Fusion In A Coffee Mug
    By Hank Campbell | October 15th 2012 04:30 AM | 27 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0® and co-author of "Science Left Behind".

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone...

    View Hank's Profile
    Fusion is the super-clean energy we would be thinking about if government-controlled energy science were about the best long-term solutions and not political pet projects - alas, its share of the $72 billion spent on alternate energy the last three years is negligible. 

    But something is better than nothing and some recent research revealed at the International Atomic Energy Association's Fusion Energy Conference in San Diego may be worth getting excited about. 

    You've all heard of fusion and likely give it a bad rap, for good reason. If you lump it in with the cold fusion nonsense that got mainstream media hype a while ago, it's understandable to be skeptical about miracle energy. Energy activists also dislike fusion, to go with their dislike of natural gas, hydroelectric power, wind power, current nuclear power and anything else more advanced than the 13th century. Why? Because fusion is not perfect today and, in their fundraising brochures, it adds to their arsenal of claims that scientists are out to kill us all. 

    They are basically correct about one part. Fusion is not ready yet. It may be another 50 years before it is ready.  But, as much as it will send some in the broad audience into hysterical shrieks to read it, we have that 50 years and it will be time well spent. CO2 from energy companies have plummeted and the dirtiest source, coal, is in steep decline and producing levels of emissions not seen since Reagan was in his first term. Our current energy is getting cleaner and nothing else is ready to take its place - we'd need to build a nuclear plant every day for the next 50 years to meet our energy needs and even then we can do it only because fission energy is relatively efficient; if we instead tried to use solar power, the environmental energy darling du jour, it would be close to impossible.  The 'greenmail' and environmental lawsuits that appear every time a  decent-sized solar plant is even proposed makes it too flaky in a nation that wants a reliable energy plan.(1) 

    Politicians think about 'the now' and fusion is not exciting people, despite its potential. Like solar power, it's already been promised for 60 years and made no huge advances.  If a president comes into power who is a believer, it may get tens of billions of dollars in subsidies thrown at it, like solar power has, but here on Science 2.0 we would still ridicule it because you can't just throw money at a company or a school and have a basic research miracle spring to life.  It takes time, and mistakes, and increments, before anything revolutionary happens.

    Instead of invoking yet another Cold War military-industrial pipe dream - government loves to build "Manhattan Project of X" behemoths despite none of them working since the actual Manhattan Project - a smaller, nimbler, 21st century way of doing science makes more sense when it comes to fusion. Lots of programs that are outside Big Science may lead to a real breakthrough and aren't 'all or nothing' financially. It's being done now, in both corporate- and government-funded science, and one recent program may be worth getting excited about.

    Recent Fusion History: In Brief

    In 1991, the Joint European Torus (JET) experiment produced produced a fusion reaction using deuterium and tritium and got 1 Mw of power for 2 seconds. It wasn't much, especially after 40 years of tinkering with fusion, but fusion as a 'hey, let's recreate the power of the sun under laboratory conditions' concept turned out to be so difficult it wasn't even known what the obstacles would be until they came up.  Basically, the fundamental science of plasma had to be figured out to even start on the science of fusing ions in plasma under extreme heat. In 1995, The Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor at Princeton produced 10.7 million watts of controlled fusion power. We've had more incremental advances since then and in the south of France is ITER, a joint experiment of the US, the EU and five other countries that has a goal of producing 500 million watts of fusion power for 500 seconds by the end of the next decade, which would power about 150,000 homes.

    Nice, but still not anything to get excited about 15 years from now, except for the fact that little advances in energy can lead to big ones.  Fusion involves million-degree plasma and containing that takes more energy than it generates and energy density and efficiency are the entire point of fusion. A new piece of technology was recently discussed that could help contain the plasma using one percent of the energy currently required, which makes fusion not just fun but energy effective.

    The coolest coffee cup ever?  No, a computer drawing of a prototype which uses current-carrying handles to contain the plasma. Credit: T. Jarboe, Univ. of Washington

    Fusion is primarily researched and implemented using magnetic confinement or inertial confinement.  A tokamak reactor like ITER will have a container, a 'bottle', made of magnetic fields and plasma of 100-million-degrees. You can imagine the magnetic fields it takes.

    "That method works but it's extremely inefficient and expensive, to the point that it really is a major problem with magnetic confinement." said Professor Thomas Jarboe from the University of Washington, who presented his latest work at the IAEA meeting.  Jarboe and a team have been working on what they call helicity injection. As they describe it, spirals in the plasma produce unbalanced currents that generate the right electric and magnetic fields to heat and confine the contents.  There was still a big problem with their method; while needing a lot less energy, it was unstable.  If the conditions changed, it could wobble out of control and in production that would mean a reactor shutdown.

    "We would drive it until it was unstable," Jarboe said of his approach. "Like you twist up a rope, the plasma twists up on itself and makes the instability and makes the current drive."

    Their new proposed solution is to alternating the current through the handles in the prototype shown above, which produces the asymmetric magnetic fields that contain the plasma. The two handle-shaped coils alternately generate currents on either side of the central core, what they call imposed dynamo current drive. In their small-scale tests the plasma is stable and the method is energy-efficient and next they want to work with a larger reactor to see if it can maintain a sufficiently tight magnetic bottle.

    "Here we imposed the asymmetric field, so the plasma doesn't have to go unstable in order for us to drive the current. We've shown that we can sustain a stable equilibrium and we can control the plasma, which means the bottle will be able to hold more plasma," Jarboe said.

    So don't go looking for a Mr. Fusion to attach to your car just yet, there is still some work to be done, but we have plenty of time.  As we learned from "Back To The Future II", that and hoverboards will not be in common usage until 2015 anyway.


    (1) Berezow, Alex and Hank Campbell. Science Left Behind (pp. 73-74). New York: Public Affairs, 2012.


    One of the issues isn't just recreating the energy density of the Sun, we have to create much higher density. It takes about a cubic mile of solar plasma to make a GigaWatt of energy, while we need to make that kind of power from a much, much smaller volume of plasma.
    Never is a long time.
    "Government loves to build "Manhattan Project of X" behemoths despite none of them working since the actual Manhattan Project."

    The Apollo Project worked, didn't it? Government proved it could put a man on the Moon if it threw enough dollars at the problem.

    Government proved it could hire a lot of private companies with smart, young people in them and contract out the moon landing.  The myth that NASA put a man on the moon is modern mythology created by NASA. IBM and Rocketdyne and a lot of other companies put a man on the moon.  

    If you ever read a NASA spec from that period you would know the government didn't even know what it didn't know, it was up to the contractors to figure out everything between concept and launch.
    Does that really refute the point? Wasn't it still a Manhattan Project scale endeavor, at behest of politicians? How did the private nature of the contractors change that?

    (I'm advocating for the Devil, not giant projects.)

    And how is it an argument against a huge, government-mandated Apollo style fusion project, instead?

    Poor old Jarboe, wasted his life on crazy ideas with the rest of the hot fusion fraud industry. I used to think that hot fusion was the one good thing the government did, but then I learned it's all a scam, meaning there is absolutely nothing the government does that is any good. The MIT gang has held back the cold fusion competition for over 20 years, but it seems to me that Andrea Rossi in on his way to overcoming the hot fusion fraudsters roadblocks. Besides, there was never an energy crisis, we have hundreds of years of fossil fuels, and despite you lies, solar has improved orders of magnitude and manufactured for a dollar a watt. Wind in places like Texas and the midwest is grid competitive to keep a lid on natural gas monopolies from forming. And what about storage pond 4 and Fukushima, which can be HAARPed again anytime Hillary and Michelle want, destroying Japan and maybe much of the northern hemisphere? You should not be writing a blog, you should be seeing a shrink.

    Stan, I think there's something to LENR, But I don't think Rossi found it.
    It will be many years if not decades before solar and wind can generate energy at the same price as fossil or nuclear.
    We should be building as many fission power plants as we can, along with drilling as much oil and gas as we can until our technology improves.
    Research might make a better cheaper solar, it might unlock fusion (hot or cold). But until then, we need cheap energy and the main source is fossil, if you want to reduce co2, we have to build nuclear.
    Never is a long time.
    Nuclear fission is not worth the risk. Like I said, we have hundreds of years of fossil fuels and there is nothing wrong with them. AGW is the biggest scientific scam of them all, it encourages all kinds of warped thinking like the pro-nuclear position. CO2 is not the driver of climate change, solar activity is. There is no such thing as "radiative forcing". Again, it was concocted by the fraudsters at MIT, namely Richard Lindzen. Water vapor accounts for almost all of the greenhouse effect. There has been no warming for 15 years, even according to the latest report from Hadley. The sea level has been dropping for a couple of years, which shows the melting caps don't effect sea level at all, it's a ridiculous proposition to begin with. The poles on Mars are melting to, so obviously it's solar variability, not breathing or driving around is SUVs. We could convert all of our cars to nat gas/gasoline for a couple of thousand oer car, which would pay for itself in a year, and then we wouldn't need to defend the oil from the Middle East. The whole fake scarcity racket is to profit the petrodollar hegemony and enslave your mind to Malthusian nonsense. All of the AGW scammers like Hansen need to be prosecuted at a new Nuremberg war crimes trial in Nuremberg, Pennsylvania. For the sake of their vanity and egos, we have wasted decades on the mentally subversive nonsense. It is not innocent at all, it is intentional fraud and should be prosecuted like any other mass crime.

    I appreciate the vehemence, actually.

    I'm skeptical of the messaging from both sides. I can see BS very nicely, even if I can't see the atmospheric gas mixture over eons and compare it to solar activity. I can assure you that the voices coming from both sides are at least mostly full of --it, at least most of the time.

    I am also inclined to accept the premise of GW. If you put CO2 instead of air into a test tube, and shined light on it, it would trap more heat than air. So I am disinclined to sweep the whole argument away because of BS and invective from either side.

    Isn't the central premise of the AGW crowd, that not only are the GW scientists wrong, but they're perpetrating a fraud? How else to explain the preponderance of climate scientists who agree with GW? And if it's a fraud - how do you explain that??

    Supposedly they're in it for the money... but all the money is on the other side. A climate scientist who goes against the mob will get attention, TV interviews, and funding. And if they're right, in the end they'll emerge with the reputation. How do you explain why this isn't happening?

    I'm not equipped to judge the science - the stuff for laymen appears has been intentionally muddied - but I'm good at judging sales pitches. The GW and AGW pitches are equally angry and hyperbolic, and equally full of facts and factoids of about equal use to me. But only one side has satisfactorily explained the other side's motive to perpetrate fraud, if fraud it must be.

    So how do you explain the conspiracy? What's in it for the GW people to disrupt the world economy for nothing? Is it an anarchist prank?

    As a leading AGW debunker, I can assure you, there is no money it it, I am in fact unemployable because of my knowledge. How can it not be self-evident that the AGW grifters are in it for the money and/or simply afraid of being thrown out in the street like me for dissenting? It's a deep eugenical programming by the global elite, who what to destroy 95% of mankind, so they can stay in power over the remainder. Go back to Arrhenius who cooked up this scam in 1896. He was a founding member of the Swedish Eugenics Society. Mass society is conditioned to hate itself, so that shame and guilt with one's own existence will lead to subservient conformity to the powers that be. Tens of billions a year are robbed from the taxpayer to perpetuate this fraud, as opposed to millions by the Koch Brothers and the like. The oil industry is in on it too, since they can justify higher prices like Obama arguing it is helping to reduce consumption and thereby saving the planet. It is also particularly a Rockefeller Foundation plot, to demonize competing coal, and the Wall Street crowd wants a trillion a year in carbon markets to patch up the failing real estate and stock bubbles. It also drives up the cost of wind and solar, making them uncompetitive, since being value-added, their price can be artificially inflated, a la Nancy Pelosi's son's inside dealing for example. It is also promulgated by the hot fusion fraud machine, to give them an excuse for existence, and fission is really a safety nightmare, so it too is in on the scam. Look at storage pond 4 at Fukushima, if it fails it will release 35 million curies into the open air, and nobody seems to be doing anything about it. I believe Fukashima was intentionally destroyed by the American HAARP weapon in Alaska, an act of nuclear terrorism by the American regime against Japan, to keep them on our side in a futile effort to "contain" China. To what end? Simply to forestall the destruction of the dollar like the ruble was destroyed 20 years ago. It's mostly a Democratic Party conspiracy, Bill and Hill simply want to rule the world, and Obama/Soetero/Shabbaz/Davis Jr., and carbon market maker Sidley Austen Michelle and the rest of the Chicago mob do what they know, brute force criminal gangsterism, including enslavement of the American people, after all they are mostly still white, and we know the civil rights movement is nothing but a Soviet Communist inspired racket to bankrupt us. $50 trillion spent on uplifting the black man, to their own bankruptcy and ours. Are the American people going to re-elect Emperor Nero Pharaoh Hanuman Frank Marshall Davis Jr. in a few weeks? If they do, Jarboe's grant and all the rest will be lost as American rapidly descends into a new Civil War, to undo Lincoln's fake money travestly based on Spinoza's crazy idea that the races are equal.

    I want to believe as you do that "we have that 50 years." I'm curious, what level of certainty would you attach to your statement? It seems to me that our ability to predict the time scale of the coming climate changes is very limited.

    I think it is possible that we have 5 decades before we cross some terrible point of no return but the second dramatic drop in Arctic sea ice this summer (after the first in 2007) clearly points to virtually ice free summers in the Arctic within one decade. The direct effects of decreased albedo are worrying enough but what about the possible feedbacks of a warmer Arctic? Declining snow cover on land, more surface melt in Greenland leading to yet more sunlight absorbed. Do you completely dismiss the possiblitiy that the release of GHGs from a warming Arctic could add significantly to the atmospheric concentrations?

    Also, your sanguine statements about declining man-made CO2 emissions and coal use apparently refer to only the USA. The global economy as a whole is not emiting less CO2 as I am sure you are well aware. You seem to agree with me that we are wasting too much valuable time and money on solar and wind projects that will only help marginally to reduce GHG emissions. Aren't you worried about the really important fallout from Fukishima, the planned phase-out of nuclear power in Germany and Japan with many other smaller nations taking similar actions. The trend is not our friend.

    I want to enjoy my last few decades on this beautiful earth without so much worry about the future facing us and especially our children. Please convince me that you are right and I am worng.

    A Reluctant Pessimist

    Hi Gary,

    There is no global action that can (or will) be taken so I was referring to the US. While we all negotiated emissions treaties in the 1990s we let China tell us what their emissions were - and they were either lying or incompetent about their measurements so by the time we realized they were number one in emissions they had been for a while.

    Necessity became the mother of invention because it is part of the human condition - we are not built for rationing and mitigation but instead boom and bust cycles and we have the 50 years because I am not convinced the feedback numerical models of climate scientists are very accurate. You're a statistics person so you likely recognize the statistical expertise of climate scientists is far ahead of what it was 10 years ago but still not great.  My career was in numerical models - not academic ones, the kind where mistakes costs millions of dollars right now - so I recognize the flaws in models rather quickly and models with lots of variables can't be solved, answers can only be converged on and how it converges is determined by the modeler.

    I also recognize it would be rather patronizing to suddenly declare all developing nations should halt CO2. Why shouldn't poor people have air conditioners elsewhere?  It is wrong for the developed world to call a halt to CO2 now that we have a good life.  Instead, I think it is the nature of people to solve problems when they have to be solved.  We had an energy crisis in 1850 too; with a growing population and an industrial revolution, we were running out of oil - whale oil.  The government wanted to mandate and subsidize alcohol, researchers thought we might cover a chunk of the country in jojoba plants and harvest those. The private sector gave us petroleum and it is still going 150 years later.

    Japan changed their mind about nuclear about two weeks after their announcement - it just got a lot less attention.  Germany will also.

    I've made the case before that nuclear power is far less safe than it could be precisely because activists drove it out of this country. Had we been developing it for 40 years fission would be a lot better off than it is now and we would have more breathing room in emissions; anti-nuclear activists did more to cause global warming and make nuclear power unsafe than everyone else in the world combined. 

    But expedient political positions don't last forever and once government sees that groups like Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace hate all nuclear, including fusion, and all energy that isn't magic, they will stop listening to them and get back to science.

    Sorry for the wordy comment. I just had coffee!!
    Gary, I'll be less wordy than Hank. There is no catastrophic man made global warming. There's probably a little bit of the man made kind, but most of the warming isn't from co2. The cause is probably the Sun, but something more subtle than insolation.
    Never is a long time.
    I know what is going on. I have a Ph.D. in radiative transfer in tokakmak boundary layer physics. I showed in m thesis that the boundary condition sets the overall profile of the plasma. Seperately, I published the electron temperature of solar flares at 5 millions degrees, 1000 times coronal temperature, in Astrophysical Journal 25 years ago. The soft x-ray insolation heats the outer troposphere, which determines the global atmospheric boundary condition. It's really elementary. That I know this and the community doesn't shows that the government is nothing but an elitist racket. Anyone like me that speaks the simple truth gets blacklisted, to the racket goes on and on, with those pathetic wimp professional "physicist" afraid for their families, and almost to a man intellectually castrate themselves just to get by.

    With the manhattan (and apollo) projects, the science was largely done when the projects were started. IE, we knew for the most part how to do it and it was just a matter of spending the money to follow through with engineering and construction - and nothing was competing with them to judge their cost against.

    For fusion, I'm sure a 'Manhattan project' inspired fusion power plant could be built using current science and engineering for many billions of dollars, and if the goal was just to have a fusion plant it would be a success - but the cost per kwh would be outrageous compared to fossil fuels, fission and even wind/solar. We just don't have a clear path to a competitive fusion plant, but over time scientists and engineers will wring out costs, increase efficiency and come up with improved architectures and hopefully reach the goal.

    With the manhattan (and apollo) projects, the science was largely done when the projects were started. IE, we knew for the most part how to do it and it was just a matter of spending the money to follow through with engineering and construction - and nothing was competing with them to judge their cost against.
    This is incorrect on every level, unless 'how to do it' meant simply 'crash some atoms together' or 'put a guy in a rocket and point it'.  

    Here is what the government knew to tell the contractors who built the entire system about ground control and monitoring:

    a. Direct the entire flight in respect to the mission;
    b. Monitor the flight in respect to aeromedical and capsule systems;
    c. Keep the astronaut and range stations informed of mission progress;
    d. Coordinate all of the range stations and maintain a smooth flow of information to all of the units involved in the operation;
    e. Supply information and alert the recovery team forces following the decision to start the reentry.

    That's it, that is the science the government knew about putting men in space. There was no clear path to the knowledge or the engineering, it was all built by people right out of college, not old government employees or "ze Germans" we get in pop culture movies.  So it goes with fusion, it shouldn't be the porkbarrel funding we have gotten for solar power companies, it should be basic research funding - and not a job works program for government unions.

    As I said, it may take 50 years - but it would be 50 years well spent.
    AGW: The mars warming has nothing to do with the sun.
    The melting of the ice cap in the artic is being offset by the ice in the antarctic. The amount of ice is cyclic and for some reason when one grows the other shrinks.
    The warming we have seen is not all atributed to human activity. 2/3 is not from human activity.
    The models have not predicted anything correctly, so the models are wrong. Don't put faith in models that have yet to predict anything correctly.

    You have completely ignored enhanced geothermal Hank. Why is that? The Geological Survey of Canada (federal government research) released a report in June 2011 should open your eyes to geothermal potential. You can download it at

    If memory servers one of there conclusions was that 100 geothermal and enhanced geothermal plants built in Canada could provide all the electrical power needs of North America many times over.

    Is geothermal more expensive to build than a new coal plant - yup, more than a new nuclear plant - nope. No pollution, no radiation. The US also has great geothermal potential. This is not something that should be left to private industry - governments should build these plants , generate the power, connect it to the grid, sell it wholesale to energy redistributors in an "open access" arrangement and then those redistributors sell it to the general public.

    I didn't ignore it, the article is about fusion.  Did I include it in the list of energy sources that the anti-science environmental contingent thinks is dangerous?  No, they only hate alternative energy after it gets popular.
    OK that's fair.

    Geothermal can be nice. It should be part of the mix.

    Why should government do it? I'm a kneejerk socialist, but I don't see why government should do it. Not that they necessarily shouldn't, either. But why? Probably, in my ever humble opinion what they ought to do if they want to encourage geothermal is hold some aggressive kind of auction, and give the land rights for free to investors who prove they will build ASAP. Or something stimulative along those lines...

    Government should work on fusion! Not that I'm optimistic for it. It's always 20 (now 50!) years away. Government should work on things that the private sector won't, but need doing. Improving fission is a good one. It's not science, but sensibly re-regulating fission would be good.

    I like solar thermal too. Just black iron pipes, aluminum sheet metal, and a turbine. No rare metals or secret, withheld government patents needed. No Manhattan Project. I like low tech solutions. Solar thermal is almost no-tech. Alessandro Volta could have made them!

    In the short run, efficiency is even better. And what's wrong with fission? I used to be a skeptic, but I've been sold on it for a while.

    I think energy is a strategic resource so I basically agree.  At least on basic research. I don't mind that the private sector makes some money at it, that discourages waste, but the private sector in the modern super-nanny regulatory climate has no incentive to work on fusion and a lot of downside, much the same as drugs or anything else.
    If there were no regulations whatsoever, private investors would still have no reason to work on fusion. The first paybacks are too far away, and business operates on quarterly returns. Would you buy into a fusion startup? (Given no breakthrough.)

    I wonder how long it would have taken private industry to develop fission power, or if they ever would have, without the Manhattan Project and then the DoE. (I also doubt that society made a profit, financially, on that.)

    Why? Because (dons tin foil hat) the companies that dominate and control energy production in north America are too heavily invested in dirty energy and the politicians that could make a difference are bought and paid for.

    The problem with fission is the waste - what are you going o do with something that has half-lifes in the thousands or tens of thousands of years. We have a moral responsibility to leave a planet that will support our descendants and not poison them. So far no one has determined a safe way and place to store those wastes - you have to take the long view - will the containers last until the waste is no longer dangerous? Will our descendants understand the dangers? If the containment fails will it eventually contaminate groundwater? These are not trivial questions - as a species we tend to be very short sighted , but that is, when combined with intelligence, a very immoral trait.

    I'm very familiar with the problems with fission. I started out quite strongly against it, for good reasons, and nearly all of those reasons remain valid, but I've found even better reasons to support it.

    Supposedly thorium reactors produce more manageable waste, with shorter half life. And there's endless thorium. And there are many other advantages. I don't see any drawbacks TBH. Thorium could just solve the whole global energy problem, it seems. Even if it isn't thorium, fission can be made cleaner.

    But even if it's not cleaner, it's better than coal. Radiation alone from coal is probably worse then the high level waste from existing reactors. It's particulate fallout, as bad as it can possibly be! At least there's some hope of containing the solid high level waste, or at least limiting it to a single continent. Burning coal is just awful. Not to mention CO2 and other emissions.

    I agree 125% about the responsibilities to the future. If we really were faced with the choice of sitting in the dark or ruining the prospects for future generations, we'd be obliged to sit in the dark. I'd vote for that. I'm a bit militant about it. Call me a conservative. But I don't think the choice is that bleak. There are really dozens of choices. It's just hard for a society to make rational long term plans.

    Someone told me a few years ago that fusion would never work because fusion products are inefficient at heating stuff. Wrong kinds of radiation or something. So it'll never get above a certain too-low efficiency. She was a physics grad student I think, and it sounded convincing at the time. It took the wind out of my pro-fusion sails, but I haven't seen it mentioned since.


    Sure, that is why what these guys are doing may be interesting - it becomes efficient if it doesn't take 10,000% as much energy as you want to spend. D-T is also not a great source.