Why *is* fusion research so slow?

Reflections on fusion history, current events, and predictions for the 'fusion powered future.
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Chris Bradley
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Why *is* fusion research so slow?

Post by Chris Bradley » Mon May 07, 2012 7:43 pm

{A carry over from another thread that was suffering too much thread drift:]


Don Bowen wrote:
> It is becoming all too clear why no progress occurs in the fusion field.

That scrubs both ways - so long as 'doin' some theory' gets more attention that 'getting on with experiments', it doesn't surprise me that progress is slow.

In the 1970's, Bob Hirsch despaired over the academic interest 'fusion' researchers were paying to plasma theory when *he* thought they should just be getting on with some 'doin' fusion' experiments (as the theory and experiments never matched up anyhow!).

If you watch most 'news' items [I use the word 'news' figuratively] on fusion developments, most of the time it is just this-or-that researcher coming up with yet another theoretical or experimental model that 'if only they did this-or-that', then maybe they might possibly find a possible little variation on something they might have once seen in an experiment.

When was the last time someone said "How's about this! Who'd have expected it!" in the fusion world. The last time I think that ever really happened was tokamak stuff, decades ago - finding H-mode in ASDEX in 1982, or maybe the discovery of boot-strap current in TFTR in 1986!

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Re: Why *is* fusion research so slow?

Post by Doug Browning » Thu May 10, 2012 12:24 am

Well, if you really want to discuss this topic, here goes.

Of course all kinds of ideas get proposed. They get discussed, they get refined or discarded, the best ones get some support from others and finally some effort or funds develop to try them out. I'm sure the Tokamak was not some accidental experiment, it would have been among many competing ideas and it just won out in the end for development funds.

Sure, a few phenomena like H-mode will show up unexpectedly in experiments. But I sure wouldn't hold my breath for the magic solution to fusion to just pop up out of nowhere. CF is probably an excellent example of an unexpected effect from some experiment too, but I wouldn't bet too much on it.

What my earlier complaint was mainly about was that, instead of hearing some comment that an idea won't work because of XYZ, I keep getting "your are making up you're own physics", "you are lying" or "that's just another of your wild ideas" or "we don't discuss anything ever associated with CF" or "you can not post anything that could waste some subscribers money". Umm, you mean like Fusors? But this is just my personal gripe.

( a few simple comments like "deuterium does not have isomers, or K40 needs 2.5 Mev to activate e- capture, or pinch processes scale with a radius term in the numerator, so nanotubes are N.G., or Sandia's MagLIF requires a burn wave for 1000X of it's gain, or electron shielding requires a heavy electron.... would have sufficed to avoid a lengthy wild goose chase in each case.) Thanks everyone for NO help.

For mainstream fusion research, the likely reason for such slow progress is that several very expensive approaches won funding early on and have developed large elite followings with powerful fund raising machines. Sucking the life out of all other low cost ideas. These have developed into religious enforcement regimes to maintain funding to continue barking up the wrong trees ever louder and longer. (All-right, I do hope Sandia's MagLIF is an exception and actually works.)

Now lets look at the historical development of the critical technologies for civilization. Has anything ever required --massive-- national programs to initially discover them, other than weapons? The wheel, fire, the steam engine, the Otto engine, the Diesel engine, electricity, the transformer, the motor/generator, the vacuum tube, the telegraph, the telephone, the airplane, the transistor, the IC, the laser, even the rocket.... Sure, some government or private financing often --follows-- the discovery to accelerate it's development and deployment.

Having worked on projects both small and huge, often the more people working on the project, the less likely it is to work and the more cost overun it develops. Fusion projects just keep getting bigger, that's a bad sign in my book.

Does it not seem odd that plasma physics is what --prevents-- the Sun from blowing up in one big flash? Well, you get my drift. (Are the Oil Companies running this show? They must be laughing their heads off. It's either reactors that would implode the economy or they only work when the planets are aligned.)

Take a look at Todd Rider's papers if you want some reasons for the slow progress of Fusion. Gloom and doom. Does the progress rate fit an asymptotic curve to out to infinity (time)? I recall seeing some analysis recently that concluded exactly that.

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Carl Willis
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Re: Why *is* fusion research so slow?

Post by Carl Willis » Thu May 10, 2012 3:21 am

Don, I get the sense you have a beef with the standards here, particularly the ones I am picky about in the "theory" department, and particularly the idea that people should do their own preliminary research before tossing something up on the forum:

>a few simple comments like "deuterium does not have isomers [....] would have sufficed to avoid a lengthy wild goose chase in each case.) Thanks everyone for NO help.

Is someone supposed to help? I've often held that the standard for ideas is that they should at least be vetted via the references of first recourse--Google, Hyperphysics, Wikipedia, etc.--before getting put on our site. There are too many "flops" (people make a brain dump without taking a self-directed critical eye to what they are proposing). It takes effort, commitment, and a strong grounding in reality in order to do an experiment, but flopping takes no effort at all, and to keep the forum focused on what matters, we have to draw a line somewhere on what constitutes a sufficiently-well-developed idea. I regularly scorn the appetite for slavish attention from folks who cannot even do a freaking literature search--and yet who come here expecting either a devoted following or a point-by-point rebuttal to something that would get stamped with an "F" in middle-school physical science class.

"Cold fusion" is almost uniformly a realm of pure floppery that has already been given a surprising amount of attention in the way of point-by-point rebuttals and skeptical analysis. You have your tech-sensationalist businesses who, despite excellent PR, have a record of doing no science and practices indistinguishable from quackery. In principle I welcome properly-disclosed experiments on CF/LENR ideas, but to date there have been NO experiments posted on Fusor.net, just jawboning and name-dropping, followed by whining when I put the muzzle on the worst of it.

Since this is Chris's thread and it has nothing to do with rehashing Forum standards, I at least owe a response to why he thinks fusion research isn't progressing. I suggest that question has more to do with his expectations than it does with any particular metric of progress. If you expect the field to harness the power of the Sun by next year, and throw a wild kegger for the whole planet to boot, you're gonna be disappointed when all you get is some esoteric shit about plasma instabilities and radiation embrittlement of tungsten. Of course it could be genuine buyer's remorse: you paid these scientists who promised you the sun and a kegger, and you didn't get them, so "waaaaaahhh!" Scientists are sometimes guilty of promising results to pander to folks holding the purse-strings who happen to be clueless about how science works. Is the buyer's-remorse belly-aching justified in such circumstances? I'd say no, because it's begotten of ignorance. Unfortunately, that's in no short supply.

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Re: Why *is* fusion research so slow?

Post by Doug Browning » Thu May 10, 2012 4:14 am

I was under the impression that the site was supposed to be helpful for those with a budding interest in fusion. Apparently the standards for the theory section are quite different. Not coming from a direct physics/fusion background, I am at a disadvantage in not being familiar with the usual "well known stuff". But once I get my bearings, I generally can figure things out.

When I go to a site like say DIYaudio for example, I generally find a fairly helpful crowd for the newbies. It is generally only when the discussion turns to things which can not be measured (and probably meaningless) that the discussion gets quite hot and contentious. There seems to be a curious universality there.

As far as progress in the fusion area goes, the existance of very workable base energy alternatives like geothermal or reverse desalination would seem to take the pressure off rash expenditures here. There is no hurry to solve this, so why not come up with better solutions. (In my mind, NIF and ITER are just a waste of premium research funds, even if they manage to hit breakeven, no one will ever consider them seriously for power. Sandia's MagLIF at least looks more promising so far, by the end of the year we will hopefully have a better idea.)

On the other hand, the cancellation of basic high energy physics research like the SSC in Texas, or the Tevatron more recently, was an absolute disgrace in my opinion. That is the kind of stuff that will clearly point the way to big things eventually.

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Re: Why *is* fusion research so slow?

Post by John Futter » Thu May 10, 2012 8:01 am

Chris, Don, Carl

the slow almost non existant progress is due to the size of the problem
I have been involved in many many new initiatives over the years and all have been way behind at the eventual outcome ie a two month project taking three years (with much gnashing of teeth from all but who did the work).
I'm lucky our library gets all the official IAEA fusion papers these come out regularly in big blue volumes of the research into the problems and theoreticle musings.
Hundreds and hundreds of papers per month by very learned teams.
The research as far as I see opens more cans of worms than are solved.

So the goal posts move yet again with each new understanding

Richard is naturally pessimistic saying it is always 40 years away because of the upbeat claims of advance that do not happen, and from what I see with the problems being found he may actually be optimistic.

So
Iter, LHC, NIF Blah blah are all filling in unknowns and no- none of these will be the "Lucky Donkey"
unless my Lotto calculations are out.
However we as "High Energy Amateur Scientists" are contributing to the knowledge bucket.
Special mention goes to Steven Sesselman and others who think outside the square nad put time and effort into an idea that hasn't been tried, and those who painstakingly retrace and log what is known to check that it is correct.

Now some brainiac can answer some simple questions
Why do we get neurons out of a Fusor when theory says that there isn't the energy to do it.
Has anyone defined the tunnelling function from accurate enough data?

Electrostatic confinement sort of works and so magnetic confinement sort of works is the answer a combination of both and or another physical property or is all of this yet another blind alley??

I did do some sums recently on the 12MeV proton beam in air that I put up on this site a few years ago and the neutron yield (measured) was much higher (commercial REM ball and activation of various close by metal) than simple theory expected. Or was this due to experimental error??

As a hobbyist group we should stick to projects within our grasp ie no home grown Tokomaks
There is still much to learn and this should continue until a particular arrangement is able to calculated and proved correct by experiment within the limits of good metrology.

Chris I understand your view but have you read all the output from the Fusion research field-- I think not-- and this is where the problems lies it is so vast that no one human can absorb what has been done let alone pontificate on what still needs to be done.

Ive vented my spleen

the strong force calls -a cool beer

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Chris Bradley
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Re: Why *is* fusion research so slow?

Post by Chris Bradley » Thu May 10, 2012 8:26 am

To John and Carl,

I have no particular opinion expressed in the question, and no answer is owed.

I do have opinions, but in this case the question was simply a somewhat rhetorical repost to Don's proposal that research [particularly, here on the forum] was slow because people weren't theorising enough!

I am quite accepting of the position of the forum, which is stated as one of amateur experimentation. I think theory has its place, limited to where a) it is something that can be tested, and the discussion will elicit the form and function of the desired test kit, b) where it informs background on news of genuine scientific experiment in the 'public' field.

So I was, really, only aiming to address Don's point and make concrete Carl's oft repeated points about the forum to Don.

Don, sorry but you are not approaching 'science' correctly. Theory stems either from putting 'two-and-two' already understood pieces of [non-speculated] information together, and/or from an observed and repeatable experimental outcome. CF comes from speculations on potential mechanisms, and unrepeatable experiments, as do many of your other suggestions.

In regards the plethora of papers and seemingly endless opening of cans of worms within cans of worms for the last 60 years, this, again, seems to suggest that spending a little less time on theory and more on build, as per Hirsch's view, may not be so unprofitable an approach as might be initially presumed from an academic standpoint.

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Richard Hull
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Re: Why *is* fusion research so slow?

Post by Richard Hull » Thu May 10, 2012 2:32 pm

Slow progress is the norm on fusion as we are not hunter-gathering here like we do with 100% of all other forms of energy. (releasing stored potential energy)

We can't just strike a match, split an atom that's itchin' to be split, build a dam and let the water fall and let the energy pour out of the process.

No! We are seeking to go against the easy hunter-gatherer routes to get at fusion energy and do something nature totally forbids without quintillons of tons of fuel on hand in one spot, confined by that fuel's own massive gravitational energy.

We haven't a clue how to do this "on th' small" and release it in safe, usable amounts. It seems the more we work at doing what stars do, the larger, (and more expensive), the finished vessel and system becomes. Anyone who thinks violating the natural order of things in physics is easy is just not paying close attention.

Nature does not naturally support the fusion of hydrogen or any other fusion fuel to net slow use gain on the small. However, by using gravity and inconceivably large masses isolated from other similar agrigate masses by light years distance, in a near perfect vacuum, nature allows free fusion and totally uncontrollable burn of these isolated fuel masses. This is not because the mass wants to burn, but is forced to burn through the good office of gravity and nothing else. Gravity is the fuser and the container all rolled into one unfathomable potential energy source contained within the matter, itself. Self-contained, free running fusion, in nature, is solely due to gravitational-matter potential energy exchanges.

Slow release fusion on the small, for power purposes, will not be found in a single simple effort, if at all, and if ever. We'll pick at this scab for years to come assuming nation states survive as we currently see them with supposedly viable incomes, GNPs and commitments. Fusion, by man, is and always will be a slave and supplicant to geo-political issues whether we like that idea or not. It will never be the physics that stands four-square against man's fusion quest, for the most part. I would never blame the seeming impossiblity of the earth-bound physics for the slow progress.

One major burp, geo-politically, world wide, and all this lovely, noble and bold quest will end. The fragility of the fusion effort increases geometrically with each enlarged and engourged ITERation when viewed against the balloning costs and instability of world economics burdened with ever more billions of new mouths to feed.

"Them's hard sayin's, folks". (old 50's Southern humorist - Dave Gardner)

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Re: Why *is* fusion research so slow?

Post by Edward Miller » Thu May 10, 2012 4:59 pm


Experiments to chip away at the problem and try to understand the requirements better are the only thing we can do. No amount of theory will solve the fusion problem. Solid theory does guide experiments and help justify access/time on expensive equipment. If the problem could be solved purely in theory one of the more brilliant minds would have worked it out over the past 100 years.

I don't believe the fusion in stars is due exclusively to gravity. Gravity does help heat and squish the plasma and hold it all together. There is also the heating from neutrons/photons/x-rays and magnetic fields. We don't understand astrophysics well enough yet to know how a star really works.

I did an experiment recently with D2 at 100,000 G's and didn't see neutrons on my BTi bubble detectors. I've crossed a lot of stuff of my little list of experiments on D2. I suspect the solution is more complicated than any one input.

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Re: Why *is* fusion research so slow?

Post by Chris Bradley » Thu May 10, 2012 5:48 pm

To address your steadfast opinion on this, Richard, I'll not seek to contradict but, rather, to simply reproduce the preamble Todd Rider put in Appendix E of his thesis. I can add nothing to it....

...
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Re: Why *is* fusion research so slow?

Post by Doug Browning » Thu May 10, 2012 6:13 pm

I understand where this bias against theorizing comes from as far as plasma physics schemes go, due to the complexities of the process and the remaining holes in understanding of what is going on. It's just too expensive to try everything out. At least there are some super computer simulators now for "speculating" on. My point is mainly about getting away from that plasma quagmire altogether.

First, I have to take exception with the idea that science does not proceed by speculation. Speculation is simply best informed guesses. No experiment is done if the results are already computable. The review process before an experiment narrows down the possibilities until maybe just a 20% unknown remains. It is always a process of calculating the odds for success, figuring the costs for both success and for failure, and those successes simply do not happen without some failures. And failures have their value too, just wait till no "Higgs" shows up to hear about them.

The Fusor is a poorly focused accelerator/collider setup that quickly degenerates into plasma physics after a few milliseconds. Instead of dealing with low probabilistic plasma collisions and containment, I am simply suggesting that either your aim needs to improve, or the cross section needs to improve, or roughly equivalently, the barrier needs to be lowered.

A few well understood approaches exist for improving the aim, but are generally considered insufficient. (colliders, beam focusing, beam cooling, maybe the collider in a fiber or crystal channel ideas, or using very low beam intensities to avoid some Coulomb scattering) Cross section can go up with more time, or recurring encounters if the failed particles can be recovered. (beam cooling essentially). Lowering the threshold leads to Muon or heavy electron Coulomb shielding approaches, which have not worked out due to the loss of the Muons and the prohibitive cost of generating them. Oppenheimer-Phillips is another scheme. (my suggestion of electron tunneling might fit in, not saying it is practical, thus far) Another approach might be particle spin control.

To throw another "utterly wild and reckless" idea out there, it has recently been found that gamma rays can be focused much more easily than X-rays. This was never tried before, because the theory said it would be harder to do.

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