Dense focus fusion

http://thefraserdomain.typepad.com/energy/2005/11/powered_by_chan.html

Developers, led by Eric J. Lerner, are developing Focus Fusion, a fusion process to generate electricity that is expected to be relatively cheap, highly efficient, and small enough to fit into a garage.  The process which channels hydrogen-boron fuel through a plasma focusing device, uses a smaller, more elegant approach than is currently being pursued by conventional fusion researchers.  This device could be fired up and shut off with the flip of a switch, with no damaging radiation, no threat of meltdown, and no possibility of explosions

Focus Fusion reactors are small and decentralized, ideally suited for distributed power generation. Focus Fusion reactors can fit into a garage.  Lawrenceville Plasma Physics (LPP) Focus Fusion project aims at developing an electric generator with a projected output of about 5 MW, sufficient for a small community.  The Focus Fusion process can produce electricity directly without the need to generate steam, use a turbine or use a rotating generator. The reactors are extremely compact and economical, with expected costs of $300,000 apiece. As the fuel is an insignificant cost, electric power production is estimated at about one tenth of a cent per kWh, fifty times cheaper than current costs.  Because it can be shut off and turned on so easily, a bank of these could easily accommodate whatever surges and ebbs are faced by the grid on a given day, without wasting unused energy from non-peak times into the environment, which is the case with much of the grid’s energy at present.  On-site personnel are not needed on a daily basis, maintenance would be rare.  One technician could operate a dozen facilities by themselves.

This is a quite interesting concept, although like all reputable fusion researchers, the people behind it are being fairly quiet until they have some firm information and evidence for it.  This is something important to remember– just because you don’t hear a lot about it doesn’t mean nothing is happening– but in the aftermath of the Cold Fusion fiasco, every researcher in this field wants to be damned certain that he or she has pretty much unassailable proof before making claims of fusion.

So, what does this mean in practical terms?

The biggest thing of course is that fusion decouples our energy budget from fossil fuels or fissionable nuclear systems.  Ditto for hydroelectric or wind power– in other words it dramatically reduces our “energy footprint” on the planet.  That’s the first big difference, and it’s a pretty damned big one– just take a look at your average oil field and what that does to the local environment, or hell, try to breath in many cities with severe air pollution.

Then there’s the political question– many nations will be able to stop spending money on foreign fuel (India, for example, imports just over 80%  of their fossil fuels), and plow that money back into other needs.  Once the systems are built, they only need to be maintained– so instead of spending a billion dollars a year on crude, you’re just spending whatever it costs to maintain your fusion plants.

But that’s not the only advantage– if you can build a 5MW power plant, then you can get away from the one big power plant model.  I doubt we’ll ever see “Mr. Fusion” at home, because 5MW isn’t anything for non-professionals to be screwing around with, but town and even neighborhood stations isn’t out of the question.

This has two advantages.  1.  It reduces the environmental footprint even more as we no longer have to have big power lines snaking everywhere. 2. It reduces our vulnerability. If every neighborhood, town and even large building has it’s own, independent power source, it becomes impossible to knock out, by malice or natural disaster, the entire power system.  That’s a big deal for places like California that are in danger of earthquakes, or parts of Texas that get visited every year by Mr. Tornado.

In the third world, well, decentralization is probably the best way to go– it’s less vulnerable to corruption and is more organic– instead of trying to come with some ten year plan, that may or may not work, you can add generating capacity as needed– and again, you don’t have to pay for fossil based fuel imports.

Is it going to save the world?  Nah, Homo the Sap will no doubt figure out some way to screw things up even more– but it will hopefully make the world a better place.

Now all we have to do is make it work…

Update:

In a breakthrough in the effort to achieve controlled fusion energy, a research team at Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, Inc. (LPP) in Middlesex, NJ, announced that they have demonstrated the confinement of ions with energies in excess of 100 keV (the equivalent of a temperature of over 1 billion degrees C) in a dense plasma. They achieved this using a compact fusion device called a dense plasma focus (DPF), which fits into a small room and confines the plasma with powerful magnetic fields produced by the currents in the plasma itself. Reaching energies over 100 keV is important in achieving a long-sought goal of fusion research—to burn hydrogen-boron fuel. Hydrogen-boron, (also known by its technical abbreviation, pB11) is considered the ideal fusion fuel, since it produces energy in the form of charged particles that can be directly converted to electricity. This could dramatically cut the cost of electricity generation and eliminate all production of radioactive waste.

That’s a VERY big deal and a big milestone in the process.  So we’ll have to keep watching.

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