Monday, August 24, 2015

Sustainable fusion may be near

Among other things, I wanted this blog to be a resource to science fiction writers like myself.

That's why I post odds and ends that I come across, news bits that catch my eye and that I hope can help bolster the "science" half of "science fiction." Alternative energy is certainly a major component of many such writings. To get anything from your hovercar to your mothership powered to do what it needs to do, you need power plant that's clean, compact, and efficient. Big bonuses would be if your power could be gained from a fuel that's very common, like water, and the byproducts of the burning would be totally eco-friendly. It would also be handy if the power plant device were on the small side so that it could be mobile, maybe just big enough to fit inside "the cargo hold of an airplane." Smaller than that would be even better, but hey, let's not get too crazy.

And when you write this and your agent/editor/teacher/workshop partner tells you that it's "unrealistic," tell them it may already be on its way. The famed Skunk Works at Lockheed has reported that it is close to an alternative energy device that will allow for a sustained nuclear fusion reaction to occur and match all of the benefits previously listed. Fusion is the most potent power source known. It powers the stars themselves, meaning it is (almost) limitless. Finding a way to create, sustain, and harness such power has been something of a holy grail for scientists and engineers, but work towards it has been intermittent. Ever since the Pons-Fleischmann debacle of 1989 where two researcher erroneously announced to the world that they had enacted "cold fusion," the whole thing began to seemed like a non-starter. It just wasn't practical.

That may no longer be the case.

Lockheed's Compact Fusion reactor "makes use of a magnetic bottle created by superconducting magnets to contain the temperatures that can reach hundreds of millions of degrees. This magnetic bottle can then release some of the heat so that it can be used for power generation." Fusion is brought about by mixing two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium. Those isotopes can readily be extracted from water in a simple process of electrolysis. Lockheed asserts that a 100 MW system could run on less than 20 kg of fuel. Since it's a nuclear reaction, the Compact Fusion generator does produce radioactive waste. What sets this system apart from its fission reactor cousins is that this waste is then cycled back into the reactor for reuse.  

Clean, portable, unlimited energy. Almost sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? Are you lachrymose with joy yet? Or if you're like David, you're already calling it a pipe dream. Maybe. It's also probably presumptuous to add in the descriptor "free" just yet as nothing really is. Even so, unlimited energy that is produced cheaply could not cost as much as other energy resources.

That probably scares an awful lot of powerful people.

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