Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Monday, March 26, 2012

Nuclear fusion and the "three years law" of scientific research

  
As part of a mini-series on nuclear fusion on the Cassandra blog, here is a brief discussion on the status of the approach to fusion based on hot plasmas; the so called "tokamak" configuration. This technology is progressing at a very slow rate: the first energy producing plants are planned to appear not earlier than in several decades from now (if ever). Given the situation, we may be making a big communication mistake if we present this approach as the solution to the world's energy problems. At this rate of progress, many people have already lost their patience and are taking refuge in pseudoscience and outright scams. (image above from an article by Jean Pierre Petit). 


There is an unwritten law that rules industrial research and development. It says that you have to demonstrate that your idea can work in no more than three years. In exceptional cases, five years may be the limit but, normally, no industrial research project lasts more than that. If a project produces no useful results in five years, then there are good chances that it never will.

There are several examples of the "three years law" (or, maybe, "five years law").  Think of the Wright brothers: their first glider flew in 1900 and three years later they flew the first engine powered plane in the world. Think of nuclear fission; the Manhattan project was active from 1942 to 1946 and in less than three years it created both the first nuclear bomb and the first nuclear reactor. The law seems to hold independently of the ambition of the project: whether it is a bicycle or a spaceship, it has to show that it can work in a few years.

Conversely, consider the "War on Cancer", launched in 1971 by President Nixon. In more than 40 years, a lot of progress has been made in basic research on cancer, sure, but the war has not been won. Think of hydrogen as fuel. The idea of a "hydrogen based economy" goes back to the 1960s but, so far, nothing practical exists on the market. This kind of long range projects can generate good basic research, but it can hardly produce practical results.

So, let's examine the idea of controlled nuclear fusion in this light. We are still working, mostly, on the "tokamak" concept, proposed in the 1950s by the Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov. There is no doubt that tokamaks can produce nuclear fusions but, in more than 50 years of work, we haven't been able to reach the "breakeven" point, that is the condition when the ratio of the energy produced by fusion is the same as the energy needed to keep the plasma in steady state. The European ITER project on nuclear fusion is supposed to reach and exceed that point when it becomes fully operational in 2026, that is about 20 years after the start of the project. The whole ITER project should last until 2038. These are anomalously long times for an industrial research project. Consider also that, even if ITER attains its goals, we are orders of magnitude away from a device actually able to produce useful energy.

Now, of course, it is impossible to say that tokamaks will never produce useful energy. But look at the figure at the beginning of this post. Doesn't it make you wonder? It looks like we are just making the same machine bigger and bigger, in the hope that, eventually, it will work. Think if a 747 were to look just like the Wright plane, just bigger. It is not impossible to argue that we have taken a no way out road with tokamaks, as discussed in a recent article by Jean Pierre Petit. Other physicists, such as Luigi Sertorio, are also very skeptical about these nuclear fusion efforts.


In short, the ITER project is not an industrial research project: it is a basic research project. Of course, there is nothing wrong in studying nuclear fusion, very high temperature plasmas, and the like. It is good science performed by competent people and we can learn a lot of useful things from this work. And, in doing that, we might even find the way to obtain useful energy. But we can't think of ITER (or similar fusion research efforts) as something directly aimed at solving the world's energy problems.

The problem is that few people may know the "three years law" of scientific research, but there are limits to human patience. From the dawn of the "nuclear age," people have been told that science can solve the world's energy problems with nuclear fusion. But they haven't seen anything that works in 50 years. Now, they are being told that they have to wait for several decades more. At this point, it is not surprising that we see so many people seeking refuge in pseudoscience and in the outright scams of the recent craze on "cold fusion." That's a disaster, because people become easily convinced that there are miracle solutions to the energy problem and they tend to neglect technologies, such as renewables, that are not so glamorous but that do produce energy. But there are no miracles in science and we must do with what we have now.

13 comments:

  1. Meanwhile, the Russians are trying to sell LMFBRs and China seems to have the biggest effort to get thorium molten-salt reactors going.  Both have fuel supplies which dwarf all known carbon-based fuels in energy content.  Both are technologies where the USA led, until politics forced efforts to be abandoned.

    The USA's political leadership appears to be insane.

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  2. Be careful saying that LENR is pseudo-science.
    look at CERN conference. (summary of links and comments there: http://www.lenrforum.eu/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=117 )
    Call Mitsubishi and Toyota who have results about transmutation.

    there are theories, unproven like many in science, it respect the know law of physic (1st/2nd TD, QM, reference frame,GR), and it is probably not DD fusion (but p+e->n+v, then neutron absorptions, beta and alpha decays)..

    the recent breakthrough is the gas-phase nano-powder reactors, and ni+h reactors...
    Anyway the three years rule is interesting, since it start to boil since 2009, with SPAWAR conference, Celani/Focardi/Piantelli, then the industrials Rossi and Defkalion...

    another law is that for a discovery the mind have to be ready, and in 89 we were not ready for good news.
    IPCC started it's work , cold fusion was pretended fake and the irony is that it is a fraud by a team at MIT that allowed MIT to pretend it was fake (the fraud that Eugene Mallove denounce until he died)

    ps: I don't believe in machine that break 1st or 2nd law of thermodynamic... but weak-interaction reactors, are not violating any law. just need a validated theory.

    why does CF have so bad image...
    I have a theory: http://www.lenrforum.eu/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=40
    base on theory by Roland Benabou, about group delusion.

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  3. The two first comments exemplify very well the problems illustrated within the post.

    The first argues that in fact the IVth Generation reactors are about the corner,
    despite 60 years of developing of the concept, and that in fact the idea was abandoned in USA because of political issues (I guess that Engineer-Poet will argue the same for the very nuclearized France, for instance, even if the Prime Minister is pro-nuclear, as a vast majority of French population). We are here well beyond the 3-year scope and still waiting for Godot (well, I know, E-P will argue that this time is different because the small changes in the concept... the same as past tries).

    The second one... still the e-CAT scam? Oh dear. Of course LENR has some science inside, but LENR is not exactly the same as e-CAT (even if it was not a scam) but something more general. And regarding e-CAT, haven't you been told that Rossi has recognized to Florida authorities that his devices are not nuclear? Follow the link under "outright scams" in the post.

    It seems that many people have real troubles to face hard truths.

    Regards.

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    1. "The first argues that in fact the IVth Generation reactors are about the corner, despite 60 years of developing of the concept"

      Why, yes, it was.  Why else would a reactor with 30 years of operational experience and many successes along the way (including supplying most electrical power and heat for the INL laboratory complex) be shut down by political fiat just as it's ready to demonstrate the final element in the fuel cycle?  That's what happened to the EBR-II, which was the testbed for the Integral Fast Reactor.

      "(I guess that Engineer-Poet will argue the same for the very nuclearized France, for instance, even if the Prime Minister is pro-nuclear, as a vast majority of French population)"

      Apparently, Green party terrorists have a veto in France.  On Jan 18 1982, an RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade was fired at the Superfenix reactor.  Greens kept up legal and other actions against it which held it shut down for a good portion of the 66 months not due to technical issues.

      The same is true elsewhere.  The Monju (Japan) FBR spent 15 years shut down for political reasons.  The US molten-salt reactor program was poleaxed by the WASH-1222 report, which included a host of false statements about the merits and technical readiness of MSR technology.  A commercial development program for GW-scale MSRs was terminated on the claims of WASH-1222.

      "E-P will argue that this time is different because the small changes in the concept..."

      No, this time it's the same:  technical progress waits for the pols to remove their roadblocks.  EBR-II's 30 years of operation shows what can be done, and what would have been done by now without fear-mongering and political skulduggery.

      "It seems that many people have real troubles to face hard truths."

      If you are one of the "greens" who believe that humanity having a large source of clean, inexpensive energy would be disastrous, I'd say yes:  you do.

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  4. There are a lot of other hot fusion projects being worked on, not just ITER. Most fusion projects are not plasma research (I agree that ITER is), and the sole goal is net energy.

    Several project have already advanced further than than ITER in a fraction of the time and money.

    A list of all the hot fusion projects I'm aware of.

    Dense Plasma Focus (LPP)
    Electrostatic Confinement (Polywell)
    Magnetised Target Fusion (General Fusion)
    Field Reversed Configuration (Tri Alpha)
    Heavy Ion Inertial Confinement (Fusion Power)
    Stellarator (Wendelstein 7-X)
    Levitated Dipole (MIT)
    Tokamaks (ITER)
    Laser Inertial Confinement (NIF)

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    1. Yep.... but it is very hard to judge the relative status of all these projects. For instance, Laser inertial confinement had started with great fanfare in the 1970s, but it soon petered out: another multi-decade project that doesn't seem to be getting anywhere.

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    2. "and the sole goal is net energy. "
      Not so sure that the goal isn't "net grant money".

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  5. I'm not a nuclear scientist, but I assume that the fusion processes being investigated attempt to reproduce the activity of the sun. According to Wikipedia the energy density of the sun is 300W/m3. For this to provide a useful energy source the density would have to be increased by several orders of magnitude, is this lilkely to be possible?
    Roger Button

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    1. This is exactly the point that Luigi Sertorio (a nuclear scientist) makes in this post: http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.it/2011/06/nuclear-fusion-elusive-genie.html

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    2. Ugo, thanks for the update on fusion. I would ask you your thoughts on thorium reactor technology. I have spent more than a week sorting through the proponents claims, problems and reliability issues, feasibility and cost issues etc. I have not found a single source that has looked at Thorium reactor technology objectively. Are you aware of one? Have you looked at Thorium as a realistic energy source?

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    3. Well, it is one of those issue much talked about, but when you go look for practical applications, well, there is nothing to see. As long as we don't see something that works, what can we say?

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  6. I think the "three years law" of scientific research should not be applied to fusion reactor concepts that have yet no financial support. There are some well-conceived concepts that has more chances of harnessing fusion energy with less money. http://www.crossfirefusion.com/nuclear-fusion-reactor/overview.html

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)