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Power The Almighty Buck United States Science

Is It Time For the US Government To Back Fusion At NIF Over ITER? 308

ananyo writes "Laser beams at the National Ignition Facility have fired a record 1.875 megajoule shot into its target chamber, surpassing their design specification. The achievement is a milepost on the way to ignition — the 'break-even' point at which the facility will finally be able to release more energy than goes into the laser shot by imploding a target pellet of hydrogen isotopes. NIF's managers think the end of their two-year campaign for break-even energy is in sight and say they should achieve ignition before the end of 2012. However, with scientists at NIF saying that a $4 billion pilot plant could be putting hundreds of megawatts into the grid by the early 2020s, some question whether the Department of Energy is backing the wrong horse with ITER — a $21-billion international fusion experiment under construction at St-Paul-lez-Durance, France. Is it time for the DoE to switch priorities and back NIF's proposals?" Perhaps a better idea, given the potential benefits of fusion research, would be for the DoE to throw their weight behind multiple projects, rather than sacrificing some to support others.
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Is It Time For the US Government To Back Fusion At NIF Over ITER?

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  • Re:well, i dunno (Score:5, Insightful)

    by baudilus ( 665036 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:17PM (#39417219)
    The two are not mutually exclusive. Just think of the internet you're using to post your comments for an example.
  • by gestalt_n_pepper ( 991155 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:24PM (#39417351)

    Seems like thorium reactors, which we've already built, and gotten working, are a much more tractable problem.

  • Re:Of course (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:24PM (#39417355) Homepage

    Basically, this should be a 'hero' project. Like a moon shot. Lets face it, we need to transit off of fossil fuels to a large degree sometime down the line. Not tomorrow. Not next year, but certainly in the next decade or so. Nuclear fission is an option - but as we've seen, not a terribly good one. Solar / wind / hydro / ponies and pixie dust / conservation will also help but we still need a backbone capable of powering modern civilization unless we want to devolve into something less pleasant. And that backbone has to put a lot of gigajoules into the system on a 24/7/365 basis.

    So we need to put our money where our collective mouths are and work on something capable of bringing up the entire world to first world standards.

    Or fight the war to see who's standing over the oil fields.

  • by earls ( 1367951 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:25PM (#39417379)

    I'm vaguely familiar with the NIF and their "how it works" section breaks down in great detail everything involved in generating the beam, amplifying the beam, targeting the beam, and imploding the target, but how do they capture the energy produced by the target?

  • Cheaper than War (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cryfreedomlove ( 929828 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:27PM (#39417419)
    Is $4B really that hard to come up with for this project? That sounds a lot cheaper than the constant state of war we find ourselves in today in the Middle East to keep the oil supply flowing.
  • by newcastlejon ( 1483695 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:28PM (#39417435)

    Or at least let the DoE get involved instead of driving them to the DoD with inter-departmental pissing contests.

    For the money that the Polywell people are asking, and what a full-size model would cost compared to the "superconducting cathedrals"* of ITER, they'd be fools to not at least give them a try.

    *The late Dr. Bussard sure did know how to turn a phrase. There's no doubt about that, which is more than can be said about the actual Polywell concept itself - at least so far.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:35PM (#39417555)

    Well, good luck with getting power into the grid by 2020.

    The reason why I'm saying this, is that it's an incredibly bold goal to turn the technology they've already got into a working prototype, incorporating everything learnt elsewhere, into a next-generation scientific experiment, let alone a power plant, by 2020. Hell, even HIPER won't break ground before 2020.

    Besides, the REAL fun stuff, is things like advanced materials for the combustion chamber, and a working blanket, which NOBODY has yet demonstrated, not JET, not ITER, not NIF -- nobody.

    Worse yet, we don't know what problems we'll run into once we achieve ignition in NIF, or the burning plasmas regime in ITER.

    To the genius who suggested that ITER is a political waste of time is obviously unfamiliar with the science. Even if ITER achieves its low-balled goals, it'll be a massive step towards a working plant. And they plan to actually test working power-generating, and tritium-breeding blankets as well, although that won't start until quite late in the project (the D-T phase of the project).

    The 'patriotic' Americans slagging ITER on /. should be quiet, as the US is, true to form, turning its back on the rest of the world, starving the US Domestic Agency of funding, and doing what it wants anyway.

  • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:41PM (#39417657) Homepage

    Thorium is just a trendy topic. Geeks are always so easily sold on the storyline, "There's this great new technology, and here's a list of five or so of its advantages -- it's the solution to all of the world's problems!". Which totally skims over, obviously, the disadvantages and challenges.

  • Re:Of course (Score:4, Insightful)

    by isotope23 ( 210590 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:41PM (#39417661) Homepage Journal

    well then Thorium nuclear reactors would seem to be a better bet.

  • by Moses48 ( 1849872 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:42PM (#39417681)

    People like to equate our oil needs with our electric needs. Maybe I'm misinformed, but they don't seem to equate. If we found a completely free source of electricity, that used a large building to produce, we wouldn't get rid of our oil demand. We would get rid of our coal demand. Electric transportation still suffers from battery issues at the moment. At some point in the future cheap electricity might reduce our oil demand, but with urban sprawl and the current shortcomings of electric transport, I don't see this happening soon.

  • Re:Of course (Score:4, Insightful)

    by the eric conspiracy ( 20178 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:48PM (#39417789)

    I have been hearing about biofuels since the early 80's so I don't think they have a record that is any better than fusion.

    Brazil is still mostly dependent on fossil fuels. Gasoline there is a 25/75 ethanol/gas blend.

    A population reduction - are you volunteering?

  • by gestalt_n_pepper ( 991155 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:52PM (#39417877)

    Thanks, but I'm aware of the "new technology will solve the energy crisis" meme. The deal is this. We do need a new source of electricity as hydrocarbon depletion, or more importantly, hydrocarbon's ever shrinking energy return, starts to bite in a big way. We don't have many affordable options that scale. Nuclear has a chance of that, but conventional plants are dangerous and uranium isn't an infinite resource either. We have much more thorium than uranium, and while the plants are technologically challenging, we've already built them. It's not a matter of "trying to break even." We've broken even. It's a matter of building enough of the things safely and economically. That take incremental development, not some major breakthrough. It seems to me that pursing thorium is an easier and more economic solution than continuing to futz with fusion.

  • The Numbers (Score:5, Insightful)

    by docilespelunker ( 1883198 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @03:57PM (#39417953)
    Really now, they've fired ~2MJ pulse. But what does that mean? 2MJ of laser light was present in their test chamber. This was fueled by 400MJ of electrical energy stored in capacitors. So we can now see that they have accomplished making a 0.5% efficient laser. This is nothing to write home about. Lets consider the actual fusion power output. The most they've had is about 1kJ of fusion energy output. This is not a lot. The balance between energy in and energy out is very poor. Getting 1kJ from 400MJ is about the best they can hope for. An overall efficiency of 0.00025%. Who here thinks that's good? JET, which is the smaller brother of ITER has achieved a 90% energy balance. Still not breaking even, but still 3600 times closer. ITER is designed to output 10 times more energy than is input. So it'll spank NIF. QED. That doesn't stop it being expensive though...
  • Re:Theft (Score:4, Insightful)

    by spike hay ( 534165 ) <> on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:02PM (#39418045) Homepage

    What's with spergy computer nerds and libertarianism? I guess it must be appealing to reduce the complexity and unavoidable ambiguity of human society into just a couple of quasi-moral rules pulled out of nowhere.

  • by Kreigaffe ( 765218 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:09PM (#39418161)

    Thorium, yes, but the wider view is reactor design. Doesn't have to be Thorium, we also have all this lovely nuclear waste from old reactors lying around.. and a good bit of it is still perfectly fissile, given the right sorta conditions. That's producing energy from trash, for the 21st century.

    Then again, scary nuclear, NIMBY SAYS NOPE!

  • Re:General Fusion (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ThePeices ( 635180 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:10PM (#39418195)

    "By that argument...blah"


    He means a project in a similar manner to the "hero" projects of old, like Apollo, and Project Manhattan. Where you basically say "cost be damned, were doing this". Either for prestige (Apollo), or self defence ( project M ), or saving our collective asses ( cheap fusion power )

    Investing a huge fortune in money on inventing a commercial grade reactor does not automatically imply that the resulting commercial design will be as expensive to mass produce as the money spent on R&D.

  • Re:Of course (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Electricity Likes Me ( 1098643 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:18PM (#39418329)

    Sugar cane also works for Brazil because they don't have nearly as many cars on the road in the first place. There's also the very serious hazard of using arable land to grow fuel rather then food, and the follow on effects that can have on global food prices.

    Biofuels are really a non-starter - it's inefficient solar power, with all sorts of limitations and where and how much of it you can use. It also is only an answer for transportation fuel at that. There's no possible way we could satiate our electricity demands using biofuels (when you need 60% of the arable land in the US to manage the oil needs of transportation alone - optimistically).

    Fusion research has to be done, no matter the cost, until we either definitely establish it can't be done, or we succeed. Given the positive results that we have that, it seems likely we can succeed - but nothing that complex is ever easy or quick.

  • Re:Of course (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:22PM (#39418373)

    Why the fuck do people keep on mentioning Thorium reactors? They still produce fission products. And fission products are the only thing that nuclear reactors need to protect against releasing to the public. Fission products are also statistically determined. You will always get short medium and long term radionuclides even if you burn up some.

    There are benefits to Thorium reactors, but in a major accident they will still release enough highly radioactive substances that will require evacuation and quarantine of the affected area for decades. Yes, a thorium reactor can still meltdown, it still has decay heat, and it would require complex engineered safeguards to protect it.

  • Re:Theft (Score:4, Insightful)

    by NeutronCowboy ( 896098 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:32PM (#39418501)

    I guess it must be appealing to reduce the complexity and unavoidable ambiguity of human society to something that can be solved via one-size-fits-most central planning by an Intelligent Designer, a noble bureaucrat with a brilliant mind and a crystal ball.

    Yep, spergy computer nerd incapable of making subtle distinctions right there. You manage to put up both a straw man and a false dichotomy. Primarily because there's no other way to support your argument.

    Here's your problem: you correctly identify some of the problems that government has, but then decide to solve them by throwing out all government. You are completely clueless as to the requirements for a functioning society, as well as the costs necessary to maintain it. The correct discussion is to talk about whether the money is better spent elsewhere. Your blanket squeal about thievery is completely, utterly sophomoric.

    localized, decentralized experiments are essential to peaceful evolution towards a prosperous world.

    And you also managed to get evolution wrong. Here's a little hint: evolution has nothing to do with a better world, or more prosperous world. Only with who makes more kids.

  • by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:42PM (#39418653) Homepage

    It seems to me that pursing thorium is an easier and more economic solution than continuing to futz with fusion.

    Why treat these things like we have to only pick one? It's not like the money for R&D into fusion reactors and money for the construction of production fission reactors are coming from the same place. Even if they were, I'm sure we could find some third thing to de-prioritize instead.

    Thorium fission reactors have great potential for solving many current problems with fossil fuels. Thorium reactors could be running and solving our problem long before fusion reactors could.

    Fusion reactors have the potential to solve our energy problems for any forseeable future -- making energy so plentiful and cheap that we could use it to do things that would be completely insane now. Even in a future where we are using nuclear fission for all our power, the creation of working, production fusion reactors would be a revolutionary change.

    We want both. Let's not pit them against each other.

  • It only needs to be commercialized.

    You say it so casually, as if it wouldn't take billions of euros and decades of time... It isn't just the reactor that needs to be designed, proven and certified, it's the infrastructure to handle the fuel and decommission the thing after its working life.

  • Re:Of course (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gewalker ( 57809 ) <Gary.Walker@Astr ... inus threevowels> on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @09:26PM (#39422021)

    You keep hearing about thorium reactor, because a lot of people are convinced it would be a very good idea to do this based on the options that are clearly possible in the near term. Maybe, you should do your own research on the LFTR reactor and see why lots of people think so. And just so you know (in case you did not), fusion will also have radioactive byproducts, expected to be less of a problem than LFTR reactors though.

    Ultimately might be able to get LFTR power for as low USD 0.01 per kwh, and there are millions of years worth of it. This excites people, we've never seen large scale energy this cheap or this long-term, not in the history of the world. Fusion won't hit this price for a long time, if ever.

    Every large-scale technology has risks. People are killing by falling of the roof installing solar panels. Coal -- you get pollution, explosions and mine collapses -- and plenty of radiation, coal being mixed with thorium and uranium, we shove plenty of radiation into the air when burning coal. People die from natural gas, hydro, wind, wood and candles too.

    I just don't know that we can afford to wait another 50 or 100 years for Fusion to be viable on a large commercial scale. There are just not many options that allow the whole planet to have power intensive economies. It is morally wrong as far as I am concerned to decide that others should not have abundant power, while I get to keep mine, or even worse, that no-one is allowed abundant power. Widespread death, disease, etc. will rule.

    Bet on fusion, please go right ahead. Bet on solar power satellites, too. Bet on anti-matter production production in solar orbit near Mercury too, but please lets be sure to bet on something very likely to keep us in the game until we get the "perfect" sollution. I.e., Bet on LFTR as a safe bet, if not the perfect solution.

Matter cannot be created or destroyed, nor can it be returned without a receipt.