How would one detail in the past affect how technology and science evolved? The a recent blog I highlighted the unique role of fossil fuels in a transition from one energy sustainable society to another future potential society. I constructed the metaphor of this current transition as launching a rocket into orbit. The topic of what might have happened if oil never formed was addressed later. What could have happened if the properties of unusual particles were just slightly different leading to energy resources cleaner and less expensive than oil?
What if it were easier to generate energy from water by fusion? Just generating some catalyst that promotes fusion of the hydrogen nuclei in the water would radically change the energy landscape. The energy generated would deliver inexpensive energy enough to solve many problems such as the desalination of water, the refrigeration and processing of food to reduce spoilage in undeveloped countries, and replace the dependence on fossil fuels. For example, a thumb full of water would give the same energy as a 15 gallon car gas tank. The key is to push the two hydrogen nuclei close enough together to overcome the barrier due to their positive charges.
There is a catalyst that will promote fusion for about 140 reactions before decaying or being removed from the catalyst role by capture. These catalyst come free in cosmic rays and about 1 per second pass through the palm of your hand. However, the number of these cosmic rays is too small to support large energy generation so new artificial means of production are needed. Also the decay and capture rate are insufficient to make up for the energy used to make them this way. The muon catalysts act as heavy electrons which bring the two nucleus closer together in a hydrogen molecule. This leads to a higher chance that fusion occurs before the muon catalyst naturally decays.(It has a relatively short life with a mean lifetime of about 2 microseconds, i.e., half a million average lives in one second.) The attempt is to get around 1,000-3,000 catalyzed fusions per muon within this lifetime.
Before looking deeper into this energy possibility and how it might have changed history if the properties of these catalysis were a slight bit different, the other fusion energy strategies will be described along with their challenges. Fusion has been attempted in many ways. One way is just to shoot one H nuclide towards another at sufficient speed using a small (15 cm) accelerator. The problem with this method is that most of the accelerated hydrogen nuclei do not react but just lose their energy in striking the metal target. Therefore, this is not energy efficient but the device is useful in producing a controlled pulse of neutrons, which helps measure underground properties in oil exploration for decades.
Another way to force the H together is to heat them up but keep the pressure high so that some might have enough energy to overcome the barrier. The sun does this at its center but it takes the pressure of the weight of the sun (1,000,000 times the mass of Earth) to accomplish this. This is also how a thermonuclear H bomb works. It takes a uranium nuclear explosion to heat and pressurize the hydrogen enough to fuse. However, the energy released by the uranium and the hydrogen bomb are difficult to control and extract energy.There have been other attempts to create fusion, using magnetic fields to contain or pinch hot plasmas, focus many lasers, accelerate the hydrogen in a spherical cage, or manipulate matter to encourage yet unidentified quantum states (LENR).
So now to an alternative history. If for some reason, the lifetime or other characteristic of muons were such that they could catalyze fusion easier, fusion energy extraction might be easier. The promise might have been recognized in the early 1950’s and developed further with the refinements currently being explored. It might be so simple that nuclear fission power might be bypassed due to the technical difficulties, scarcity of uranium, potential for arms proliferation, and potential for large accidents. Instead, fusion power would generate less waste, be easier to control, and not tied to nuclear weapons proliferation. Probably a major early concern would be to produce enough muons inexpensively enough so that a net energy could be extracted.
The easiest way to produce muons seems to be to accelerate protons and then slam them into a target which produces pions which decay to muons. This is just replicating the process by which cosmic ray muons are produced when the high energy protons slam into the atmosphere. Perhaps accelerator technology might not be ready. Currently great work is being done on developing compact accelerators in this energy range for medical purposes. This is done with superconducting magnets and using laser wakefield accelerators. Perhaps this would only occur in a second or third generation technology of muon catalyzed fusion.
At first, it might require large power plants to take advantage of scale effects and maintenance of the accelerators. It might be an ideal replacement for oil and coal based power plants but still use thermal generation of electricity. As the accelerator technology improved the reactors could be made smaller and modular first going into trains, ships, industrial sites. As it further improved distribution generation at the house and car level might be achieved. The fuel would be the special water of deuterium and tritium (DT). Others would propose exploring He3 reactions which is a very special form of Helium found in natural gas wells and well as cosmic rays. (There is quite a bit of He3 on the surface of the moons as cosmic rays slammed into the surface where why stay for millions of years because there is not weather or rain to leach them.)
The impacts of this hypothetical energy source would be great. Energy prices would come down without dependence on international supply of oil. Climate change gas emissions would be reduced. The fossil fuels would still be valuable for industrial production of plastics and chemicals. All the benefits of inexpensive energy that Richard Smalley listed in the 21 st century such as clean water supply would be available. However, would there have been a downside if this energy source had been realized?
What If … Catalyzed Fusion was Easy?