Monday


When I was a child I heard that practicable fusion power was thirty years in the future. That was more than thirty years ago, and it is not uncommon to hear that practicable fusion power is still thirty years in the future. Jokes have been made both about fusion and artificial intelligence that both will remain perpetually in the future, just out of reach of human technology — though the universe has been running on gravitational confinement fusion since the first stars lighted up at the beginning of the stelliferous era.

It is difficult to imagine anything more redolent of failed futurism than domed cities. Everyone, I think, will recall the domed city in the film Logan’s Run, which embodied so many paradigms of early 1970s futurism.

It is difficult to imagine anything more redolent of failed futurism than domed cities. Everyone, I think, will recall the domed city in the film Logan’s Run, which embodied so many paradigms of early 1970s futurism.

It would be easy to be nonchalantly cynical about nuclear fusion given past promises. After all, the first successful experiments with a tokamak reactor at the Kurchatov Institute in 1968 date to the time of many other failed futurisms that have since become stock figures of fun — the flying car, the jetpack, the domed city, and so on. One could dismiss nuclear fusion in the same spirit, but this would be a mistake. The long, hard road to nuclear fusion as an energy resource will have long-term consequences for our industrial-technological civilization.

Russian T1 Tokamak at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow.

Russian T1 Tokamak at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow.

Like hypersonic flight, practicable fusion power has turned out to be a surprisingly difficult engineering challenge. Fusion research began in the 1920s with British physicist Francis William Aston, who discovered that four hydrogen atoms weigh more than one helium (He-4) atom, which means that fusing four hydrogen atoms together would result in the release of energy. The first practical fusion devices (including fusion explosives) were constructed in the 1950s, including several Z-pinch devices, stellarators, and tokamaks at the Kuchatov Institute.

tokamak small

Ever since these initial successes in achieving fusion, fusion scientists have been trying to achieve breakeven or better, i.e., producing more power from the reaction than was consumed in making the reaction. It’s been a long, hard slog. If we start seeing fusion breakeven in the next decade, this will be a hundred years after the first research suggested the possibility of fusion as an energy resource. In other words, fusion power generation has been a technology in development for about a hundred years. For anyone who supposes that our civilization is too short-sighted to take on large multi-generational projects, the effort to master nuclear fusion stands as a reminder of what is possible when the stakes are sufficiently high.

The Z machine at Sandia National Laboratory.

The Z machine at Sandia National Laboratory.

I characterized fusion as a “technology of nature” in Fusion and Consciousness, though the mechanism by which nature achieves fusion — gravitational confinement — is not practical for human technology. Mostly following news stories I previously wrote about fusion in Fusion Milestone Passed at US Lab, High Energy Electron Confinement in a Magnetic Cusp, One Giant Leap for Mankind, and Why we don’t need a fusion powered rocket.

There was a good article in Nature earlier this year, Plasma physics: The fusion upstarts, which focused on some of the smaller research teams vying to make fusion reactors into practical power sources. Here are some of the approaches now being pursued and have been reported in the popular press:

High Beta Fusion Reactor The legendary Skunkworks, which built the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes, is working on a fusion reactor that it hopes will be sufficiently compact that it can be hauled on the back of a truck, and will produce 100 MW. (cf. Nuclear Fusion in Five Years?)

magnetized liner inertial fusion (MagLIF) This is a “Z pinch” design that was among the first fusion device concepts, now being developed as the “Z Machine” at Sandia National Laboratory. (cf. America’s Underdog Fusion Experiment Is Closing In on the Nuclear Future)

spheromak A University of Washington project formerly called a dynomak, a magnetic containment device in the form of a sphere instead of the tokamak’s torus. (cf. Why nuclear fusion will soon become reality)

Polywell The Polywell concept was developed by Robert Bussard of Bussard ramjet fame, based on fusor devices, which have been in use for some time. (cf. Low-Cost Fusion Project Steps Out of the Shadows and Looks for Money)

Stellerator The stellarator is another early fusion idea based on magnetic confinement that fell out of favor after the tokamaks showed early promise, but which are not the focus of active research again. (cf. From tokamaks to stellarators)

This is in no sense a complete list. There is a good summary of the major approaches on Wikipedia at Fusion Power. I give this short list simply to give a sense of the diversity of technological responses to the engineering challenge of controlled nuclear fusion for electrical power generation.

Polywell Fusion Reactor

Polywell Fusion Reactor

Even as ITER remains the behemoth of fusion projects, projected to cost fifty billion USD in spending by thirty-five national governments, the project is so large and is coming together so slowly that other technologies may well leap-frog the large-scale ITER approach and achieve breakeven before ITER and by different methods. The promise of practical energy generation from nuclear fusion is now so tantalizingly close that, despite the amount of money going into ITER and NIF, a range of other approaches are being pursued with far less funding but perhaps equal promise. Ultimately there may turn out to be an unexpected benefit to the difficulty of attaining sustainable fusion reactions. The sheer difficulty of the problem has produced an astonishing range of approaches, all of which have something to teach us about plasma physics.

Stellarator devices look like works of abstract art.

Stellarator devices look like works of abstract art.

Nuclear fusion as an energy source for industrial-technological civilization is a perfect example of what I call the STEM cycle: science drives technology, technology drives industrial engineering, and industrial engineering creates near resources that allow science to be pursued at a larger scope and scale. In some cases the STEM cycle functions as a loosely-coupled structure of our world. The resources of advanced mathematics are necessary to the expression of physics in mathematicized form, but there may be no direct coupling of physics and mathematics, and the mathematics used in physics may have been available for generations. Pure science may suggest a number of technologies, many of which lie fallow, with no particular interest in them. One technology may eventually come into mass manufacture, but it may not be seen to have any initial impact on scientific research. All of these episodes seem de-coupled, and can only be understood as a loosely-coupled cycle when seen in the big picture over the long term.

In the case of nuclear fusion, the STEM cycle is more tightly coupled: fusion science must be consciously developed with an eye to its application in various fusion technologies. The many specific technologies developed on the basis of fusion science are tested with an eye to which can be practically scaled up by industrial engineering to build a workable fusion power generation facility. This process is so tightly coupled in ITER and NIF that the primary research facilities hold out the promise of someday producing marketable power generation. The experience of operating a large scale fusion reactor will doubtless have many lessons for fusion scientists, who will in turn apply the knowledge gained from this experience to their scientific work. The first large scale fusion generation facilities will eventually become research reactors as they are replaced by more efficient fusion reactors specifically adapted to the needs of electrical power generation. With each generation of reactors the science, technology, and engineering will be improved.

The vitality of fusion science today, as revealed in the remarkable diversity of approaches to fusion, constitutes a STEM cycle with many possible inputs and many possible outputs. Even as the fusion STEM cycle is tightly coupled as science immediately feeds into particular technologies, which are developed with the intention of scaling up to commercial engineering, the variety of technologies involved have connections throughout the industrial-technological economy. Most obviously, if high-temperature superconductors become available, this will be a great boost for magnetic confinement fusion. A breakthrough in laser technology would be a boost for inertial confinement fusion. The prolixity of approaches to fusion today means that any number of scientific discoveries of technological advances could have unanticipated benefits for fusion. And fusion itself, once it passes breakeven, will have applications throughout the economy, not limited to the generation of electrical power. Controlled nuclear fusion is a technology that has not experienced an exponential growth curve — at least, not yet — but this at once tightly-coupled and highly diverse STEM cycle certainly looks like a technology on the cusp of an exponential growth curve. And here even a modest exponent would make an enormous difference.

This is big science with a big payoff. Everyone knows that, in a world run by electricity, the first to market with a practical fusion reactor that is cost-competitive with conventional sources (read: fossil fuels) stands to make a fortune not only with the initial introduction of their technology, but also for the foreseeable future. The wealthy governments of the world, by sinking the majority of their fusion investment into ITER, are virtually guaranteeing that the private sector will have a piece of the action when one of these alternative approaches to fusion proves to be at least as efficient, if not more efficient, than the tokamak design.

But fusion isn’t only about energy, profits, and power plants. Fusion is also about a vision of the future that avoids what futurist Joseph Voros has called an “energy disciplined society.” As expressed in panegyric form in a recent paper on fusion:

“The human spirit, its will to explore, to always seek new frontiers, the next Everest, deeper ocean floors, the inner secrets of the atom: these are iconised [sic] into human consciousness by the deeds of Christopher Columbus, Edmund Hillary, Jacques Cousteau, and Albert Einstein. In the background of the ever-expanding universe, this boundless spirit will be curbed by a requirement to limit growth. That was never meant to be. That should never be so. Man should have an unlimited destiny. To reach for the moon, as he already has; then to colonize it for its resources. Likewise to reach for the planets. Ultimately — the stars. Man’s spirit must and will remain indomitable.”

NUCLEAR FUSION ENERGY — MANKIND’S GIANT STEP FORWARD, Sing Lee and Sor Heoh Saw

The race for market-ready fusion energy is a race to see who will power the future, i.e., who will control the resource that makes our industrial-technological civilization viable in the long term. Profits will also be measured over the long term. Moreover, the energy market is such that multiple technologies for fusion may vie with each other for decades as each seeks to produce higher efficiencies at lower cost. This competition will drive further innovation in the tightly-coupled STEM cycle of fusion research.

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Note added Wednesday 15 October 2014: Within a couple of days of writing the above, I happened upon two more articles on fusion in the popular press — another announcement from Lockheed, Lockheed says makes breakthrough on fusion energy project, and Cheaper Than Coal? Fusion Concept Aims to Bridge Energy Gap.

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Tuesday


energy sources

A distinction often employed in historiography is that between the diachronic and the synchronic. I have written about this distinction in several posts including Axes of Historiography, Ecological Temporality and the Axes of Historiography, Synchronic and Diachronic Geopolitical Theories, and Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Civilization.

It is common for this distinction be be explained by saying that the diachronic perspective is through time and the synchronic perspective is across time. I don’t find this explanation to be helpful or intuitively insightful. I prefer to say that the diachronic perspective is concerned with succession while the synchronic perspective is concerned with interaction within a given period of time. Sometimes I try to drive this point home by using the phrases “diachronic succession” and “synchronic interaction.”

In several posts I have emphasized that futurism is the historiography of the future, and history the futurism of the past. In this spirit, it is obvious that the future, like the past, can also be approached diachronically or synchronically. That is to say, we can think of the future in terms of a succession of events, one following upon another — what Shakespeare called such a dependency of thing on thing, as e’er I heard in madness — or in terms of the interaction of events within a given period of future time. Thus we can distinguish diachronic futurism and synchronic futurism. This is a difference that makes a difference.

One of the rare points at which futurism touches upon public policy and high finance is in planning for the energy needs of power-hungry industrial-technological civilization. If planners are convinced that the future of energy production lies in a particular power source, billions of dollars may follow, so real money is at stake. And sometimes real money is lost. When the Washington Public Power Supply System (abbreviated as WPPSS, and which came to be pronounced “whoops”) thought that nuclear power was the future for the growing energy needs of the Pacific Northwest, they started to build no fewer than five nuclear power facilities. For many reasons, this turned out to be a bad bet on the future, and WPPSS defaulted on 2.25 billion dollars of bonds.

The energy markets provide a particularly robust demonstration of synchrony, so that within the broadly defined “present” — that is to say, in the months or years that constitute the planning horizon for building major power plants — we can see a great number of interactions within the economy that resemble nothing so much as the checks and balances that the writers of the US Constitution built into the structure of the federal government. But while the founders sought political checks and balances to disrupt the possibility of any one part of the government becoming disproportionately powerful, the machinations of the market (what Adam Smith called the “invisible hand”) constitute economic checks and balances that often frustrate the best laid schemes of mice and men.

Energy markets are not only a concrete and pragmatic exercise in futurism, they are also a sector that tends to great oversimplification and are to vulnerable to bubbles and panics that have contributed to a boom-and-bust cycle in the industry that has had disastrous consequences. The captivity of energy markets to public perceptions has led to a lot of diachronic extrapolation of present trends in the overall economy and in the energy sector in particular. I’ve written some posts on diachronic extrapolation — The Problem with Diachronic Extrapolation and Diachronic Extrapolation and Uniformitarianism — in an attempt to point out some of the problems with straight line extrapolations of current trends (not to mention the problems with exponential extrapolation).

An example of diachronic extrapolation carried out in great detail is the book $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner, which I discussed in Are Happy Days Here Again?, speculating on how the economy will change as gasoline prices continue to climb, and written as though nothing else would happen at the same time that gas prices are going up. If we could treat one energy source — like gasoline — in ideal isolation, this might be a useful exercise, but this isn’t the case.

When the price of fossil fuels increase, several things happen simultaneously. More investment comes into the industry, sources that had been uneconomical to tap start to become commercially viable, and other sources of energy that had been expensive relative to fossil fuels become more affordable relative to the increasing price of their alternatives. Also, with the passage of time, new technologies become available that make it both more efficient and more cost effective to extract fossil fuels previously not worth the effort to extract. Higher technologies not only affect production, but also consumption: the extracted fossil fuels will be used much more efficiently than in the past. And any fossil fuels that lie untapped — such as, for example, the oil presumed to be under ANWR — are essentially banked in the ground for a future time when their extraction will be efficient, effective, and can be conducted in a manner consistent with the increasingly stringent environmental standards that apply to such resources.

Energy industry executives have in the past had difficulty in concealing their contempt for alternative and renewable resources, and for decades the mass media aided and abetted this by not taking these sources seriously. But that is changing now. The efficiency of solar electric and wind turbines has been steadily improving, and many European nation-states have proved that these technologies can be scaled up to supply an energy grid on an industrial scale. For those who look at the big picture and the long term, there is no question that solar electric will be a dominant form of energy; the only problem is that of storage, we are told. But the storage problem for solar electricity is a lot like the “eyesore” problem for wind turbines: it has only been an effective objection because the alternatives are not taken seriously, and propaganda rather than research has driven the agenda. The Earth is bathed in sunlight at all times, but one side is always dark. a global energy grid — well within contemporary technological means — could readily supply energy from lighted side to the dark side.

Even this discussion is too limited. The whole idea of a “national grid” is predicated upon an anarchic international system of nation-states in conflict, and the national energy grid becomes in turn a way for nation-states to defend their geographical territory by asserting control of energy resources within that territory. There is no need for a national energy grid, or for each nation-state to have a proprietary grid. We possess the technology today for decentralized energy production and consumption that could move away from the current paradigm of a national energy grid of widely distributed consumption and centralized production.

But it is not my intention in this context to write about alternative energy, although this is relevant to the idea of synchrony in energy markets. I cite alternative energy sources because this is a particular blindspot for conventional thinking about energy. Individuals — especially individuals in positions of power and influence — get trapped in energy groupthink no less than strategic groupthink, and as a result of being virtually unable to conceive of any energy solution that does not conform to the present paradigm, those who make public energy policy are often blindsided by developments they did not anticipate. Unfortunately, they do so with public money, picking winners and losers, and are wrong much of the time, meaning losses to the public treasury.

When an economy, or a sector of the economy, is subject to stresses, that economy or sector may experience failure — whether localized and containable, or catastrophic and contagious. In the wake of the late financial crisis, we have heard about “stress testing” banks. Volatility in energy markets stress tests the components of the energy markets. Since this is a real-world event and not a test, different individuals respond differently. Individuals representing institutional interests respond as one would expect institutions to respond, but in a market as complex and as diversified as the energy market, there are countless small actors who will experiment with alternatives. Usually this experimentation does not amount to much, as the kind of resources that institutions possess are not invested in them, but this can change incrementally over time. The experimental can become a marginal sector, and a marginal sector can grow until it becomes too large to ignore.

All of these events in the energy sector — and more and better besides — are occurring simultaneously, and the actions of any one agent influence the actions of all other agents. It is a fallacy to consider any one energy source in isolation from others, but it is a necessary fallacy because no one can understand or anticipate all the factors that will enter into future production and consumption. Energy is the lifeblood of industrial-technological civilization, and yet it is beyond the capacity of that civilization to plan its energy future, which means that industrial-technological civilization cannot plan its own future, or foresee the form that it will eventually take.

Synchrony in energy markets occurs at an order of magnitude that defies all prediction, no matter how hard-headed or stubbornly utilitarian in conception the energy futurism involved. The big picture reveals patterns — that fossil fuels dominate the present, and solar electric is likely to dominate the future — but it is impossible to say in detail how we will get from here to there.

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