Somber musings while self-isolating

It may be difficult to separate "theory" from "application," but let''s see if this helps facilitate the discussion.
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Richard Hull
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Somber musings while self-isolating

Post by Richard Hull » Fri Apr 17, 2020 7:34 pm

A good deal of discussion has taken place in the admin forum on fusion during the current Covid-19 crisis. I will bring it home to the right place, here.

I have been intently re-reading and underscoring, Bromberg's 1981 book, Fusion. While old and grossly out of date, it remains a masterful scientifically, historical text on just how we got into the present fusion mess. How $100,000 yearly budgets in the 50's became 600 million dollar budgets in the late 70's and early 80's. The book shows how the focus narrowed from the many machine conceptual experimentation to focus on just one basic system which, admittedly, at that time, looked like the way forward. Unfortunately, that way forward, being the Tokamak, demanded hundreds of millions for each step and each new and better machine into the 80's long after Hirsch was gone from the fusion scene and government work, (1977).

Oddly, at the time Bromberg's book was written, there were already discussions of laser fusion which would morph to NIF in what is hoped laser fusion's last gasp. In the end, even in 1981, it was apparent that with the ideal fuel, D-T, that the radiation free nature touted for fusion was a lie and that replacement of any part of a true fusion power plant would require remote robotic cranes. The material science, to this day remains problematic for the walls of any fusion system that involves neutron production in the multi-megawatt range. This is true for all systems, save for the aneutronic dreams of exotic fuels for which not one single major fusion effort has been constructed to this day! Why? They can't even get the best neutron producing fuels to fuse to over unity for useful periods! Why bother with far more difficult fuels that require far more intensely heated thermal plasmas when we can't hit and sustain the far lower temperature, "easy", fusion fuels.

The fusion folks in the 80's along with EPRI, (Electrical Power Research Institute), which was formed by the U.S. power company's to oversee future power systems, immediately recognized that pulsed fusion systems, (NIF), would prove problematic and expensive to both build and maintain.

Proof of concept and actually getting fusion over unity is but the tiniest of steps, which has yet to be shown. There remains the engineering and material science which, even if mastered, must pass muster to the bean counters working for the power companies on a cost per KW basis. Not one of these other considerations has been extensively studied, and rightly so, until true over unity or ignition is achieved. The question remains and may forever remain the inhibiting factor for successful fusion........How much will a multi-megawatt plant cost? How big and complex will it be? How much maintenance will be needed to keep it working on a 24-7-365 basis and how costly will that be? As already noted, ITER, if 100% proven effective, is already an economic bridge too far. Thus, fusion is an ever fading dream. Will ITER be the final fusion iteration? If history is any judge, probably not.

The dream remains, yet with no real hope in the physical world for truly economical fusion power in sight. The science is there, always, but economics rules in the real world as a function of profitable efficiency vs price per kilowatt hour delivered to a customer. There is little doubt that electricity at any price will always be here. No one would dare to refuse electrical power to their home, but at what price relative to their income will this sword of Damocles rule all lives in the future?

Richard Hull
Progress may have been a good thing once, but it just went on too long. - Yogi Berra
Fusion is the energy of the future....and it always will be
Retired now...Doing only what I want and not what I should...every day is a saturday.

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Maciek Szymanski
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Re: Somber musings while self-isolating

Post by Maciek Szymanski » Sat Apr 18, 2020 10:10 am

My opinion on fusion research may be of course influenced by fact, that my salary depends on it (most of funding of the institute I’m working for is from the Eurofusion program). Because of this I shouldn’t be skeptical, but I really doubt that we will get a working economically feasible fusion power plant.
However I don’t think it’s the worst way of spending money. The Vietnam War costed US $139 billion in ten years. The Apollo program costed $25 billion in ten years and is called “extremely expensive” and “useless”. If I have a choice I would have no doubt that I’ll spend money for people building rockets and flying to the moon than for sending them to the jungle to kill other people and to be killed. And even if the Apollo was “useless” it was at last a beautiful dream.
And I regard the fusion program in the similar way. I’s a beautiful dream. Maybe we will finally not get a cheap and clean energy as we don’t have colonies on the Moon. But we do some REAL physical research in extreme matter states field, astrophysics etc. We do material science research. Even we get some practical results like more efficient plasma thrusters for satellites.
“Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

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