Once I heard the story about The Boy Who Built A Clock, I wondered how long it would be before somebody made a connection between that and the people around the world who are building nuclear fusion reactors in their basements and garages. I got the answer to that this morning. On Facebook, of course:
Isn’t this the outfit that got a whole lot of press last year when they got some funding from one of Silicon Valley’s start-up incubators?
“What Helion is trying to achieve is to shoot two plasma balls made of hydrogen atom cores at each other at one million miles per hour to collide within an indescribably strong magnetic field to create a 100 million degree Celsius reaction for a millisecond.”
It’s always interesting to see what fusion research looked like in the early days….
…if for no other reason than because it affords some insight into just why, as Richard Hull (among others) is so fond of saying, “Fusion is 20 years in the future and always will be…”
It is also intriguing to see the subject of fusion being picked up among the tech cognoscenti, as in this article that appeared recently on the popular tech-geared site Gizmodo, which describes Lyman Spitzer’s “Stellarator” – one of the earliest magnetic confinement schemes:
Virtually all plasma physics research throughout the 1950s and 1960s occurred on Stellarators. The Model C, above, was the largest of these devices. … It entered service in 1962 and immediately blew the doors off of the earlier figure-8 design. It incorporated a pair of major innovations—the divertor, which sucked unwanted waste particles out of the stream without disrupting the confinement field, and ICRH that uses radio waves to force the ions to spin around the center axis of the field the same way the wire helix of the earlier models wound around the central core of their support matrix—mitigated earlier models’ issues with plasma loss.
Well, certainly no jargon there!
The Stellarator was an early attempt at “magnetic confinement” of a fusion reaction – in other words, marshalling titanic external forces in the service of confining a plasma and squeezing ions together. It sounds reasonable enough, but magnetic confinement was once likened to “trying to contain a scoop of jello with rubber bands.”
It strikes me that all that “jargon” is the scientific description of how you keep the jello from escaping.
News surfaced this past week that one of the world’s most prominent startup incubators, Y Combinator has taken a stake in a company called Helion, which insists that it will produce a break-even nuclear fusion process in three years:
So it came as a surprise to hear that Y Combinator and Mithril Capital Management are investing $1.5 million in Helion Energy, a Redmond, Washingon-based startup that says it has a plan to build a fusion reactor that breaks even on energy input and output, a challenge whose solution has been considered decades away for, well, decades. Helion CEO David Kirtley says that his company can do it in three years….
…When the team left to form their own company, they did so with the express intention of using electronics advancements from other fields to create a magnetic-inertial confinement fusion reactor.
I suppose it’s good news that this initiative will be using “electronics advancements” in the development of their fusion process. Lord only knows that the advancements in electronic monitoring and computer control are light years ahead of what a fusion pioneer like Philo Farnsworth had at his disposal in the 1950s and 60s.
But as soon as I read that the process revolves around “magnetic” confinement (even if it is some kind of hybrid with inertial confinement) I become pretty skeptical. I forget who it was but long ago somebody likened magnetic plasma confinement to trying to wrap jello in rubber bands. That much has not changed, and billions – maybe hundreds of billions – have been spent over the past several decades on monolithic systems that pretty well prove the point.
Nevertheless, it is encouraging that the Silicon Valley tech/startup community is taking at least a marginal interest in the promise of fusion. And these guys do have the right idea to decentralized, distributed power network:
Instead of building at the scale of a gigawatt power station right out of the gate, the company is looking to compete with smaller, more distributed plants, like large diesel generators in regions where fuel has to be trucked in. It’s a market where the current “best” solution isn’t great and the barriers to entry are far easier to deal with than when competing with the big guys.
But they still have to find a fusion process that actually produces more power than it consumes.
Lord knows, if this server-farm reality we’ve created for ourselves is going to be sustainable, we’re going to have to find some source of electricity other than fossil fuels – and fusion, if it can ever be achieved, offers at least the siren song of temptation for the biggest bang for the buck.
So it’s good to see the Big Bucks that technology has generated finally taking a serious interest in the field. It’s about time the prospect of fusion energy appealed to some deep pockets other than government funding.
I really do need to keep better track of my daily Google Alerts. Unfortunately, I’ve become somewhat immune to them. The fusion alerts, in particular, are usually about the ITER or the NIF or some giant government funded fusion boondoggle. They show up in my inbox everyday, and I mostly ignore them.
So I missed this when it showed up in my inbox last week: an appearance on the David Letterman show by Jamie Edwards, the 13-year-old from Lancashire, England, who is now the youngest person to ever build a fusor and achieve a nuclear fusion reaction.
The appearance actually begins just few seconds prior to this video. Letterman has introduced Jamie who has taken his seat on the sofa, and the conversation begins:
Unlike his immediate predecessor in the “youngest fusioneer” sweepstakes, Jamie is modest, well spoken, and even a bit funny as he deflects Dave’s attempts to make light of something he barely comprehends.
What’s ironic is that this appearance is on that gizmo called television, and there’s no mention of the fact that the same guy who created the fusion process that they’re talking about also invented the medium they’re talking about it on. But, that’s the way it goes when Philo Farnsworth is the topic.
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But… wait! Despite all the coverage of Jamie’s work – and his appearance on a big-time US network TeeVee show – it turns out that Jamie’s claims of having achieved actual fusion (as evidenced by the production of neutrons) remains unsubstantiated as of this date. There is a thread of discussion on this in the fusor forums, read it here.
And now we know the missing ingredient in a successful fusion operation:
Jamie Edwards is the boy from Preston who two weeks ago entered the record books as the youngest person — he was 13 — in the world to build a nuclear fusion reactor. George Barker is his assistant, sidekick and loyal best friend.
George, 13, says: ‘I organise meetings for Jamie, and tidy up for him — he’s really, really messy; you should see his bedroom, it’s a right tip with stuff everywhere! I make brews for him — he prefers hot chocolate with just a little bit of milk.’
As of today – May 8, 2013 – the transition to our new home and platform is nearly complete.
By and large, the whole process was relatively painless. We hit only minor obstacles in the migration. We had to shut down for a couple of days when we we discovered one “feature” that had to be turned off. But once we got it back up the adjusting went pretty quickly and smoothly.
We’re still learning our way around. Today, for example, we discovered that the Forum Search function is going to take some finessing. And we’re still trying to get users to change their profile and Login/User ID so that real names will appear on the forum Index page – that could take some time.
I spent most of today transferring setting up this WordPress portion of the site, and transferring all the resources for newbies to a new page just for newcomers.
Now we’ll see if I can keep maintain a more regular info-flow to this front page than I have in the past. I’m not the most reliable or consistent blogger in the world. I just post when something strikes me. The real content on this page is user generated in the forums.
Please feel free to offer any feedback or suggestions you have for the new format. It’s still a work in progress (and always will be).