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Murphy's Musings: Editorial

This is a highly irregular, and often irreverent (if not irrelevant) set of editorials reflecting my views on a wide swath of issues. You might wonder why I don't just use a blog; I have my reasons.


Fusion Revisited

A few of you (if there is indeed anyone reading this!) might remember my first editorial back in March 2001, which expressed frustration at the efforts of the US Administration and Congress to "effectively castrate the US Nuclear Fusion Research Effort". What I had not realised at that time was the degree to which the global oil industry, or at least the barons who run the oil companies, seem to have influence over, and a friendly ear in the current US Administration.

It is clear to me now that the so-called Energy "policy" adopted by this administration has been to sideline any effort to develop energy supplies that do not involve oil. In the short term, this virtually guarantees large profit margins for the barons of said oil companies, as oil is "all there is" in terms of energy supply. In the longer term, this strategy is completely and utterly disastrous, not only for the nation, but for the planet as a whole.

In the very long term (I speak of millenia and longer), fossil fuels are, by their nature, not even remotely interesting as a source of energy. They are a blip on the curve, a distraction from the task at hand. Think of Humanity's journey through time on this planet as if it were a trip across the North American continent. Then fossil fuels as an energy source are like passing a single gas (petrol!) station at the start of the voyage, where they offer a whopping two gallons (that's all they have). Is that going to last the entire journey? Of course not.

It saddens me to find out that yet again, the US Government has failed its people. Not only has research on fusion — the one really viable long term energy source we could use to augment wind and solar power — been cut to the bone in the US Scientific Community, we have added insult to injury by Zeroing out the US contribution to ITER for fiscal year 2008. In fact according to Representative Zach Wamp (R-TN), most Members of Congress do not realize the awkward position the United States is in because ITER received no funding this year (2008). The decision to zero out that budget item smacks of " El Busto" economics in my view; not only is it totally incompetent, it is negligence on a scale that is shocking and appalling at a fundamental level.

So what's the big deal about Fusion, ITER, and so on? It's really simple. If we (humanity) want a continuing source of energy from which we can generate electricity and/or make our cars run, we have these sources:

  1. Oil. Plentiful in the early 20th century, the supply has peaked (or at least plateaued) and will only stay constant or decline in coming decades. You can't argue with this; it's a fact. Oil from fossil fuels is not sustainable in the long term.

  2. Coal. Same argument as Oil; it's just solid, not liquid.

  3. Nuclear Fission. This is what powers all our current nuclear reactors (and our nuclear bombs). Fusion is tricky; it's a runaway reaction and requires extreme caution to use as a reliable energy source. It also generates problematic radioactive by-products (some of which have uses in nuclear bombs). The "half life" (decay time) of the by-products is often unacceptably long (tens, hundreds or more millenia).

  4. Hydroelectric power. Good, but limited. There are only so many rivers, so many waterfalls that we can re-engineer to include turbines to generate electricity for us. As long as the sun shines, and the weather pumps rain on the mountains, this is a renewable resource, albeit a finite and limited one.

  5. Solar power. This one is good for the next 4 billion years or so. As long as the sun shines, we can use solar cells to directly generate electricity. If we could dedicate a few tens of square miles of desert from southwestern Arizona or southeastern California (I know what this area is like, I used to live in Tucson) to power generation from solar cells, we could provide practically all our electrical needs for the foreseeable future.
    • One complication is how to store this energy; pumped storage (two lakes, excess daytime power used to pump water to the high lake, water falling to the lower lake used to generate power at night time) can help but there are only so many lakes where you can do that sort of thing.

  6. Wind power. Again, as long as there is weather on the planet, this source of energy is good for the long haul (billions of years). I have heard people object to the presence of wind turbines (windmills, whatever you want to call them) in their areas, but if it comes down to whether you want electricity or not, what are most people going to say? I wish I could afford one of these in my back yard!

  7. Nuclear Fusion. In its purest form, this is the process where Hydrogen atoms are pounded together at energies so high that Helium is formed, and huge amounts of thermal energy are released. It's the process that powers the sun. Yes, that bright yellow globe that we all know and rely on is powered by nuclear fusion. Without it, we would not exist. This process is also at the core of the most powerful nuclear bombs ever built (the so-called "H Bombs"). Unlike fission, the process of Nuclear Fusion is not "runaway"; on the contrary, it is tough to get started and extremely difficult to maintain. I would love to be able to have one of these to power my house (and my car, DeLorean or otherwise), but right now our (Humanity's) main hope is with ITER, the International Thermonuclear (or Tokamak) Experimental Reactor currently being built in the south of France by a consortium of scientists from China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and (sort of) the United States. Except we haven't been paying our dues.

Maybe I've overlooked a source of power (if so, let me know). But I don't think so.

To plagiarise a little from a mainstream press article, In order to generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity in a day, you could burn 9,000 tons of coal, liberating 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide in the process. Or you could take a few pounds of deuterium and tritium, and turn that into a slightly smaller amount of helium — without producing any greenhouse gases.

I can't argue with that logic. I don't think you can either.

— Pat Murphy, April 6th, 2008.

[Powered by Apache!] Patrick P. Murphy
National Radio Astronomy Observatory
Charlottesville, Virginia, USA