Fusion and fission

Posted: May 8, 2013 in Science & Technology
Tags: , ,

In one of the episodes of the Big Bang Theory, the protagonist tries to garner support and a research grant for some experiments in advanced physics. He is successful but in a rather twisted way. This example shows that even popular culture knows that any project in advanced physics will be very expensive. Proving any hypothesis requires loads of money which certainly does not guarantee success. Corporations and governments spend billions in aid to various such projects in the hope of a breakthrough. So how much do you think the most expensive project undertaken costs?

Thirteen billion Euro. Yes the figure is correct. This is the estimated cost of the ITER project (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). This is a collaborative attempt by 34 countries to prove that energy can be produced using thermonuclear fusion outside a laboratory  Its aim is to produce about 500 MW of power with an input of about 50 MW. When you have the time visit their site. The numbers are astounding. Astounding because this is essentially a proof of concept. When this is complete (should I also say ‘if”?), scientists involved will have categorically proven that it is possible to build commercially viable nuclear fusion reactors. Next someone will have to actually build a reactor so that countries can buy one. It will have to be a country, I guess, given the likely cost of such a thing.  All this will take decades. The earliest date for the prototype to start producing energy is in 2026.


Image: ITER Lego sculpture by Sachiko Akinaga, Photograph by Hironobu Maeda, Credit: Scientific American

So is this the right thing to do when the world needs solutions for its energy problems quickly? Its naysayers would simply dismiss it as a colossal waste of money whereas the scientists involved will hail it as mankind’s saviour. Scientific American had a recent article about various problems it was having (funding of course is talked about). There is no question, however, that fusion once domesticated will be our main source of energy. Till that point the world should be looking at alternatives.

Easier said than done that. And yes most countries are looking at other energy sources. Batteries, more efficient solar panels, hydrogen fuel cells and new deposits of natural gas to name a few. Hang on, something’s missing from this list! Where is nuclear fission? The world seems to have lost faith in fission it seems. New fission reactors are a big no-no nowadays, after Fukushima of course (but warheads are obviously multiplying). This is more of a knee-jerk reaction. Something similar would have happened after Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. There are people thinking about making fission safer, cheaper and less damaging to the environment. The most noteworthy example is Taylor Wilson. You might say – who? I would have if not for a recent talk on TED which I saw. Wilson, then 18, won the Thiel Prize in 2012 as an Applied Nuclear Physicist. And he’s built a fusion reactor in his dad’s garage! In the talk, he talks about a design for a modular nuclear fission reactor capable of producing 50-100 MW. If the design works, it may not be as expensive as a conventional reactor and probably not as complicated. This means it will be easier to build and maintain, especially in the developing economies.

Someone should be looking at a comprehensive plan for energy. Someone with the reach of the World Bank or UN. And they should take a leaf out of Agile and start showing quick results for the almost-panicking world.

PS: Here’s my 4-point plan for energy (go ahead, laugh :-))

  1. Reduce energy consumption. Any which way. See this post by T K Arun (Times of India blogs) as an example of the lengths one can go to.
  2. Develop hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure for vehicular usage. Period.
  3. For the near term, look at fission, solar, wind and hydel energy solutions. Move away from burning anything having carbon in it.
  4. Make fusion cheaper. If a teenager can build a working prototype of a fusion plant in a garage, why does one need to spend gargantuan sums of money elsewhere to build a different one?
  1. Rutvik says:

    My interest in nuclear tech began after watching a couple of documentaries, & soon turned into an obsession..
    My opinion is that extraction of nuclear energy in its present form is neither sustainable or viable, more so in developing countries. Our reactors are too low tech even in the most developed of the nations. They simply are not talking about the maintainence of spent fuel rods which will be radioactive for 1 lakh years, yes! 1 lakh.
    However I don’t think it must be taken out all together. Make all existing reactors, areas of low level scientific experiments. Generation of electricity and isotopes, secondary objectives.
    The kid talks very impressively but, to be frank it leaves a lot of technicalities to be desired.
    After NTBT triggered by the horror expressed by the even the most soviet of the soviet scientists when they saw Tsar Bomba, most nuke experiments now involve multiple agencies to ensure a multi-perspective study of the event/experiment. This contributes heavily to costs as they need to transport equipment to remove locations. Not only this, but a lot of investment is put into ensuring safety. This too does not help the costs.
    Bottom line is such an investment is needed and costs are to be paid if we want to develop the much vaunted and wanted fusion reactor.

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