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Science Technology

Z Machine Makes Progress Toward Nuclear Fusion 151

sciencehabit writes Scientists are reporting a significant advance in the quest to develop an alternative approach to nuclear fusion. Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, using the lab's Z machine, a colossal electric pulse generator capable of producing currents of tens of millions of amperes, say they have detected significant numbers of neutrons — byproducts of fusion reactions — coming from the experiment. This, they say, demonstrates the viability of their approach and marks progress toward the ultimate goal of producing more energy than the fusion device takes in.
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Z Machine Makes Progress Toward Nuclear Fusion

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  • Probably like ten years ago, wasn't there a thing on Art Bell about John Titor and the nuclear fusion z machine for time travel?
    • by dbIII ( 701233 )
      Thought it was CERN - at least it is when the science fiction "Steins Gate" references John Titor as part of background for the plot.
  • Wouldn't it suck (literally and figuratively) if we discovered that the waste product of a fusion reaction are gravitons?

    • I'm worried these experiments are going to end with a large hole in the ground and a toadstool-shaped cloud of hot gases.
      • They're doing it wrong, all they need is a mini black hole. Two protons fall together toward the central point, tides overcome the electrostatic repulsion....PROFIT!
        • The problem with a black hole target, other than the obvious inability to make a miniature black hole that can be stable enough to fire something at it, would be that while the two protons may or may not fuse in the heart of the black hole, we will never know because they have crossed the event horizon and the energy they may or may not produce is now beyond our ability to detect and to a greater degree use.

          Just saying

    • by Ken_g6 ( 775014 ) on Saturday October 11, 2014 @06:23PM (#48121549) Homepage

      Yes, and all the stars in the sky would have collapsed, and we would have created black holes at H-bomb test sites.

      There might be nuclear waste to worry about given stray neutrons, but gravitons aren't something I'm worried about.

    • All the free energy will be spent cleaning up the waste from the last free energy error.
  • No where close (Score:4, Informative)

    by sjbe ( 173966 ) on Saturday October 11, 2014 @06:37PM (#48121607)

    From TFA:

    "Although the result shows that a substantial number of reactions is taking place—100 times as many as the team achieved a year ago—the group will need to produce 10,000 times as many to achieve breakeven."

    In other words they aren't even remotely close to a meaningful breakthrough. Nothing to see here, move along...

    • Re:No where close (Score:5, Insightful)

      by radtea ( 464814 ) on Saturday October 11, 2014 @06:42PM (#48121631)

      In other words they aren't even remotely close to a meaningful breakthrough. Nothing to see here, move along...

      Progress is progress and "breakthrough"s only exist in the minds of the people who weren't paying attention to all the incremental steps that created them.

      A factor of a hundred here, a factor of a hundred there, and pretty soon you're talking about orders of magnitude.

      • by sjbe ( 173966 )

        Progress is progress and "breakthrough"s only exist in the minds of the people who weren't paying attention to all the incremental steps that created them.

        We've been "making progress" in fusion research for 50 years now and still are no where close to turning Pinocchio into a real boy.

        A factor of a hundred here, a factor of a hundred there, and pretty soon you're talking about orders of magnitude.

        It's easy to make big increases from a starting point near zero. When they show that they can repeat that same level of increase in similarly short periods of time then I'll pay attention. Until then it is simply a cry for funding.

        • by DoofusOfDeath ( 636671 ) on Saturday October 11, 2014 @07:55PM (#48121907)

          We've been "making progress" in fusion research for 50 years now and still are no where close to turning Pinocchio into a real boy.

          You can't know that, unless you have foreknowledge of exactly which steps will have proven necessary to accomplish the ultimate goal.

        • We've been "making progress" in fusion research for 50 years now

          I know that seems like a long time, but put it in perspective. It's not even a single human lifetime.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward
          I don't have any reason to believe this specific direction for fusion power is any good, but, yes, fusion power needs more funding [imgur.com] if it's ever going to work.
        • Progress has been made. The tricky bit is we don't know how much more we've got to do to scale Teller's success down to fit into a box and behave itself.
        • Progress is progress and "breakthrough"s only exist in the minds of the people who weren't paying attention to all the incremental steps that created them.

          We've been "making progress" in fusion research for 50 years now and still are no where close to turning Pinocchio into a real boy.

          A factor of a hundred here, a factor of a hundred there, and pretty soon you're talking about orders of magnitude.

          It's easy to make big increases from a starting point near zero. When they show that they can repeat that same level of increase in similarly short periods of time then I'll pay attention. Until then it is simply a cry for funding.

          So what you are implying is, that we should just cut our losses and scrap all fusion research, give the finding money to others, and never try this again.....all because progress is not fast enough for you.

          wow.....just...wow.

        • With tokamaks there's precisely been exponential progress over 50 years, which got us around Q=1 these days (which is not actually enough and we need more than seconds or minutes or operation too). That makes tokamaks somewhat credible and ITER/DEMO have a chance of working.

          Yes funding should be higher. I don't think fusion research costs that much. I would rather see all manned space programs abandoned, and maybe too many resources (minds) are wasted on string theories for example.

      • I wonder how many factors of 100 you need to get to orders of magnitude... I'm thinking at least one.

    • by Memnos ( 937795 )
      Or, if they continue their current rate of increase of 100x/year, it'll take 2 more years.
      • Or, if they continue their current rate of increase of 100x/year, it'll take 2 more years.

        Wake me when that actually happens. It's easy to double a small number. Going from 1 to 100 is not impressive when you need to get to 1,000,000. Are you aware of any reason I should have a realistic expectation that their progress will be such that they achieve breakeven power within 2 years? Within 5? 20?

    • 100 times as many as the team achieved a year agoâ"the group will need to produce 10,000 times as many to achieve breakeven."

      In other words they aren't even remotely close to a meaningful breakthrough. Nothing to see here, move along...

      The words are hard to parse to establish the baseline, but it either says that they need to make as much more progress as they made last year (100x), or they need two more years like last year (100x * 100x) to achieve breakeven.

      What's unclear is if they made methodical o

    • Also from the article:

      Simulations suggest that the Z machine’s maximum current of 27 million amps should be enough to reach breakeven. But the researchers are already setting their sights much higher. A hoped-for upgrade to 60 million amps, they say, would boost the power output into a “high gain” realm of 1000 times input—a giant step toward commercial viability.

    • Advancing at 100x per year, they're only 2 years away from breakeven.

      Of course, advances are rarely regular, so they could be much closer to breakeven, or further.

  • More information: New approach to fusion delivers copious neutrons [physicsworld.com]

    "temperature of about 35 million degrees and the production of about 1012 neutrons. These results imply an energy output of only about 1 , but Gomez says that a deuterium–tritium fuel would produce around 300 J."

    "He estimates that it will require a roughly 3000-fold increase in the current deuterium–tritium energy output – to around 1 MJ" to get ot ignition. And only about a billion dollars for the upgrade to try it
    • US spent a trillion dollars on the war in Iraq. If the billion is spent in US and it uses US manufacturers, then it's basically an infusion into the economy.

      • Re:More information: (Score:5, Informative)

        by swb ( 14022 ) on Saturday October 11, 2014 @07:08PM (#48121739)

        Can you imagine if we put the war on drugs budget against fusion power instead? If we had started 40 years ago we might already have it.

        • Can you imagine if we put the war on drugs budget against fusion power instead?

          The climax of GE and Disney's "Carousel of Progress" at the 1964 New York's World's Fair was the first public demonstration of a fusion reaction. General Electric [worldsfairphotos.com]

          The device was a Î-pinch from General Electric. This was similar to the Scylla machine developed earlier at Los Alamos. (1958)

          In the mid-1970s, Project PACER, carried out at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) explored the possibility of a fusion power system that would involve exploding small hydrogen bombs (fusion bombs) inside an underground cavity. As an energy source, the system is the only fusion power system that could be demonstrated to work using existing technology.

          However it would also require a large, continuous supply of nuclear bombs, making the economics of such a system rather questionable.

          While fusion power is still in early stages of development, substantial sums have been and continue to be invested in research. In the EU almost 10 billion euro was spent on fusion research up to the end of the 1990s, and the new ITER reactor alone is budgeted at 10 billion euro.

          It is estimated that up to the point of possible implementation of electricity generation by nuclear fusion, R&D will need further promotion totaling around 60--80 billion euro over a period of 50 years or so (of which 20--30 billion euro within the EU) based on a report from 2002. Nuclear fusion research receives 750 million euro (excluding ITER funding) from the European Union, compared with 810 million euro for sustainable energy research, putting research into fusion power well ahead of that of any single rivaling technology. Indeed, the size of the investments and time frame of the expected results mean that fusion research is almost exclusively publicly funded, while research in other forms of energy can be done by the private sector.

          Fusion power [wikipedia.org]

          • They already had fission power, and the fusion bomb, seemed reasonable at the time.

            Question is: what would society look like with unlimited free energy? Even without greenhouse problems, can you imagine every hut in India, China and Africa powered with 500 amps of unmetered 220VAC? Stick a 50,000BTU wall unit in the side of an uninsulated hut, and you can have any temperature you want inside. Carbon arc perimeter lighting for the village, turns night into day. Melt the sand to make glass roads... it's a

        • Can you imagine if we put the war on drugs budget against fusion power instead? If we had started 40 years ago we might already have it.

          Control of people is more important than control of energy. I feel certain the rulers of this world would be happy to go back to stone age living conditions if the alternative would mean losing control.

  • by MrKevvy ( 85565 ) on Saturday October 11, 2014 @06:48PM (#48121655)

    ... A high school student working on a Farnsworth-Hirsch Fusor [wikipedia.org] for their science fair project, capable of accelerating tenths of amperes, detects significant numbers of neutrons-byproducts of fusion reactions-coming from the experiment. This, they say, demonstrates the viability of their approach and marks progress toward the ultimate goal of producing more energy than the fusion device takes in.

    Or not.

    • ... A high school student working on a Farnsworth-Hirsch Fusor [wikipedia.org] for their science fair project, capable of accelerating tenths of amperes, detects significant numbers of neutrons-byproducts of fusion reactions-coming from the experiment. This, they say, demonstrates the viability of their approach and marks progress toward the ultimate goal of producing more energy than the fusion device takes in.

      Or not.

      How do you accelerate an ampere?

  • by umdesch4 ( 3036737 ) on Saturday October 11, 2014 @07:00PM (#48121709)
    ...and here I thought this article was going to be about text adventure game engines. :( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Z... [wikipedia.org]
  • by PeterM from Berkeley ( 15510 ) <petermardahl@@@yahoo...com> on Saturday October 11, 2014 @07:39PM (#48121857) Journal

    What the Z machine does is zap a little metal box of wires that may contain fusionables with a high voltage/current pulse that is stored in a really enormous bank of capacitors. Naturally that destroys their target and makes kind of a mess in the process.

    I think they manage 8 shots/day if they're lucky.
    8 shots/day is a far cry from a reasonable power flux. I'm not sure current pulsed power technology (not to mention other engineering) could stand doing this at some reasonable frequency like 1Hz without breaking down in a few minutes.

    But at least they put a good fraction of the power input into the target, NOT like laser fusion--the lasers are horribly inefficient. (1%?)

    -PM

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I think they manage 8 shots/day if they're lucky.
      8 shots/day is a far cry from a reasonable power flux. I'm not sure current pulsed power technology (not to mention other engineering) could stand doing this at some reasonable frequency like 1Hz without breaking down in a few minutes.

      But at least they put a good fraction of the power input into the target, NOT like laser fusion--the lasers are horribly inefficient. (1%?)

      -PM

      Yes they are relatively efficient (much more so than ICF with lasers), but even 8 shots a day is way off. When I worked there it was 1 shot in an average ~12 hour day if nothing went wrong or broke. The turnaround time between shots is huge since so much hardware is destoyed each time ...

  • I don't see how they prove the viability of the method as power production...
    • by dbIII ( 701233 )
      That's about 50 steps down the track. Kettle first, steam train doing 100 miles per hour later.
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Saturday October 11, 2014 @10:56PM (#48122407) Homepage

    The whole pulsed laser fusion effort turned out to be a cover for nuclear weapons research. It lets Lawerence Livermore study H-bomb like fusion reactions on a convenient scale. With a gym-sized bank of lasers aimed at a single point, they can pump enough energy into a tiny space to force fusion. That's a research tool.

    So is the Z-machine, for much the same reason. It's yet another pulsed-fusion machine relying on inertial containment.

    The tokamak crowd has at least been able to hold a fusion reaction together for 400ms or so. But plasma instability is the curse of all tokamak designs, including ITER. There's much doubt that ITER will work. It's conjectured that a bigger plasma will be more stable, but many physicists question this. ITER has become a pork program, though, and it's hard to stop. Cost is about $15 billion. If there was real confidence it would work, the private sector would fund it.

    Right now, the new generation of stellerators looks more promising than the tokamaks.

    • Cost is about $15 billion. If there was real confidence it would work, the private sector would fund it.

      What I think is telling is that at $15B you could have something like 5 GW sized fission plants. Even many research reactors have provisions to use utilize it's heat to produce electricity. Yet for all that money there are not only no provisions to produce electricity using ITER, but no provisions to even be able to install components to produce electricity.

    • Why woud the private sector fund it? There is not much to patent as IP in a tokamak that wont be expired by the time it's built, all the private sector would be doing is spending the initial capital while the competitor copies the design.

  • by msevior ( 145103 ) on Sunday October 12, 2014 @05:48AM (#48123105)

    My submission of a couple of days ago.

    "The EM2 corportation has submitted a paper to axiv.org http://arxiv.org/abs/1406.0133 [arxiv.org] describing their $10 million US Navy project to investigate Bussards Polywell fusion device. NBC has a report on the development http://www.nbcnews.com/science... [nbcnews.com] . Quoting Nicholas Krall, a plasma physicist who has been working in the fusion field for more than a half-century and has been an adviser to EMC2 Fusion, "I think this is the most exciting experimental advance that I've been involved in," he told NBC News. 'I'm stoked.""

    Plus there are 2-3 other concepts that gave got Venture Capital funding. Fusion is looking more interesting.

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