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Should Google Go Nuclear? 419

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 Salvance ( 1014001 ) * on Saturday November 18, 2006 @03:28AM (#16894416) Homepage Journal
    If Google pursues this, I don't think they'll do so for financial reasons, but rather for PR reasons (just like they used the installation of a relatively large solar capacity as PR []). But nowadays $200 Million isn't that much to Google, so I wouldn't be surprised to see them support the effort to some extent.
  • Fusion? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by headkase ( 533448 ) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @03:32AM (#16894430)
    I watched the google video link of the presentation for a bit to just be sure - and - he does say fusion. I thought that fusion was perpetually 20 years off? If it's fusion, this will be the most important breakthrough in decades. Clean power without all that nasty global warming consequences.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 18, 2006 @03:38AM (#16894454)
    " The Bussard ramjet method of spacecraft propulsion was proposed in 1960 by the physicist Robert W. Bussard and popularized by Carl Sagan in the television series and subsequent book Cosmos as a variant of a fusion rocket capable of fast interstellar spaceflight. It would use a large scoop (on the order of kilometers in diameter) to compress hydrogen from the interstellar medium and fuse it. This mass would then form the exhaust of a rocket to accelerate the ramjet." - from []
  • IECs (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MadUndergrad ( 950779 ) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @03:53AM (#16894492)
    My friend's father is one of the guys responsible for Bussard's (now-dwindling) Navy funding. The few million he got for his first reactors came from them. From what I've heard from him, Bussard is really onto something with his devices. Now, I've never met him myself, nor do I have enough physics under my belt yet to be able to critique the device, but it does sound pretty reasonable.

    About the $200 mil, apparently the power output of these scales as something like the 7th or 9th power of the radius of the device (don't quote me on these numbers), so while the prototypes tested so far produce piddling amounts of power, not nearly break-even, they supposedly confirmed the principles, and the $200 mil model should be big enough to be power-positive. I really hope Google decides to sponsor this. I mean, if they can spend $1.6b on Youtube, what's $200m?
  • I hope you realize that there is a world of difference between a confinment fusion reactor and an Atomic triggered Hydrogen Bomb. One does not in any way, shape, or form imply the other.

    It's pretty much the same with our current fission reactors. There is no way that the design of the reactors would ever blow up like an Atomic warhead, because the warheads are explicitly designed to go super-critical in a very particular fashion, with the intent of burning the maximum amount of fuel possible in the shortest period possible.

    There are actually shaped charges on the outside of the weapon to trigger this event. These charges *must* be properly aligned, or the weapon will never reach super-criticality. That's why the heros in the movie The Peacemaker removed one of the charges from the weapon. Without it, the normal explosives would detonate harmlessly. (There is another type of bomb that slams two carefully shaped, barely sub-critical pieces of Uranium together REALLY, REALLY, REALLY hard. Again, you have the same problem of the design having to be precise.)

    About all you can get from a fission reactor is the raw materials to make a weapon. And even then, it's best if the reactor is configured to produce the materials you need. 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. The key safety issue is thus to ensure that sufficient safeguards exist to prevent the release of any poisonous radioisotopes back into the environment. (If the fusion reaction is completely clean, then this isn't a concern.) We wouldn't want another Chernobyl, which happened mostly because there weren't sufficient safeguards, and the ones that existed had been explicitly disabled (with authorization!) by untrained personnel.

    The irony? They wanted to test the reactor to see if it would fail properly without the safeguards installed. Guess they got their answer. :-/
  • Pseudoscience (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 18, 2006 @03:55AM (#16894500)
    The Bussard Ramjet is one of the finest pieces of Pseudo scientific speculation ever dreamed of and integrated into Science Fiction works. It is simple and elegant in concept, a machine that in theory would make interstellar travel easier than ever, but in reality unworkable. The Bussard Ramjet is a dream that cannot be.

    Mr. Bussard is a dreamer, and his ideas are beautiful; Star Trek has named a large component of its star ships after Bussard. His fertile imagination leads to great science fiction. Even the Great Carl Sagan was inspired by the beautiful mind of Bussard the dreamer.

    I too like Mr. Bussard a great deal, and respect and admire his numerous contributions to our culture and to science fiction. However, it has become clear to me that Mr. Bussard no longer is the man he once was. He, most unfortunately, appears to have become senile, vindictive and single-minded to the point of blindness; read what he says, how he defends his project while attacking all other research constantly.

    Mr. Bussard today has become a pseudo scientific hack, a charlatan if you will. He has become a quack who is attempting to prove the magical results of his form of fusion while all other scientists deny his conclusions, and he repeat "Give me 200M$!" as the sole refrain of his incessant groveling for cash.

    It saddens me to see that Mr. Bussard has chosen to challenge James Randi and every scientific skeptic on earth. Mr. Bussard has never been able to reproduce any of his results in front of impartial peers, under controlled conditions. Read his letter on JREF, and see for yourself.

    Mr. Bussard claims to have tested his device a few times and achieved success, but whenever he tried to test it under controlled conditions, it failed - and he blamed some obscure technical malfunction for this inability to achieve any measurable results. Then he says that only by having 200M$ can he show that his techniques work - he will not rebuild his original demonstration machine, nor allow anybody to do so.

    According to Mr. Bussard, it is easy to test for the proper operation of his machine, hence confirming that scaling the machine up in a 200M$ version would produce lots and lots of energy. However, he refuses to construct such a workable prototype and have it tested by independent experts.

    Read it for yourself and tell me this man is rational.
  • by TorKlingberg ( 599697 ) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @04:13AM (#16894570)
    He is supposed to be the founder of a "Energy Matter Conversion Corporation", but I cannot find a website of the company. Are there still technology companies without a website out there? In this field? Physicists started the whole www.
  • American Law (Score:2, Interesting)

    by MK_CSGuy ( 953563 ) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @06:17AM (#16894912)
    What are the rules in the USofA regarding corporate nuclear reactors?

    Actually it would be pretty interesting to hear about such laws in other countries as well.
  • Re:Oil companies (Score:3, Interesting)

    by DrSkwid ( 118965 ) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @06:26AM (#16894938) Homepage Journal
    Try making plastic, nylon, lubricants, jet-engine fuel from deuterium.
  • Re:Pseudoscience (Score:4, Interesting)

    by asuffield ( 111848 ) <> on Saturday November 18, 2006 @06:52AM (#16895014)
    Getting a fusion reaction to occur is damn hard; getting a self sufficient reaction to occur is still beyond our reach.

    Actually, you can get a self-sufficient reaction to work quite easily in a small lab rig. The hard part is combining "self-sufficient" with "multiple megawatts of power" and "cheaper than oil". You need all three at the same time before you've got a viable fusion power plant. JET was aimed at the second one. ITER's an attempt to get the first two to work at once. We still have to crack the third one - it's not enough to produce more power than you put in, you also have to produce more money than you put in. Converting expensive materials into cheap power is not practical in a capitalist economy, which is why the lab rigs are no use in the real world.
  • by wirelessbuzzers ( 552513 ) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @08:03AM (#16895244)
    I have to mostly agree with this: Bussard's talking tactics were pretty sleazy. His distinctions between "physics" and "engineering" problems were largely vacuous, and he glossed over a lot of stuff. He sounded a lot like a crank in several places, not least when he threatened (repeatedly) to give the tech to China. Also, his spiel on what this machine would do if it worked is unnecessary: we all know that a high-efficiency fusion machine would change the world, but we need to be convinced that he can build one.

    He also suggested that the panel to decide whether this is workable should consist mainly of his 70+year-old friends, which is pretty shady.

    However, you're casting it in slightly too negative a light. It's reasonable to believe that a lot of the trouble toward the end was due to the lack of funding, and that funding is actually unattainable for bureaucratic reasons. Furthermore, the first step of his research would be to rebuild the original machine with better coils, and take very, very careful measurements of the thing. This was indended to take a year and cost a few million dollars, which sounds entirely reasonable. His point about building small models is that his equations show that only a large machine can be at all efficient, so building a quarter-size or half-size machine would prove nothing about the engineering side. Once he's proved the physics, he wants to move directly to a full-scale demo.

    There is even some small amount of merit in his distinction between physics and engineering problems. You obviously need a huge power supply to run this thing. We know how to build such power supplies, but they cost money and he doesn't have money, so he's running it from a capacitor bank for half a millisecond at a time. We know how to build fast-response gas injectors, but he doesn't have those either, because they also cost money, so he's using slow ones. We know how to build megavolt standoffs, but they cost money... On the other hand, his spiel on how easy helium extraction is may be entirely bullshit. He claims they have a paper on it, so they've thought about it and it's probably not complete bullshit, but it's not a standard affair in the engineering community. I also don't believe him that arcing is an engineering problem.

    He's also clearly not lying, at least not about whether the machine is possible, because we all know he'll get caught in the first stage and that's not the kind of legacy he's trying to leave. However, it's quite possible that he's hallucinating the data, or reading too much into it, or something, and he's clearly got a serious case of tunnel vision.
  • by Pharmboy ( 216950 ) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @08:58AM (#16895432) Journal
    ?Not completely harmlessly, it would have the effect of a small dirty bomb when the materials in the fission trigger were powdered and spread.

    If you bothered to WTFV (yes, it is an hour and a half...) then you would know they are talking about using Boron-11, which the waste products break down into all helium-4. Last time I checked, you can't make a dirty bomb out of helium, although you could make everyone talk funny. Sounds more like a Hank Scorpio plot...

    This is one of the few kinds of technologies that you could share with any and everyone, AND would actually take away any reason for other countries to build breeder reactors. If Iran could choose between this and a fission breeder reactor that produces plutonium as a waste product, then their intentions would be clear by their choice. Either they wanted electrical power or bomb matierials.
  • by msobkow ( 48369 ) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @11:56AM (#16896348) Homepage Journal

    There is no "fission trigger" to a fusion power generation device.

    They're cool to watch in action. Purple-pink plasma flares in the magring with the lights down looks really, really science-fiction, but it was lab-real back in the '80s. Nothing like seeing half-inch copper cables twitch and flex like muscles due to the massive currents being fed to maintain the magring bottle. :)

    The main thing that's changes is nowadays there have been several energy-positive fusion tests, while back then they were just hoping to get to the point where it wouldn't take more energy to produce the fusion burst than they could get back.

    What I don't understand is why he isn't trying to get a few million to rebuild the prototype, instead of shooting for the full $200M. A running prototype would probably make it fairly easy to acquire far more funding than $200M.

  • by nido ( 102070 ) <{moc.oohay} {ta} {65odin}> on Saturday November 18, 2006 @12:13PM (#16896472) Homepage
    Suppose technology developed to the point that the existing oil industry became irrelevant - free energy for all, with elegant, simple, low-cost fusion reactors in every neighborhood, and some sort of "cold-fusion" device powering every car. No more $100million nuclear fusion plants, no more need for gasoline or diesel. Would it not be in their best interest to muddy the water a bit, so to speak?

    Also, oil companies are some of the ones leading the alternative energy charge, believe it or not.

    This reminded me of one Native American method for buffalo hunting:

    To start the hunt, "Buffalo Runners", young men trained in animal behavior would entice the herd to follow them by imitating the bleating of a lost calf. As the buffalo moved closer to the drive lanes the hunters would circle behind and upwind of the herd and scare the animals by shouting and waving robes. As the buffalo stampeded towards the edge of the cliff, the animals in front would try to stop but the sheer weight of the herd pressing from behind would force the buffalo over the cliff.

    -Buffalo hunting []

    In this analogy, the oil companies "leading the alternative energy charge" are analogous to the young men getting the herd to follow them. The oil companies lead the charge away from the truly revolutionary breakthroughs, towards business models where they're still relevant.

    I met a physicist some 4 years ago who was working on his doctorate, on Cold Fusion-style research. At the time said he'd have to modify one of his papers to acknowledge some tokamak-fusion research that'd just been published - the experiment turned out just like he thought it would, but he had to mention it. Just finished his doctorate a month or two ago...

    Scientific revolutions [] come in waves. Right now we have the old-guard (established energy companies & rogue energy terrorists []) fighting to suppress the coming paradigm shift. They'll lose eventually, and we'll all be better off.
  • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @03:22PM (#16898036) Journal
    Tritium is an incredibly useful substance. It glows, and so can be used in a lot of places where phosphorescence is required. It is also a beta emitter, with a relatively short half-life. This means it can be used as a power source for low voltage applications; a beta-voltic supply with a tritium fuel source runs for about 10 years.
  • by constantnormal ( 512494 ) on Saturday November 18, 2006 @11:00PM (#16901422)
    I'd even go so far as to say that cheap energy for all would save the world. I'm not normally a doom and gloom kinda guy, but it seems to me that the path we're headed on right now leads to civilization breaking down.

    Sorry, but while the world is definitely on the path leading to a disintegration of civilization, it's not due to oil, or energy, or anything like that.

    What's happening is called Future Shock [], a condition that occurs when the rate of change in people's lives exceeds the capacity of the human mind to accommodate.

    For the people in the third world, being rapidly brought up to speed with the rest of us, the stresses are obvious -- the world they knew is completely and totally gone.

    For us, the social stability we have grown up with is rapidly eroding, and any anchor points of stability that we have in our lives are pretty wobbly.

    The upshot to all this is that people are retreating to their most deeply held belief structures -- whether or not they have any relevance in today's world -- and adopting dug-in mindsets, ready to defend their most treasured memes at any cost.

    Civilization is fragmenting into different groups scattered along the path of exponential progress, each seeing the other groups as mortal enemies.
    All that widely available cheap energy will do is to allow people to economically produce WMD to eradicate those they consider to be infidels -- everyone not in their meme-group.

    There's no good end to all this, unless people can somehow manage to learn to surf the increasing rates of change in their lives with tolerance.

    This ability is not very common in the human genome.

The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts. -- Paul Erlich