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Should Google Go Nuclear? 419

Posted by Zonk
from the gooboom dept.
Baldrson writes "One of the founders of the US Tokamak fusion program, Dr. Robert W. Bussard, gave a lecture at Google recently now appearing as a Google video titled 'Should Google Go Nuclear?'. In it, he presents his recent breakthrough electrostatic confinement fusion device which, he claims, produced several orders of magnitude higher fusion power than earlier electrostatic confinement devices. According to Bussard, it did so repeatably during several runs until it blew up due to mechanical stress degradation. He's looking for $200M funding, the first million or so of which goes to rebuilding a more robust demonstrator within the first year. He claims the scaling laws are so favorable that the initial full scale reactor would burn boron-11 — the cleanest fusion reaction otherwise unattainable. He has some fairly disturbing things to say in this video, as well as elsewhere, about the US fusion program which he co-founded."
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Should Google Go Nuclear?

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  • by Broken scope (973885) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @04:32AM (#16894630) Homepage
    Not completely harmlessly, it would have the effect of a small dirty bomb when the materials in the fission trigger were powdered and spread.
  • Re:Fusion? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Omnifarious (11933) * <eric-slash@omERD ... g minus math_god> on Saturday November 18, 2006 @04:44AM (#16894668) Homepage Journal

    I believe the fuel is tritium (one proton and two neutron hydrogen, radioactive and unstable, but not very much so) and boron. The end result is 4 stable helium nuclei. There is no plutonium or other weapons grade material produced. These are all nuclear reactions at the very low end of the periodic table. You might be able to build a hydrogen bomb, but there are lots easier ways to do that.

    From your confusion, I would suggest reading up on fission and fusion on Wikipedia.

  • Re:Pseudoscience (Score:0, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 18, 2006 @04:45AM (#16894670)
    Well, that was quite a post, but why on earth should James Randi have anything to do with it?

    Unless he has suddenly undertaken a career in physics instead of card tricks while I wasn't looking, Randi is just not qualified to even begin to crtitique any physicist's work.

    Randi does a good job taking on mediums, psychics and water diviners. That's about the grasp of his abilities.

    If Dr. Bussard (yes he is a doctor, so save the passive aggressive trolling by using Mr. constantly) has some research he wants the rest of the world to investigate, it should be by his peers - not some jumped up libertarian magician with a big name for taking on Uri Geller.
  • by shanec (130923) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @04:47AM (#16894676)
    For all the inquisitive types out there, here are a couple other references to Dr. Robert W. Bussard's work from the DOE perspective;

    In addition, there are 101 references for "Electrostatic Confinement Fusion." [science.gov]

    Shane
    (yes, I'm shamelessly publishing links to my servers for all the Slashdot community to hit. After all, they have to have some reason to keep me employed! ;)

  • Re:Fusion? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Broken scope (973885) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @04:49AM (#16894680) Homepage
    Fuel:Heavy water (Deuterium or Tritium)

    Waste:Helium.

    Meltdown:Meltdown is the wrong word. A failure of the containment could occur, but the reaction would die when exposed to outside conditions and the magnets could explode they would throw shrapnel around. however this would not a be a sudden or instant thing. Unlike a nuclear reactor the fuel is supplied at a constant rate, when fuel is removed the reaction stops. it would be equivilant to a large piece of machinery at a factory breaking falling over or exploding. Nothing is leaving the building and its gonna be expensive. However if this happens you need to be looking at the people running the thing, and ask them why they didn't turn it off.

    Weapon stuff:Well deuterium is used in a fusion weapons, but you can get the stuff isn't that hard to get, and you still need a fission reaction to start a weapon fusion reaction.

    So devices use have a system that catches neutrons that leave the reaction and converts them into tritium then feeds them back into the reaction.
  • Re:Fusion? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Broken scope (973885) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @05:06AM (#16894740) Homepage
    There are 3 reactions.

    Deuterium + Tritium

    Deuterium +Deuterium

    Boron 11 one.
  • Re:Fusion? (Score:5, Informative)

    by mysticgoat (582871) * on Saturday November 18, 2006 @05:27AM (#16894788) Homepage Journal

    So 1) what's the fuel,

    Boron.

    2) what's the waste,

    Carbon and helium.

    3) what's the risk of a meltdown,

    No risk of meltdown, china syndrome, or other runaway problems. The worst case would be a conventional explosion.

    and 4) is any plutonium (or other weapons-grade material) produced?

    No.

    He talks a good physics snow job; glibly spicing his words with equations that provide a certain kind of high energy ambience without actually conveying any information to his audience. In his own way, he is quite the showman.

    However it did seem to me that he is saying that the theory behind his fusor engines has been proven, and that he is staking his reputation on that. I'm also pretty sure he is saying that the remaining problems are in the engineering, not the physics. So its like rocketships: we know it can be done but we don't yet know how to do it well enough to be really useful.

  • by JFitzsimmons (764599) <justin@fitzsimmons.ca> on Saturday November 18, 2006 @05:51AM (#16894858)
    That's twenty-THOUSAND.
  • Re:Oil companies (Score:2, Informative)

    by buback (144189) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @06:05AM (#16894892)
    I'm no physicist, but in the video he outlines 3 reactions in particular that would be perferable for fusion. one reaction in particular would be clean,(it was a long video and i couldn't read the slides so some of this might be incorect) producing no neutrons. this is the pb (proton/boron) reaction, which only produces helium atoms
  • by kestasjk (933987) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @06:39AM (#16894974) Homepage
    I watched the whole thing though I'm sad to say; what a waste of time. In a nutshell:
    • Fusion is simple and elegant, it powers the stars, just take a look at the sun to see it work!
    • The Tomakak is just a problem on top of a problem, it's going nowhere fast.
    • So we had this ingenious idea for making charged particles go into the center of a load of magnets oriented in a certain way which would solve all the Tomakak's problems.
    • The first one we tried the particles escaped onto the metal welds which bring the magnets together.
    • The second one didn't have metal welds, but the particles escaped onto the magnets themselves.
    • The third one had insulated magnets, but the particles escaped onto the metal stands.
    • For the nth one we insulated everything, and on *the day* before we lost all funding and had to close the lab down we achieved some fusion! We now know exactly what we're going to do!
    • It will solve world hunger, create a stable economy, enable space travel, make ethanol viable, stop the oil wars, cure cancer, etc.
    • It's all in this paper I wrote, it doesn't actually have any formulas or concrete evidence in it "but it does talk about it".
    • Now all we need is $200M funding to build the final thing *cough*and solve the crippling engineering problems*cough*. Questions?

    If you want to prove that you're not full of it why not rebuild the last machine you built, which would be relatively cheap, to recreate the results you got the day before you had to close the labs down?
    - Well the $200M will build ones which will be 50x better, one of them will be a dodecahedron.

    Why is no-one funding you?
    - No-one thinks outside the box. If you let me choose who goes on the panel who gets to decide whether it's worthwhile I'll pick some people who can think outside the box. There are lots of people in China and other countries who can think outside the box, and if I don't get funding here in America I'll give my patents to China for free and you wouldn't want that. (I'm not making this up, he literally threatened the audience with giving the tech to China for free)

    How do you get the helium waste products out?
    - We have a grid on the outside which lets the helium slowly come to a stop, we haven't tried this yet but it's an engineering problem. There are also serious problems with arcing due to the high voltages, but these are merely engineering problems not physics problems.
  • by A beautiful mind (821714) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @08:05AM (#16895252)
    It's pretty much the same way with a fusion plant. You can use or produce materials useful in nuclear weapons, but the reactor will be nowhere close to a weapon itself.
    A fusion plant does not operate on weaponizable materials, period. It is the cleanest form of energy we know of, INCLUDING solar (creation of solar panels are not so green) and wind (messes up local wind patterns and disturbs wildlife).
  • fusion with boron-11 (Score:4, Informative)

    by tenco (773732) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @08:57AM (#16895422)
    AFAIK for fusion with boron isotopes you need a 10-times higher temperature than what you would need when using hydrogen isotopes instead.

    See the p-B^11 fuel cycle [wikipedia.org], too.

    Moron at eleven.

  • Colbert (Score:1, Informative)

    by anti-human 1 (911677) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @12:01PM (#16896384) Journal
    Stephen Colbert's persona (the one he uses on The Colbert Report) doesn't equate to someone with a Doctorate. The show isn't called, "Dr. Colbert plays the Devil's Advocate for Haw-Haws." He plays himself as a showboating ass, therein lies the comedy.

    You comment on people calling themselves doctors when they aren't medical doctors is asinine. You wouldn't call someone with a PhD in Physics a doctor? How about Mr. Martin Luther King (plagiarism conspiracy theories aside)?
  • by Richard Kirk (535523) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @03:01PM (#16897880)
    I have worked a bit in nuclear and pulse power industries. I had never heard of this guy, though I had actually known about the ramjet. I have always had deep scepticism about nuclear fusion. It is touted as a clean source of power, but I knew that the traditional D-T fusion gives off this 14.5 MeV neutron and a powerful gamma. This is highly penetrating radiation, which will tend to make your whole plant radioactive. It could be stopped by 15 cm of Al, but it could also be stopped by a few mm of depleted uranium, which would then give out more energy. If you could build a fusion reactor, it might then make economic sense to shroud it in what is effectively a fast breeder reactor. Now a fast breeder aren't as dangerous as their stupid name suggests, but they aren't exactly clean consience-free energy either. Okay, that's where I come from. Now here is what I thought of the video.

    Within minutes, he had pointed out that his reaction did not produce neutrons. He clearly knew this is a key issue. He described the basic geometries of fusion reaction. He made a nice, clear description of the random walk nature of tokomak fields, and why that meant some of the contents would always head for the walls. His explanations involved nice, clear numbers, like how many times the ion should go through the dense region before it collided. This isn't a popular science gloss-over - I am pretty sure you are getting the real deal here. He argued the need for a 1/r-type field to contain the ions, and why this is best done using electrons guided by coils. I have some familiarity with saddle-field ion sources - not the same thing, but similar enough to recognize what he was talking about.

    For those of you familiar with Hollywood Science, 11 years of research with a load of failed designs may not seem like an investment. Actually, it showed a lot of steady progress, with many orders of magnitude improvement. The only faintly Hollywood bit was the final experiment, and that rang very true to me. The lab is being shut doown; the apparatus is going into storage. We may get to use it again, we may not. Why not turn the current supply all the way up? You can do it safely enough if you stand behind the filing cabinet. Oops, it fried. Oh well, we got some numbers anyway. Yup, that's what a lot of science is like. It is much slower and less dramatic then you would believe.

    The 'wiffle ball' effect is really cute. He is working with plasmas. You have charged stuff zipping about in magnetic and electrostatic fields. Unfortunately, that stuff is itself charged, and because it is moving, it has its own magnetic field. This usually means the plasma can work out within microseconds what it is not supposed to do, and start hosepiping, or wiggling, or whatever it was that it shouldn't. Just occasionally, you can use this self-will to your advantage. The microwave magnetron is an example (particularly cute that he used one inside his experiment to keep the ionization up). Well, I would see that you could concentrale positive ions using negative electrons, but wouldn't they hit each other and neutralize all the time? Well - no they don't, because the electrons will make fast lanes through the slower moving ions.

    He had worked on space engines. He is one of the mad atom smashers from the fifties. Okay, let's see how his proposal stacks up in traditional Mad Scientist terms. Usually a good Mad experiment involves at least two of (a) space, (b) H-bombs, (c) superconductivity, and (d) a small country. A mad experiment needs a budget that is a mere 10% of the US annual defence budget/spending of fossil fuels. And, usually there is the requirement for government funding to pay for the bits that won't make a profit. Some biofuel proposals get well into the Mad bracket. This project has clear aims and costs. It is not huge. You can build it. Either it will work or it won't. If it works, then we can put it into ships and conventional power stations. Project Plowshare it ain't.

    The only thing I might say against is that this may be just

  • Re:not quite (Score:3, Informative)

    by julesh (229690) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @05:25PM (#16899082)
    I did not hear him addres the biggest problem with IEC: bremsstrahlung

    You're right that he didn't. But if you search on scholar.google.com, you'll find he's published papers on the topic. I don't have access to read them, but hopefully that means he's made progress.

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