in using a new means of showing potentially feasible is excellent. Yet there are things that are not being taken into consideration, including refinement time and fuel. If the fuel needed is only deuterium, certainly the oceans can provide us with enough to go for centuries. Yet suppose that He-3 or other more exotic things are needed to fuel these generators? We may have to expend great deals of energy to get that fuel and run the risk of allowing one nation to monopolize/ corner the source of it.

      What about refining the power plant once it is operational? Certainly there will be fusion at some point soon, but how long will it take to get from university/ experimental stages to commercial feasibility? A rather high-yield plant would be needed for powering the masses (though the day we have a global excess of any resource, even if only energy, will be a godsend! May we live to see it) and it could take years or decades to perfect even after break-even energy results are achieved. Let's not celebrate yet, there is still much to be done before the dream of commercially viable fusion becomes a working reality.
      • Perhaps I'm wrong, but I remember some time ago some researchers already hit the break even point. They did it by modifying their magnetic fields to take in to account small perterbations introduced by the Earth's field. I don't think they got any further than that. Still a long way from useful, but I think your statement "even after break even energy results are achieved" is incorrect.
    • Oh yeah, sure that'd be great.

      Until the machines get a hold of it, then the next thing you know, we're all FREAKING BATTERIES!
    • Sure, fusion offers a long-term solution. However, the emissions of carbon dioxide occur right now.

      Wind power, nuclear power, solar power, hydro power and wave power all provide electricity without releasing CO2.

      Interestingly, burning organic material (like wood) is also OK on a global scale. Not only is the Carbon already part of the circulation, but the aerosols have a cooling effect.
  • by Michael.Forman ( 169981 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @08:13PM (#5682531) Homepage Journal

    I've worked at Sandia for two years (this week) and cannot overstate how sci-fi it is to work there.

    During a tour given to new hires, I was able to walk on top of the Z-Machine [sandia.gov] and peer into the tank. Seeing my curiosity, the leader of the tour took the opportunity to tell us that the system is completely submerged in a tank of oil to prevent electrical breakdown during tests. He followed with a warning, that not even an Olympic swimmer would be able to remain afloat in the oil, due to its low density. In the event of an accident, he instructed us to walk along the bottom of the tank to a ladder and climb out.

    Michael. [michael-forman.com]
    • by IvyMike ( 178408 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @08:21PM (#5682588)

      He followed with a warning, that not even an Olympic swimmer would be able to remain afloat in the oil, due to its low density.

      I don't know. Sounds like a hypothesis in need of experimental testing. Anybody know any Olympic swimmers? ;)

      • by SmackCrackandPot ( 641205 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @09:42PM (#5683083)
        Experiment to determine the effects of diving into the insulation oil of a fusion reactor.


        In this experiment, we determine the effect of diving into the insulation oil of a fusion
        reactor when it is (1) switched off, (2) switched on. As a control we compare the results of diving into a swimming pool containing (3) water, and (4) no water.


        There are four constants which are known to affect this experiment:

        Density of air = 1/800 g/cm^3
        Density of oil = 0.8 g/cm^3
        Density of water = 1.00 g/cm^3
        Density of human flesh = 0.9 g - 1.07 g/cm^3
        (0.9g = empirical value from floating in water)
        (1.07g = value from mass/volume)

        Expected results:

        As the density of human flesh is very close to water, but greater than oil, it is expected that any human should sink to the bottom of a tank containing oil. It is also expected that a human should float in water, and hit the bottom when air is present.

        Experimental method

        Several volunteers were asked to jump into the machine when it was switched off and when it was switched on. To eliminate any experimental errors a total of ten volunteers of varying masses were asked to jump into the machine.

        As a control, volunteers were also asked to jump into a swimming pool containing water, and into a swimming pool with only air present. The results were as follows:

        Oil/off - The volunteers sunk to the bottom.
        Oil/on - The volunteers sunk to the bottom and fried.
        Water - The volunteers floated
        No water - The volunteers hit the bottom.


        The results of this experiment confirm our theory that:

        (1) Human flesh is denser than that of oil and air.

        (2) Anyone willing to dive into a fusion reactor is fairly dense anyway.

        (3) If the machine is switched off, a human is going to sink faster than a frozen freedom fry. If the machine is switched on, a human is going to become a crispy freedom fry.

        We come to the conclusion that swimming in the insulation oil of a fusion reactor may be hazardous to health.
      • What, on slashdot? You may as well ask if anyone knows any girls.

        Have another drink, Mike....
    • "not even an Olympic swimmer would be able to remain afloat in the oil"

      someone who constantly consumes very greasy foods, since they would be most likely to fall in . . . like a moth towards a bright light.
    • That's assuming you fall in while the device is turned off. I suppose you shouldn't even be in the room when it's on. That's dielectric oil, meant to be an insulator. You are not an insulator. If you fall in while it's turned on, you may not have to worry about drowning.

      There are also chemical issues. I guess at least they aren't using PCBs in that oil any longer.


    • My ass! Vamp did it! Well, until I started lobbing those grenades into the water that is.
    • "He followed with a warning, that not even an Olympic swimmer would be able to remain afloat in the oil, due to its low density"

      That's only because Olympic swimmers usually don't have much body fat. :)
    • by Paradise Pete ( 33184 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @09:57PM (#5683162) Journal
      I've worked at Sandia for two years (this week)

      Man, that's a lot of overtime.

  • by Thing 1 ( 178996 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @08:14PM (#5682536) Journal
    I think I saw, graffitied on the catwalk, "Spider-man was here!"
  • Eep! [sandia.gov]

    Okay, did anybody else look at that and expect to find human bodies powering this device?
  • by trmj ( 579410 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @08:16PM (#5682555) Journal
    Since that image will no doubt be /.ed in record time (it's huge), I have mirrored it here [getitconnected.net] in a more manageable size (1024x768 for your desktop pleasure).

    Perhaps somebody could explain to me why it seems as though the electricity is staying on a certain plane instead of moving on the y axis as well? My guesses: the room is filled with a non-conducting liquid and the elevctricity is scattering about on top of it, or there is an electromagnetic field that the electricity is sitting upon, but it's being pulled down hence why it's not moving up any more.

    Note: as of the time of this posting, it's still uploading and dialup still sucks.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 07, 2003 @09:13PM (#5682895)
      Like the other posts at this level say, and an earlier root level post said...

      The liquid in the tank is a non-conducting oil, used to insulate the various components submerged within this oil. I would assume that this oil is similar to what you would find in commercial and industrial grade transformers. The oil in transformers prevent arcs from crossing one coil of particular voltage/current to the other one. But, this oil still allows the magnetic fields of one of the coils to influence the electrons in the other, thus allowing the transformers to do what they are ment to do.

      And if you didn't know how transformers work, they operate by on one side, you have a coiled up wire (specific number of coils) with specific voltage and current running through those wires. When you make a coil of wire and pass a current through it, you create a magnetic field. Well, the transformers are designed so that the first coil of wire is sitting next to another coil of wire (with different # of coils or wraps) and the first coil with electricity running through it induces a magnetic field in the second coil. And because of the different # of wraps in the second coil of wire, you get a current running through that second coil of different amperage (current) and voltage. Effectively, this transforms the electricity from one voltage/current to another! EUREKA!

      So the oil in these transformers are good insulators to prevent the two coils of wires from arcing, and thus maintaining the functionality of the transformer. If you allowed the coils to arc, there is really no point in having a transformer.

      You see those little barrels on the power/telephone poles right? Those are transfering high voltage, low current, to 110V and high current for your house!

      Due to thermal energy loss in wires with high current over long distances, the power companies in the USA transform the power in to high voltage/low current for the journey to your house, and then back to low voltage/high current electricty for use in your home.

      Hope that helps!
  • Z machine? (Score:5, Funny)

    by mypalmike ( 454265 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @08:19PM (#5682570) Homepage
    So can I play Zork on this thing or what?

  • by NanoGator ( 522640 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @08:19PM (#5682571) Homepage Journal
    What kind of energy can we pull out of this sucker? Acceptable benchmarks are: how fast you can microwave a basket of hamsters, how many AMD machines you can power per unit of fuel, and how long can Marge Simpson blow dry her hair.
    • That damn thing will flash fry a buffalo in 40 seconds.
    • The article says the reaction yielded 10 billion neutrons; for simplicity's sake I'll assume that's one neutron produced per fusion reaction and 15MeV released per reaction (I think the 15MeV is from deuterium-tritium reactions, and the article just mentions deuterium as a fuel, but oh well). So that gives:

      (10^10 fusions) * (15*10^6 eV/fusion) * (1.6*10^-19 J/eV) = a whopping 0.024J.

      I don't mean to cast aspersions on the experiments or experimenters; it's just that we're still a long way (I suppose) from

  • Woohoo! (Score:3, Informative)

    by Howard Beale ( 92386 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @08:19PM (#5682573)
    Talk about a wild desktop background!!!

  • HL? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Hodr ( 219920 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @08:20PM (#5682580) Homepage
    How long until the lights go out and demons from another dimension are sucked into the building?
  • Coolest... picture.... ever....
  • article (Score:2, Informative)

    by abhisarda ( 638576 )

    Z produces fusion neutrons, Sandia scientists confirm

    PHILADELPHIA, Pa. -- Throwing its hat into the ring of machines that offer the possibility of achieving controlled nuclear fusion, Sandia National Laboratories' Z machine has created a hot dense plasma that produces thermonuclear neutrons, Sandia researchers announced today at a news conference at the April meeting of the American Physical Society in Philadelphia.

    The neutrons emanate from fusion reactions within a BB-sized deuterium capsule placed wit

  • This story reminds me of a cartoon I saw once. I've lost the source of it, and can't find an on-line version. I'll try to do it justice in prose:

    2 scientists are standing in front of a bizarre looking aparatus, with but a single recognizable object within it. The caption read:

    "We've achieved Cold Fusion in a sock. Do we tell anyone?"


    P.S. Thank you robosmall - best dual-screen wallpaper evar. Period. Full stop.
  • by Rorschach1 ( 174480 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @08:25PM (#5682607) Homepage
    Fusion research isn't just for the big guys - you can build a Farnsworth-Hirsch fusor [wikipedia.org] at home! Seriously, these things are capable of fusing hydrogen when built properly. I think they're only like 1% efficient at generating power, but it looks like there's still some room for experimentation. You could probably put one together for a few hundred bucks if you're good at scavenging. The biggest danger really isn't from neutron emission, it's from working with vacuum equipment. I wouldn't want to be near a glass bell jar when it implodes. Still, it'd be worth it just to have a cool, glowing fusion reactor in the garage.
    • Farnsworth says you can have fusion at home, isn't this like.. good news everyone?
    • by Veteran ( 203989 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @10:57PM (#5683472)
      Farnsworth's fusor patent (US patent number 3,258,402) describes a much more elaborate tube which works much better than the Hirsch variant.

      Evidently the problem with the better design is that once the fusion threshold was reached the temperature of the fusion plasma rose high enough to keep the ion injectors from being able to add new fuel to the plasma.

      Farnsworth's better tube creates an almost ideal plasma:
      • Low electron temperature
      • High Ion temperature
      • High plasma density
      • Stable plasma (no magnetics involved).

      As far as I know nobody has rebuilt the more complex fusor tube to try improving on the Farnsworth design. That design was brilliant. It is not obvious how the tube works until you realize that the virtual electrode produced by the electron cloud at the center of the tube is partially canceled by the ions injected into the center - which allows more electrons to concentrate in the virtual electrode - which allows more ions - etc. This allows a very dense plasma to be generated.

      The truth is Farnsworth created more fusion in his desktop experiments than any of the giant, big money, fusion experiments since.
  • Yay! Now I can throw out my Mr. Fusion home reactor!

  • by cyber_rigger ( 527103 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @08:39PM (#5682670) Homepage Journal

    I haven't been collecting all this garbage for nothing.
  • Cheap abundent power will radically change our world. Especially since this time around it doesn't produce mass quantities of poisenous, radioactive material.

    Can you picture a world where it will finally be cheaper to do something in-country than ship it over-seas? How about a world where the energy barrons have no dominion over the developed world.

    I finally feel, for the first time in my 28 years, that humanity is actually doing something DIFFERENT and NEW, as opposed to slapping a rev 27 on an old ide

    • > I finally feel, for the first time in my 28 years, that humanity is actually doing something DIFFERENT and NEW ...

      HA! You really think this power is going to turn out to be cheap? Look, oil is relatively cheap to produce. It's all the power hungry nations and corporations that make it expensive. Changing sources of power ain't gonna change basic Human Nature. Doesn't matter how cheap the sources are. As long as it still takes 100Bn to build a plant, it's going to cost you big bucks to buy powe

    • Fusion is about the worst instance imaginable of expensive, centrally controlled energy production.

      If you want "cheap abundant power", biological and catalytic processes for producing hydrogen from solar energy are much more relevant: they promise to be safe, simple, and not require central control or huge up-front investments. And, in fact, the simplest way of creating cheap, abundant power without increasing greenhouse gas emissions is to grow plants for fuel.

      An even better way of "creating" lots of

  • Fusion rules (Score:2, Insightful)

    by BortQ ( 468164 )
    I see there being two phases to the fusion energy revolution.

    The first is when large-scale fusion reactors become viable. This will largely replace fission and fossil fuel power plants. The main effect will be to produce power for the transmission grid safer and cleaner.

    Phase two is the real kicker though. This is when a fusion reactor is designed that is relatively small in size. Then the real effects of the fusion revolution will become apparent. Hopefully it will follow the path of electronics in tha

    • Re:Fusion rules (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Hard_Code ( 49548 )
      Heh. This is amusing. Replace 'fusion' with 'fission' and you have the 1950's prediction of a blindingly shiny chrome plated robot-driven Jetson flying-car wife-baking-apple-pie-in-3-seconds future.

      It's amusing how each new technology spawns such utopean views of the future. I love the old advertisements for "magnetic belts" and "electric hairbrushes". It's the wave of the future!
  • by SUB7IME ( 604466 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @09:00PM (#5682777)
    I mirrored this article, including the images, on my website (a quick one hosted with Yale.edu bandwidth) in case the main link goes down: Here is the Mirror [pirruccello.us]
  • Hybrid Quesion (Score:5, Informative)

    by DumbSwede ( 521261 ) <slashdotbin@hotmail.com> on Monday April 07, 2003 @09:07PM (#5682842) Homepage Journal
    Always a small dollop of good news from the Hot Fusion camp every 6 months or so. It gets to seem like a snail race between Z-Pinch, Magnetic Confinement, and Laser Implosion. Now it turns out that Cold Fusion may not be entirely dead (see March 29, 2003 issue of New Scientist, on US Navy research into Cold Fusion -- sorry no online version yet). Add Muon catalyzation , and you have 5 potential avenues to Fusion.

    From the outside it looks to be a competition, and mutually exclusive at that. What are the possibilities of hybridizing these methods? Could all 5 approaches come together and cooperate towards solving this puzzle? I can even suggest a few new Fusion approaches of my own.

    Fusion is generally considered clean compared to Fission, at least in direct by-products (your containment vessel is another matter due to high-energy neutron bombardment). Could we abandon the completely clean approach to get across the finish line, and then improve towards pure forms of Fusion? By this I mean Fusion-Fission hybrids similar to an H-Bomb, which uses the neutron burst (and heat and compression) from a fission reaction to trigger a fusion reaction. Would seeding our deuterium-tritium pellets with cores of plutonium, or other more unstable isotopes, yield better conversion ratios? Can micro critical masses be achieved by compression with fissionable products? How about micro fission generators, that rely on micro fission explosions. Then like our theoretically perfect fusion reactors, it would be impossible to go critical, because you would never have the fuel density to achieve run away fission (take away the compressive mechanism, no fission).

    Anyway I'm just a lay person, but I figure there should be a few good Physicists in the forum, that could answer my core question about whether there a hybrid approaches being tired. I would be especially intrigued to learn if muon catalyzation has been tried with any of the other 4 approaches. For those unfamiliar with muon catalyzation, the essential idea is that an electron can be displaced by a muon for short periods of time, with a subsequent huge reduction in the size of the electron/muon orbital cloud, allowing atoms to come much closer together before mutual repulsion forces them apart. Thus a much lower thermal energy is needed for fusion -- hope I got that right :-)

    • So far nobody has started working on the engineering. They're still working on the physics. It will need to be thousands of times as efficient before it will start making the coal merchants worry.
    • Mini H-bomb (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Latent Heat ( 558884 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @11:20PM (#5683601)
      The Z-experiment or whatever they call it is the closest to the actual H-bomb of all the fusion approaches. The actual H-bomb doesn't work by simply sticking an A-bomb at the end of a tube of deuterium. Teller thought such a "classic Super" would work but computer simulations proved him wrong. Its probably a Good Thing the Classic Super doesn't work because A-bombs or H-bombs could ignite their surroundings and set off the whole Earth in a nuclear conflagration.

      They got the H-bomb to work using a staged approach. Stanislaw Ulam had the original idea for a staged advice, but the final Ulam-Teller device used x-rays rather than the shock blast from the A-bomb, reflected or reemitted from a U-238 jacket, to energize, of all things, Styrofoam as an imploder. That didn't set off the fusion reaction either, but it imploded a plutonium "spark plug" that gave off enough neutrons to set off the deuterium, which in turn produced most of its energy in neutrons that acted on the U-238 jacket that gave most of the yield of the device.

      I have now idea (or care to have) whether modern, compact warheads use the same principle as Ivy Mike. But I bet that the National Labs have tons of experience with variants of these Rube Goldbergesque "staged" devices. Now the Z-machine is a staged device -- instead of using x-rays, it uses buckets of electric current to implode this little wire cage surrounding a pellet. You don't apply energy directly to the deuterium but to something else which in turn implodes the deuterium.

      Besides its Bomb heritage, the method has more ominuous applications. Long before this device is useful as an electric power generator, it will be useful for generating bursts of neutrons. To do what? To simulate mini H-bomb blasts of course. I believe the U.S. has signed or pledged or whatever to suspend all nuclear tests. While some believe that the people in the Bomb business are atomic-pyros who can't get enough of testing, suspending nuclear tests means that over time we are giving up are nuclear military arsenal because bombs get old and without testing you can't be sure if they are going to work as promised. There are two answers to that. One is computer simulation with clustered computers and all the Beowolf-cluster jokes on Slashdot. The other is to use the Z-machine to make little bursts of neutrons to do sub-scale H-bomb tests.

  • My Question (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Guppy06 ( 410832 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @09:11PM (#5682884)
    IIRC, President Bush mentioned in his recent State of the Union address funding research into alternative energy sources in general and fusion in particular. Now that Sandia has made some new headway, will we start seeing more money flowing into the DoE and Sandia?

    I personally can't wait until the Middle East once again becomes a red herring...
  • Can't say anything about the validity of the reactor, but I can say it makes a very cool desktop background!
  • by shadowbearer ( 554144 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @09:37PM (#5683056) Homepage Journal

  • by deragon ( 112986 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @10:21PM (#5683289) Homepage Journal
    Why would we content with helium as output? Ok, as a first step, lets get there first, but would it be relatively easy to produce heavier elements than helium? Elements which are rare and expensive to mine?
    • by stwrtpj ( 518864 ) <p.stewartNO@SPAMcomcast.net> on Tuesday April 08, 2003 @12:26AM (#5683898) Journal
      Why would we content with helium as output? Ok, as a first step, lets get there first, but would it be relatively easy to produce heavier elements than helium? Elements which are rare and expensive to mine?

      It's not as simple as that. The temperatures and pressures needed to fuse helium into heavier elements is several magnitudes above what is needed to fuse hydrogen into helium. The energy expenditures needed would far outweigh the current cost of obtaining these elements.

      A good way to research the topic of fusion is to look up information on the formation and life cycle of stars, nature's fusion reactors. You'll find that as very massive stars age, they burn through their hydrogen fuel quickly. Once that's all used up, gravity threatens to collapse them, until temperature and pressure in the core raises to the point that fusion into heavier elements can happen.

      But then you'll see that the first steps of the heavier fusion processes create very common elements: carbon, oxygen, nitrogen. That's precisely why these elements are so abundant. By the time you get to elements even remotely rare, you're talking pressure and temps on astronomical scales. Finally, in the very massive stars, fusion can't go any further than iron, because after iron, fusion reactions no longer yield energy, but absorb energy. So after iron, it becomes an even more uphill battle.

      Most likely if we do ever manage to harness fusion, it will stop at helium, as that will serve our needs well.

  • by deragon ( 112986 ) on Monday April 07, 2003 @10:27PM (#5683334) Homepage Journal
    Ok, what would the impact of releasing helium into the atmosphere be? Yes, helium is an inert gas, but over a millinium, could helium account for say, 5% of the atmosphere? Could oxygen levels, as a percentage of air, fall? Can helium contribute to the green house effect, or counter it? What color will the sky become? Are tenors an endangered species? :)

    Anybody has calculations on how much helium is expected to be produced worldwide when fusion becomes commercial?
    • by dmaxwell ( 43234 ) on Tuesday April 08, 2003 @12:34AM (#5683929)
      As long as the helium released is made of stable isotopes, it will have little to no effect. The Earth has insufficient gravity to retain either hydrogen or helium in significant quantities. The helium will basically waft away into space. If helium could be retained in the atmosphere Earth would be a gas giant.
  • > flip the switch
    Which switch do you mean? The red switch, the green switch, or the aluminum knife switch attached to the scary-looking fusion apparatus?
    > the aluminum switch
    All of the electricity on campus goes out.
    It is pitch dark. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.

    I can't believe there aren't a ton of replies making references to the Great Underground Empire. Bah, the kids these days. They gotta have all the glitzy mind-rotting graphics in their games. Hmph.

Nondeterminism means never having to say you are wrong.