Monday, February 07, 2005

Goldston about fusion

For Windows users: have you already installed the February 2005 patches? There's a lot of them:
Today's physics colloquium at Harvard was about the fusion. Robert Goldston from Princeton did a very good job. The previous article about ITER and fusion on this blog was posted here, and many well-informed people added interesting comments for which I am grateful.

Goldston discussed a lot of physics issues connected with the stabilization of the plasma; magnetohydronamics (MHD); heat diffusion, and so on. The inflow of professional information was pretty fast. He described an equation due to David Bohm, and he distinguished the Bohm regime of the plasma from the gyro-Bohm regime. The Bohm regime is hopeless - the diffusion is far too strong. The gyro-Bohm regime is what will allow the fusion plants to operate, and they can show that this regime can be realized.

Nevertheless, the talk looks like good news. The understanding of the relevant plasma physics has improved significantly in the last few years or decades - for example since the moment when Jimmy Carter started to fund this research by big money. The energy that the people are able to create by fusion has jumped by 14 orders of magnitude - well above the 6 orders of magnitude how much the computers became stronger in the same period of time. The power generated using the current devices is roughly 1 or 2 orders of magnitudes away from the goal - from profitable power plants. Well, one must also be able to stabilize the plasma for slightly longer time intervals than what can be done today, but it seems that they're getting pretty close in this respect, too.

A minor problem is that we still don't have a functional reactor. But don't be too impatient.

The relevant technology that the experts are developing is based on following principles:
  • Deuterium plus tritium (their cost is virtually zero) burns to an alpha particle plus a fast neutron
  • The plasma is usually confined into various toroidal shapes and stabilized by strong magnetic fields - the required large magnets are the most expensive part of the device
  • There can be interesting "twisted" tori that are more appropriate to keep the plasma stable
  • The fast neutrons are absorbed by a wall that can be as thick as 70 centimeters
  • Every three years or so, the first 20 centimeters become radioactive and the material is not solid enough, and therefore this layer must be replaced
  • The remaining 50 centimeters may be used permanently
  • The power plant would be safe because there is never too much material in the system that could cause an explosion - like in the fission reactors where the Chernobyl's simpleton who was testing it could have caused the third biggest nuclear disaster in the history of humankind after Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • The reactors would generate radioactive waste that however disintegrates quickly - in 80 years it is mostly gone
Goldston showed a lot of graphs that demonstrate that the models agree with the experiments pretty well - except for one particular graph where all three competing models clearly disagree with the experimental data and the experimenters such as Goldston himself are making fun of the theorists.

It seems pretty self-evident that the future of fusion reactors is shifting from pure fundamental physics to engineering and economy - at the general level, the principle has been validated. In order to create an efficient power plant, one of them should cost less than 3 billion dollars, to say a rough number.

ITER, a next important step in the development of usable fusion reactors, will be located either in France, or in Japan. The country who wins the contract will enjoy various technological and economic advantages. Consequently, the Japanese say that the Europeans are assholes, while the Europeans describe the Japanese as jerks. It's obviously a lot of fun.

The U.S. are out of this particular game because a new source of energy would not be as hot as in these other, overpopulated industrial countries. I am sure that most readers will only be interested in the ways how to politicize this scientific and technological question. So let me emphasize that the United States and the Soviet Union started with ITER in 1985, and the U.S. still play an essential role in the research of various approaches to the fusion.

The budget to develop a working version of the reactor is estimated to be roughly 60 billion dollars - it's like a monthly U.S. trade gap. (Well, the Canadian statisticians forgot some files in their counting of November imports, which implies that the November U.S. trade gap was actually below 60 billion dollars.)

Sixty billion dollars - is it a lot of money? Goldston has shown some numbers. By 2100 or so, the world will require a lot of energy - roughly 3 times more than today - and it will want to choose the sources that don't produce much carbon dioxide. Replacing the CO2 emitting plants by the established alternative sources would cost roughly 300 trillion dollars. Do you see the factor of 5,000? The naive application of the Kyoto-like protocols using the available technology is therefore approximately 5,000 times more stupid a way to solve any hypothetical problems related to CO2 than funding the fusion research. Imagine that you remove 99.98% of someone's brain - is not it enough to identify the straightforward Kyoto supporters as anti-scientific morons?

The development of a working reactor is not on the schedule, but it is on the budget. Many countries, such as South Korea, are taking this project seriously and pay enough money so that the progress can be made.


  1. Actually, your statement

    "The U.S. are out of the game because a new source of energy would not be as hot as in these other, overpopulated industrial countries."

    Combined with the statement

    "Do you see the factor of 5,000? The naive application of the Kyoto-like protocols using the available technology is therefore approximately 5,000 times more stupid a way to solve any hypothetical problems related to CO2 than funding the fusion research."

    proves not that Kyoto supporters, but the people who came up with the naive Kyoto-induced costs are anti-scientific morons.

    ITER is being financed by signatories of Kyoto as a way to implement Kyoto; This clearly shows that the Kyoto limits are not a drain on the economy, but a source of technological innovation.

    Vice-versa, the biggest country country openly flaunting Kyoto is also staying out of ITER; This is at first sight surprising, since historically the US has been the main source of technological innovation recently.
    But once one looks closely, it is not so surprising:

    The political and economic system of the US is now dominated by corrupt large multinationals which can actively fight innovation when it hurts profits.

    It was Airbus, and not boeing, which created the new-generation large Jet. Both corporations had massive state subsidies, but boeing preferred to squander them on bonuses for executives, and not for development.

    Computing technology is revolutionizing the way we access intellectual richness, and powerful industrial organizations like the RIAA and drug industries are actually fighting all this, suing individuals and countries which breach our antiquated "copyright laws".

    And Enron, the energy giant, has tried to get wealthy by investing in new energy sources like fusion research.
    Instead, it ran an energy pyramid price-fixing scheme, trying to pass the blame on the enviroenmentalists when they were caught.

    Given all this, it is sad but not surprising that the US as a society prefers to invest money in SUVs, Iraq and Alaska oil drilling than ITER. The reason, however, is not the Kyoto protocol. Rather, it is the lack of it, or any other vision longer term than the lobbyists profits, in that country.

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  4. Dear Anonymous,

    your statements are completely ridiculous, weird, and stupid.

    First, you say that ITER was proposed as a project of Kyoto signatories to implement its policies. The reality is that

    1. The ITER was started in 1985 by the Soviet Union and the USA, more than a decade before a stupidity called Kyoto protocols was proposed


    and it is a project to prove feasability of fusion energy.

    2. The ITER is a scientific experiment, while profitable, usable power plants will not be here until 2020, to say the most optimistic number (the usual estimates are 2050)


    3. On the other hand, Kyoto protocols restrict the average emissions that can be emitted by its signatories between 2008 and 2012, long before fusion power plants will start to spread everywhere.

    4. The calculated costs of Kyoto, and especially of the future Kyotos that would intend to make measurable effects (or even lower the CO2 production by 2050 or 2100 for example), are measured in hundreds of trillions of dollars, and it's a consensus of economists

    5. It's just reality that the new alternative sources of energy and economically interesting for densely populated countries without any resources. You can't afford to distribute enough solar panels in Japan to run its national system using the resource, and Japan has no resources. On the other hand, countries like the USA have a lot of coal and similar stuff. It's just obvious that Japan is more likely to find the investment interesting - and understanding why is necessary for understanding complete basics of economy which is obviously extremely far from your modest intellectual abilities.

    6. Mixing up this discussion with Enron and RIAA shows that you are really confused. You should try to sit down so that your brain becomes a bit more stable.

    All the best

  5. Dear Quantoken,

    I was definitely not joking about anything. The cost of one ITER is definitely not 60 billion dollars. I wrote pretty clearly what it was, and if you torture your brain 5,000 times more than so far, you have a chance to get it straight.


  6. I never implied that ITER is administratively connected to the Kyoto protocol. I simply noted that, at the moment, the country which is out of Kyoto is also the country which is not involved with ITER.

    This is more than a coincidence: Structural costs such as Kyoto implementation can not be easily quantified , since they are also investmensts which spur innovation and create jobs.
    (and the fact that "all economists agree on the cost" does not bother me so much. So all economists are wrong. THe last 30 years show many similar cases).

    Involvement in ITER is a symtpom of that.
    So is the greater fuel-efficiency of cars sold in Europe and Japan is a good example of this. So is the Airbus large airplane
    (part of it's motivation is enviroenmental and justified by Kyoto, by the way).

    On a different note, the fact that you are using ITER as an example of a better alternative to Kyoto shows how unscientifically you and the so-called "global warming skeptics" think about the issue:
    You spent more than one post arguing that the problem is not there ('no warming'). Now you say that it's there, but Kyoto is too costly and investing in stuff like ITER would be better. Than you or someone like you says global warming is actually good.
    THese are completely different scenarios, unrelated and in fact exclusive to each other. The only way someone could use them together is if they are opposed to Kyoto ideologically
    (or, in case of the "global warming skeptic climatologists", becuase skepticism is why they get money ), and are just cherry-picking arguments to support the opposition.
    This is the exact contrary of science, and in fact reminds me of the "evolution skeptics", aka creationists:
    this cartoon drives home the point about your reasoning.

  7. Your comment that the U.S. is out of the game--while maybe true in magnetic confinement fusion--certainly is not true in inertial confinement fusion, where the U.S. has (or will have) top-notch facilities at NIF and Omega, not to mention new lasers being built at places like Reno, where a Petawatt is being constructed.


  8. Dear anonymous,

    I don't know whether it is a coincidence that the main opponent of Kyoto - the U.S. - is the same country as the country that does not plan to build ITER on its territory. ;-)

    It certainly sounds as a coincidence to me, especially because the U.S. are funding most of other research related to all these questions - including alternative fuels etc. And also, there are roughly 200 other countries that will not build ITER on their territory.

    Also, the big U.S. carmakers are spending big money on the development of cars based on alternative fuels etc. It's completely untrue if you say that the U.S. are not involved in this business. The U.S. and allies just oppose Kyoto because it is a waste of money - an inefficient solution to a problem whose existence is not clear. Even if one imagines that we agreed that there is a problem, Kyoto is about the most crappy way how to try to solve the problem. Its outcome will be to reduce the temperature by 0.1 degrees or so by 2100. Nothing. Stupidity. Trillions of dollars wasted.

    Already today, companies are subsidized for many totally uneconomical projects to work with alternative fuels - even though the cost - including the environmental cost - is higher than if you avoided it. Kyoto is a method to turn the usual rules of economy upside down. Yes, I hope that the U.S. companies will also benefit from developing and selling new technologies to the other countries that decided, for whatever reasons, to pursue this anti-scientific agenda.

    It's not true that the development of various new things required by Kyoto will lead to economical benefits for the Kyoto signatories that could be close to compensate the economic losses - the main pressure from Kyoto is simply to reduce production - and it's also not true that Kyoto is constructed in such a way that it supports the development of completely new technologies.

    I never said that the "serious problem with carbon dioxide is there". This is just your fantasy. I think that this whole business is one big stupidity. I am just thinking about the years 2050 or 2100 in which I suppose that the production of electricity and carbon dioxide will be 3 times higher than today and the CO2 concentrations will be twice the current values, the temperatures will be 1 or 2 degrees higher, and everyone will realize that there's nothing wrong with it - unless the green brains will really cripple the civilization as they're trying to do it today.

    But I still think that the benefit of thermonuclear fusion is not because of some medieval theories about carbon dioxide being almost a poison; the reason why we try to develop fusion is that it would be the cheapest and cleanest source of energy.

    Well, I think that the cartoon is a very accurate description of the thinking of global warming alarmists, but I would not come with this kind of "argument" myself.


  9. Hi Lubos,

    thanks for reporting on that Colloquium. I saw the announcement in the BAPC but missed it. It's definitely a topic to watch!

    My feeling is that many of us can learn an important lesson from a project like this -- in particular those who are unduely concerned about the environment.

    Why did oil replace coal as the primary energy source? It wasn't Kyoto V0.09a, it was because of technological progress. The same is going to be true for the current energy situation.

    Environmentalists can heckle and scream as much as they want. Their influence won't be big enough to alter historical developments. And it were, it would amount to nothing but the prevention of progress.

    The best way of reducing fossil fuel burn in the long run (for whatever reason one might want that) is precisely to develop better technology like the fusion reactor. How do we do that? Well, by growing the economy and promoting scientific research which, in turn, requires to genrate as much cheap energy as we can.

    Therefore we should be willing to burn more fossil fuel now, because it can relieve us from having to do it tomorrow. The climate will survive it, though I am less hopeful for some religious environmentalists who might jump out of the window when they read these lines.


  10. I have been following the Global Warming (GW) debate with some interest. I have noticed a trend emerging.

    The anti global warming group are actually a hodge podge of interest groups who have differing agendas. Some believe that GW is a conspiracy. Some believe that GW is a naturally occuring phenomena and can be ignored. While others (I believe this is Lumo position) that we do not have enough information and thereby the best position is technological progress. I hope everyone agrees that the my first two arguements are unscientific, with only the third example with any serious validity.

    Given this, then I believe that the SERIOUS differences between anti GW's and GW's is nothing more that Civil Talk! Kyoto has done it job which was to make the world aware of this issue. That the US or Euro were not going to be satisfied was obvious as China and India were not going to sign up!

    This leaves the debate as merely a boring MORAL issue. I.e should technological progress be regulated or not!

    This is boring as we leave in a world of nation states, and only nation states could carry out the regulations! Each to their own morality!

    Finally, some moral musings.

    To AntiGW's: Would they be prepared to put up a multi billion dollar fund invested in the stockmarket to provide funds for countries which are affected by GW. If not why are you an anti GW? Obviously, if GW is not serious, then the costs will be miniscule at best. Indeed, it could be set up that the anti GW's receive a Profit (Think Fannie and Frankie in US) by investing in private enterprize in the 3rd World!

    To GW's: Would they be prepared to open their border to free trade with the 3rd World without reciprocal opening in 3rd World countries? If not why are you a GW? Clearly, you believe the behaviour of 3rd World countries to be important and indeed threatening!

    An amateur mathematician

  11. I think I went to my first colloquium on magnetic confinement fusion about 30 years ago. At that time the optimists said commercial power in 20 years but the pessimists thought 50. I'm happy to see that there has been some progress.


  12. It seems to me that everyone is throwing around doomsday scenarios of their choice. Here are the considerations that, in my opinion, face us:

    There is a substantial part of the scientific community that holds that global warming (GW, to reuse the abbreviation) is a reality, and will cause costs both human and economic that vary from insignificant to catastrophic. Maybe they're wrong, maybe not. Certainly, the possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand.

    On the other hand, Kyoto sceptics are quoting economic costs varying from insignificant to catastrophic (300 trillion, in the post). As it happens, Kyoto does not intend replacing all CO2 producing plants, but rather shifting the economy in favour of "cleaner" production. But be that as it may, it would be possible to do a lot of damage economically by a strict Kyoto-like policy.

    So possible catastrophies on both sides. Surely, then, the rational course of action is to implement a careful version of Kyoto (like the watered-down version currently in place), that starts reducing the use of the most polluting production, but without imposing too much economic cost.

    What about technologies like fusion? I'd say pursue them in parallel -- Lumo's implication that there is a choice doesn't hold, as seen by the fact that the countries concerned are doing both. Best (and likely) case: small unnecessary cost on Kyoto in the meantime. (Avoided) worst case: if GW is a problem, and the next 50 years turn out to be as devoid of world-changing energy technology as the last 50, at least we have a backup plan in place.

    I'm naturally sceptical of the more dramatic predictions being thrown around by many people. But on this case, I think, I'm not willing to try a gamble, either on GW being overblown, or new technology being ready in time.

  13. Dear Dan,

    I wholeheartedly agree with your general idea that the healthier and stronger economy we (will) have, the easier it is to develop new technologies and find support for and make actions that realistically prevent the world from various threats.

    Dear Zelah,

    in some sense, I would also call global warming a "conspiracy", although it is not so difficult to peek inside. And yes, climate change is definitely also a natural process, and we don't know whether the human influence can already compete with the natural variations.

    It is promoted by various groups: first of all the political groups of greens that have an agenda - they really want to damage the corporations, industry, capitalism, and perhaps even start to remove the human beings from this planet. These people definitely have an agenda, I think it is a dangerous agenda, and the danger is completely underappreciated by the media and others.

    The media have an interest to selectively spread these sensational threats because they sound grandiose and improve the attractivity of their journals and newspapers etc. The politicians want to support the global warming protection plans because they think it makes them look "nice and caring". Finally, the scientists (if they still deserve this name) get more money if they study a problem that is viewed as a serious problem. If they admitted that the problem is overblown, their funding would go down or disappeared.

    More generally, most of the people who "write things" lean to the left, and they are politically biased.

    The next contributor wrote that he or she "is not willing to gamble". I think that this is a misunderstanding what our ignorance means. If you don't know what will happen in the future, and you usually do not know, you ALWAYS gamble. There is no way how you can avoid it. Reducing "modestly" the world's average growth of the GDP from 3 percent to 2 percent (and I am very cavalier here because in reality many signatories will go to recession) means that in 2100 the economy won't be 16 times stronger than today, but just 6 times stronger. You're gambling 10 times the current global economy. Don't tell me that you think it is "nothing". It's a gamble - a dangerous game with the whole future of the humankind.

    I don't say that the plans of the green brains are a true existential disaster - which is what they say about our current technological situation. But their plans are definitely something that damages my (and our) dreams about a better future of the humankind. It's like if someone cuts 1 percent of your muscles every year. I don't know how should I explain that it is wrong to someone who thinks that it is not wrong.

    OK, this is about fusion - so let me finally hope once again that the existence of the 20 year delay - to say the least - does not mean that the fusion will never work.

    All the best

  14. Professor Lubos Motl,

    I think such an idea is wonderful if we could find a safe means to have this energy production for future generations.

    Your thoughts on Professor John's Ellis article by one of your own?

  15. Hello Lubos,
    I just found your blog about fusion energy. What about inertial confinement, which I think are those big lasers, has the US given up on that? How close is that approach? Could that double for spaceship propulsion?