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Nuclear Fusion Power

Rolf A. F. Witzsche
June 3, 2006

All matter in the physical universe exists in four different states that are defined by different energy levels in a given environment.

Matter exists either in a solid state at low energy levels (such as Ice), or in a liquid state at a higher energy level, or as a gas when the heat goes up (such as steam), or as a plasma in a super-high-temperature environment.

Water, for instance, takes on a solid form as ice at low energy levels, corresponding to a low temperature environment. However, when the energy level is increased, it becomes a liquid, until at still higher temperatures, or higher energy levels, it turns into steam and becomes a gas. But there is a fourth state of matter possible, which physicists call the plasma state.

The plasma state of matter is rare on Earth. It exists only at extremely high temperatures, like the temperatures that we find in the Sun, measured in millions of degrees. At the boundary to this super-high-energetic stage the shape of matter changes once again into a totally different state with its own unique characteristics.

It becomes necessary at this point to take a brief tour into the world of plasma physics since the plasma state of matter is not generally understood, but is an exceedingly important element for our future, both in the context of physics, and in the context of a metaphor for the high-energy humanist environment that society needs to develop in order to survive the coming Ice Age.

So let's take a look at the world of plasma physics, which in many respects looks like a fairy tale world to us conventional people lining a conventional world.

The plasma state of matter is a more 'intense' state than the gaseous state. It is a state in which the atoms of the elements of matter themselves 'vaporize' at it were. It is a state in which the atoms fall apart so that the electrons in atomic structures become so intensely excited, or intensely alive as it were, that they become disassociated from their specific atomic nucleus and become a part of a universal plasma 'soup.' If the temperature in the plasma becomes high enough the thereby 'exposed' nuclei begin to fuse together. They kind of melt into each other. This typically happens with hydrogen at temperatures in the fifty-million-degree range. When this 'melting' takes place, a kind of fusing of two nuclei into one, a heavier element is born. However, in the process of fusing not all of the constituent building material gets utilized. I tiny bit is left over that splits away at enormous speed in a super-energetic fashion. We can utilize this excessive constituent in the form of physical energy to drive power-generating systems. That's how we can 'harvest' vast quantities of energy from nuclear fusion. That's the theory behind it, in a nutshell.

None of that is new, of course. Nor is the plasma state rare in the universe. In fact 98% of all matter in the universe exists in the plasma state. Most of it is hot enough to allow fusion to occur. The plasma fusion process powers every star or sun in the universe. The plasma fusion state is only rare here on Earth. It is rare, because it is technologically extremely difficult for us to artificially create the energy levels in the plasma that are needed for temperatures in excess of a hundred million degrees. Of course, once we accomplish this, we face the added challenge of keeping the high-energy plasma contained in a bottle that won't melt at such high energy levels. Those are the kinds of challenges that we face to be able to utilize nuclear fusion for nuclear power development. Truly gargantuan efforts are now being made towards meeting those challenges for the development of nuclear fusion power.

Why do we do this? Well, we do this for three reasons. The first reason is that we are human beings, and as human beings it is natural for us to develop the potential we have to create new resources for our existence on this planet. The second reason is that we need this power resource. It is not that oil and coal are running out in the immediate future, or uranium or thorium-powered nuclear fission may not be efficient enough to replace coal and oil and meet the additional future needs of a growing world population. The main reason is that of the qualitative advancement of our civilization we require enormously increased power levels that are needed for a rapidly intensifying economic environment, the kind that we must have to meet our needs in an Ice Age world."

With the next Ice Age soon coming up, perhaps in a hundred years according to the most common estimates in the scientific community, we need vast amounts of power to be able to shift much of the world's agricultural production into indoors facilities. Nuclear fusion power enables us to do this. Fusion power is ideal, because it is extremely energy-intense. It is also extremely safe, pollution free, and virtually free of radioactive waste products. But most importantly, we have a near infinite fuel resource available to drive the fusion power process. Unlike our resources in coal, oil, thorium and uranium, that wouldn't last us through the next 90,000-year Ice Age cycle the fusion power resource cannot be exhausted within the life span of our planet. Fusion power therefore promises boundless life for mankind and a rich future, where the alternative to it is death. Fusion power literally stands as the pivot today for the life-death balance as we prepare our world to enter the Ice Age, or fail to do so, which would be an act akin to killing our children.

The big question is whether we can get nuclear fusion power ready in time. My perception is that we can meet this challenge. In fact, the leading edge labs in the USA are pursuing two different technology-options simultaneously for this goal, both with enormously large-scale efforts, and I mean a really big efforts, almost gargantuan. Let me give you an idea of the scale of the work that is already being done.

The presently leading technology option is centered on magnetically confined plasma fusion. It has been proven that it is possible to keep superheated plasma in magnetic confinement in a torus-type vacuum bottle, and to hold it there and heat it up until fusion temperatures are reached. The Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in the USA, reached temperatures in excess of five hundred million degrees before the year 2000. This amounts to over twenty times the temperature of the interior of the sun. The achievement might be sufficient as a starting platform for exploring some of the countless basic questions towards practical fusion power development towards the building of a demonstration power plant in the 2030 to 2050 timeframe.

The technological hurdles that mankind is facing in this technological arena are larger than any hurdles ever encountered in basic research. We are talking about the need for a seventy years research effort that takes three generations of scientists and engineers to carry through before we can get anything back in expected benefits. Also the physical scale of the effort is huge. The Princeton Lab's Tokomak Fusion Test Reactor is not a little tabletop device that researchers play around with between coffee breaks. The TFTR is a machine the size of a five-story house that took a decade to built, and essentially became obsolete after 15 years of its use (December 1982 and April 1997). However, before it became obsolete, it it demonstrated a ten-megawatt fusion burn, thereby proving that mankind has a limitless energy-rich future to look forward to with a possible intensity in humanist development and economic development that would make the coming Ice Age a non-event when it happens.

Towards this end a number of leading edge research efforts are under way. If one visited the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in its early stages, one would told told that their flagship, the TFTR machine, which just became operational, was already obsolete as new principles have been discovered for the magnetic containment of high-energy plasmas in vacuum environments. There was already talk even then about the building of the next generation experiment that is to be build around essentially spherical plasma confinement. 

The new National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX) became the next step, and it is just as large in size as the TFTR machine. But even the NSTX machine won't be sufficient, to take us all the way to practical power development. More and new questions need to be answered. 

In order to answer these questions still another experiment is already on the drawing board and being built, which is designed to explore the characteristics of a still different plasma shape that may be useful for compact reactors. The resulting machine is named the National Compact Stellarator Experiment (NCSX). As a compact machine, the NCSX machine is still a huge machine, several times the size of a house. 

Korea has also an innovative approach in progress that will be utilizing superconductor magnets and other design advances, in order to eventually explore steady state operation. The advanced experience gained from the Korean KSTAR machine, called the Korean Superconductor Tokomak Advanced Research Project, which when added together with all the discoveries and experiences, will eventually shape an even larger project, the envisioned International Tokomak Experimental Reactor project, the ITER, meaning in Latin, 'the way.' 

The ITER will be located in France and is expected to be operational in the 2015 to 2020 timeframe with a 100-megawatt output and a ten-fold power gain. If the venture succeeds, it could be opening the door to a possible operational power plant in the 2050 timeframe. Canada is one of the participants in the project. The scale of the envisioned test device is so large that person is barely recognizable in comparison. Equally as impressive are the expected operational details.

"Under present condition, all of this adds up to a Herculean effort with a remarkable success story attached. The scale of the project illustrates to some degree the enormously large efforts that are required to enable us to face the coming Ice Age without being devastated by it. 

Also, there is more progress than this to report.  The nuclear fusion power development project is carried forward on two different fronts simultaneously and with equal intensity and commitment of resources on both fronds.

The second front-line research effort utilizes a totally different principle to cause nuclear fusion. This process is equally as promising. The objective in this case is to compress a tiny pellet of fusion fuel so hyper-intensively that it heats up in the process to the required 50 million-degree temperature at which fusion begins to occur. The process is called Inertial  Confinement Fusion

It has already been proven along this line that the super-high temperatures that are needed for fusion ignition can be obtained by means of thermal compression, utilizing intense laser beams as thermal drivers. In this field the USA is leading the world by a long way. The research started out 'small' with the NOVA Laser Facility of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California. In this case 'small' means big. The NOVA facility is huge in size. A single one of its ten 70cm laser beam lines is a giant in itself. All the lasers focused together deliver 16 trillion watts of energy focused onto a tiny target, smaller than a pea in a special target chamber. The target chamber alone, for the pea-sized experiment, is three stories high. 

However, while the facility was still being build, it was already known that the expected 16 trillions watts of energy won't be enough to achieve fusion. This means that the entire giant facility is nothing more than just a stepping stone towards the next stage, America's National Ignition Facility. (The facility is presently used for atomic bomb research.)

The National Ignition Facility will be 50 times more energetic and twenty times larger in size. The facility is already being built and is close to completion. It will likely be the most gigantic research facility in the world for a single type of experiment. The new facility will be the size of a stadium. It will give researchers 196 super intense laser beams to work with when the facility is fully operational in 2008. The entire huge facility will be built essentially for one single purpose, which is to focus up to 750 trillion watts of energy unto a single hollow capsule the size of a thumb, with a pea size fuel target inside. The intense laser-created heat will cause a compression wave inside the capsule that superheats the fuel target into a plasma and compacts it still further to create the condition for a fusion burn. A practical power generating plant based on this principle is theoretically possible. It would be powered by a continuing stream of laser ignited super-minuscule hydrogen bomb type explosions. A demonstration power plant might be operating as early as the 2030-2040 timeframe.

A new idea in the world of fusion power has come to the forefront in recent years is centred on utilizing lunar helium-3 as an energy source. Helium-3 is an isotope of the gas, helium, that has one neutron missing. It it is fused with deuterium it can rebuild itself into normal helium, with a proton left over for excess energy. It is believed that this type of fusion is easier to achieve. The drawback is that we don't have any helium-3 on earth, except in minute quantities. However, there is plenty of it on the moon deposited by solar winds, enough to satisfy the world-energy needs for a thousand years. Helium-3 might provide us with an entry into the fusion-power age without thermal conversion, producing electricity from the fusion process itself. Of course, we would have to start mining operations on the moon. But that may not be that far off. Building a permanent base on the moon is already under consideration and may become an international project. However, the helium-3 is trapped inside a black rock at a density of 0.01 parts per million and requires an extensive extraction process. Nor had the helium-3 fusion process been demonstrated as yet. It remains merely a theoretical option.

Does this sound like science fiction? We are talking about research test reactors five times the size of a house, of which we may yet need another half a dozen or more; and other facilities the size of a stadium to ignite a single target the size of a pea, not to mention mining the moon for a fusion fuel that was deposited there by the sun over billions of years. Well, it's not science fiction. And it gets more exotic still. A theoretical possibly exists to tap directly into the galactic plasma that is teeming with electric energy, so massive in scale that it powers the sun. Abundant evidence exists that the luminous surface of the sun is not heated by a fusion furnace from below, but is heated be electric art discharges powered by electric currents flowing in the galactic plasma attracted by the sun. (see: The Electric Climate) Creating artificial plasma conduits with particle beams for power transport is well within the rage of technological possibilities.

Those are a some practical projects, some with already proven results. One of these projects will likely provide us in the near term with an option for assuring a limitless energy-rich future as an alternative to having no future at all. Most likely several options will become developed in parallel, and be so applied for different purposes.

Right now only two options are being developed simultaneously, both for hydrogen fusion, and both are pursued with equal intensity and commitment of resources. However, the projects are nevertheless being 'starved' in many respects as the funding for them is being whittled away and redirected to other uses, like making war. By pursuing war instead of scientific and economic development the current society is truly embarked on a commitment to literally 'devour' its children, because high density energy production is the future of humanity. If we fail out children have no future.

The world has become too small for wood fire economies, or windmills to drive its industries and transportation systems. Even oil is just a stop-gap measure with a limited lifespan. But mankind has mental resource with the capacity to break the barriers of foreseeable limits.  In mankind's normal development those lesser resources will become obsolete long before they become actually exhausted. Just as candles were put aside when the electric light bulb was invented, so oil power and nuclear fission power will be put aside as a power source when nuclear fusion lights up the future for us, or the electric plasma currents that power the sun become captured as a usable power resource for mankind's rather 'meager' requirements. 

The comparison is important to illustrate the potential that stands behind the enormous commitment that is required to harvest the boundless energy resources that are available with nuclear fusion or tapping into the galactic source. It is also important to gain an appreciation of how much the future existence of mankind will depend on the next-generation kind of power development; or should I say, its own self-development? With this consideration in mind we may want to seriously ask the question at what point the required development effort will becomes too great for society to bare. At what point does it become 'too expensive' for mankind to live?

That question must never be asked. It must be deemed an invalid question to ask at what point the required effort will be too great for society to assure the continuity of its civilization and its existence as a whole? Can such efforts ever be too great if they are required to assure life? The answer must be that they can't. No matter how large the requires efforts might be, they must never be deemed to large when the future existence of mankind hangs in the balance as it will with the start of the next Ice Age in the near future if the world's food production isn't assured with creating technological infrastructures for indoor agriculture.

The greatest challenge that mankind has ever faced in its entire history lies now before us in this age. The challenge is to create an energy-rich high-intensity humanist world that enables mankind to protect its agriculture in indoor facilities in preparation for the return of the Ice Age that reduces the global average temperatures by 20 degrees Celsius (more than twice the originally assumed cooling). The resulting deep-freeze future may only be a hundred years distant. Some say it might yet be another ten thousand years away, but that involves a gamble that we cannot afford. 

It would be insanity to gamble with our future existence, and that of our children, by assuming that the Ice Age is still far off, which would leave us free to omit the preparations for what might yet be needed to preserve civilization and the existence of mankind. If we were to choose to drift into the Ice Age unprepared, as many rulers of empire demand, only a few would survive the transition, if any. In fact if the world doesn't get back to a highly intense economic development stage, which is presently prevented by the masters of empire, our immediate world will collapse into a New Dark Age and our future presence on this planet will likely become reduced in numbers by 90% through war and starvation, long before the Ice Age begins. So great are our present problems. Once the Ice Age does begin and society remains unprepared, the northern countries would all loose their agriculture totally to the cold temperatures that begin with the onset of glaciation.

Our entire worldwide food production is presently geared to the warm environment that we had for the last 10,000 years of our interglacial climate that is soon coming to an end. We simply don't know how far-reaching the impact of the global Ice Age cooling will be and how quickly and severely the change in weather pattern would affect the global food crops if they remained unprotected. Nor can anyone forecast how many people might survive the then resulting food wars and the wars over living space that would likely erupt unless all of these problems are resolved ahead of time. 

One thing is certain, mankind cannot survive for long in an energy-lean semi-starvation environment with a low-level civilization. When the last Ice Age ended a mere 1 to 10 million people had made it through the harsh glaciation period of a 100,000 years in duration. When the current warm period ends the world population might quickly collapse back to those levels which the meagre earth can support without large scale technological infrastructures. But this is not the kind of world that most people would want to live in.

The bottom line is that mankind wouldn't have much of a future if it faced the Ice Age empty handed and with empty hearts, which unfortunately society presently aims to do. And to put frankly, in this back-sliding to hell, mankind might not actually survive through the next Ice Age, considering the long-term effects of the uranium pollutions that today's weapons of war are presently poised to inject into the global atmosphere (the uranium equivalent of 10,000,000 atom bombs).

Rolf A. F. Witzsche, is an independent researcher, publisher, and author of eleven novels. The novels are focused on exploring the Principle of Universal Love, the principle that is reflected to some degree in every bright period throughout history with the added challenge for today to give our universal love an active expression in a type of 'Universal Kiss' for all mankind.

Novels by Rolf Witzsche

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