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Big, Hot Fusion Energy Breakthrough

There are many daunting technical challenges associated with developing fusion nuclear energy (which is carbon free, and has relatively minor radioactivity problems, compared with fission nuclear energy.) Amazingly enough, a very small (staff = 3), underfunded US inventor (Eric Lerner) holds the record for dealing with one of these technical challenges, viz., maximum temperature. See In the race for fusion, a dark horse takes the lead

Fortunately, environmental activists, who could easily crowd-fund Lerner (so he doesn’t have to waste time and energy fund-raising), have leapt to support him, since they realize that China and India’s aggressive coal power plant construction programs will easily swamp any diminution of green house gases that the West will be able to engineer via carbon taxes, EPA regulation, etc. I guess enough of them realized that writing teary letters to their grandchildren, however emotionally cathartic, is not actually helpful. /s

Ah, but I digress. Back to the breakthrough coming from the big, hot fusion world of research. Getting a plasma hot enough is not the only problem that fusion energy faces. Another one is making walls that can withstand the temperatures and particle bombardment coming from the plasma.

It turns out that 2012 was a good year for dealing with this problem. From Clean, limitless fusion power could arrive sooner than expected

Probably more significant is news from the Joint European Torus (JET), a magnetic confinement fusion facility in the UK. JET is very similar to the ITER nuclear fusion reactor, an international project which is being built in the south of France. Whereas NIF and Sandia create an instantaneous fusion reaction using heat and pressure, ITER and JET confine the fusing plasma for a much longer duration using strong magnetic fields, and are thus more inclined towards the steady production of electricity. JET’s breakthrough was the installation of a new beryllium-lined wall and tungsten floor inside the tokamak — the doughnut-shaped inner vessel that confines 11-million-degrees-Celsius plasma (pictured above).

Carbon is the conventional tokamak lining (and the lining that had been chosen for the first iteration of ITER) but now it seems the beryllium-tungsten combo significantly improves the quality of the plasma. Hopefully this information will allow ITER to skip the carbon tokamak and jump straight to beryllium-tungsten, shaving years and millions of dollars off the project.

(emphasis mine)

Also, as I recently reported in my diary UPDATED “Coal use set to surpass oil in a decade”: what realistic plan do enviros have to deal with this?:

Update: Wikipedia states that

The Manhattan Project began modestly in 1939, but grew to employ more than 130,000 people and cost nearly US$2 billion (roughly equivalent to $25.8 billion as of 2012[1]).

130,000 people, while Eric Lerner has a staff of 3. Seems a tad ‘unbalanced’, wouldn’t you say? Seems to imply that the US could do MUCH, MUCH better, wouldn’t you agree? Seems to suggest that citizens of the world could surpass this level of funding, on a voluntary, crowd-sourced basis.

But, you’d never know that from reading Bill McKibben Unless I’m missing something….

$25 billion / 6 billion people = $4/person. Over 4 years, this is $1/person. OK, a lot of the developing world is desperately poor. Nobody expects them to chip in. So, first world nations could carry them if they chipped in, say, $20/per capita, per year. You know, the cost of a fillup at a gas station.

To get an idea of the US commitment to fusion, consider this comment from US fusion in budget vice

Eric Bass said:
It’s worth noting that the entire US ITER commitment ($2.2 billion), spread out over 10 years, is approximately equal to one day of US Department of Defense spending (c. $2.0 billion), or 0.05% of the annual US budget. The cost to build a single conventional fission power plant is somewhere between $6 billion and $24 billion, depending on location and who is estimating. Should we not expect development of a revolutionary new energy source to incur at least this cost level? Abandoning ITER, or scrapping the domestic program beginning with Alcator-C-Mod, means trading our stake in the future energy economy for nickles and dimes.

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