Monday, June 1, 2009

New in Fusion Research

The New York Times recently carried an article on the goings-on at the National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where a project to generate energy via inertial confinement fusion (essentially, igniting a pellet of hydrogen fuel with a battery of lasers) was dedicated on Friday, May 22.

The renewed interest in fusion is a natural enough response to the concern with climate change weighing ever more heavily on us (a new report on the problem takes stock not only of the risks to the future, but the toll on human life and prosperity taken by climate change now) and the rise of oil prices (which, from 1998 to 2008, shot up about tenfold, until they hit $150 a barrel last July), which have given the fears that peak oil is nigh much more attention than they have enjoyed in a long time-as well as the headaches still associated with atomic fission.

Such concerns seem to have contributed to the long-delayed International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project getting back on track, at least for a while (with France selected as the host site last year). It has also extended to greater interest in less conventional approaches to fusion, such as the use of helium-3 as the fuel (the virtues of which field leader Gerald Kulcinski explains himself here) which, in turn, has created much excitement in certain circles about space development schemes to mine the stuff off the moon, a goal explicitly claimed by Russia, China and India.

There has even been renewed consideration of cold fusion (a field which has not recovered from the Fleischmann-Pons affair). This led to a second look by the Department of Energy at the phenomenon back in 2004 (the report on which you can read here), and more recently, caused a stir in March when U.S. Navy scientists (specifically with the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Research Center) reported new evidence for the phenomeon. (Those who would care to follow developments in this area can check out the Cold Fusion Times, which regularly posts links to news items relevant to the issue.)

So far, though, nothing really solid's come of the more intense activity in this area-by which I mean a proven basis for a commercially useful power plant that will banish the old saw about fusion always being forty years away (which we've been hearing for at least that long).

Still, that doesn't rule out a future breakthrough that could make a viable technological future a lot easier to picture, and even if it would be a mistake to unduly get one's hopes up, this may still be something worth watching.

No comments:

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon