2009 Energy and Fuel News of Note For 2010 Part 2

Part two is a look at emerging technologies with fusion forefront.  Without any doubt the Holy Grail, planetary savior, or nirvana is likely fusion.  Following close on would be the dark horses such as Randell Mills’ BlackLight hydrino technology.

Fusion outside of the multinational ITER project using the old tokamak idea to confine the fuel has had a banner year.  When it comes to fusion events its hard to tell who had burned the most fuel or who fused the most atoms, but a certainty is in hand, Bussard Fusion and Lerner Fusion are both able to fuse on demand with Rostoker’s secret privately funded concept still under wraps and the Canadian’s General Fusion team building a machine to physically hammer fusion.  The path to fusion breakeven has gotten much, much wider.  2009 marked a good year for funding and is already paying off.

At the other end of the spectrum are the cold fusion derivatives.  While cold fusion is still a nasty for some, it’s been a generation since the fiasco that started with Fleischmann & Pons.  But credit is due to the pair, the fusion events are coming faster, stronger and more reliably than ever, they will be seen as triggering a seminal event.  The public relations disaster needs gotten over with, and the research needs supported with quality and quantity of attention and funding.  Something that releases energy is going on, the inputs are minimal for the output, and the available heat needs harnessing.   The physics believers are getting steamrolled by the leaders; cold fusion is real and won’t be going away.  The embarrassments to come are going to be humiliating.  Fingers are already getting sharpened up for the pointing.  Meanwhile the chemistry crowd has the bit in its teeth and may have working units before the physics people can grow up enough to explain it.

In the same way physics is overlooking or dissing Randell Mills’ BlackLight.  Dr. Mills is busily gathering third party confirmations, signing customers and pressing on with the designs and building of ever-larger units for testing and construction.  The question is, obviously, scale. How big can it get?  Another question could be how small can it get?  Assuming the technology works, which is less and less of a concern, Dr. Mills has something historical.  Should working units start delivery or construction, the event will be worth being alive to see.  There could be a price war to the bottom for generating electricity someday and that someday might be sooner than one might think.

Bio engineering and innovative chemistry are making great strides for bio-based fuels.  Even the centuries old technology of brewing alcohol is getting attention.  Yields and efficiencies are making news.  For portable liquid fuels the future for consumers looks bright.

The ethanol industry has had a banner year.  While the oil price run up in 2008 set up some producers for going broke, the new owners have gotten facilities at bargain basement prices.  No note of any plants closing permanently has passed this screen, instead the news of ever increasing sophistication in efficiency streams by.  Both corn and sugar cane are on a roll.  And much to the chagrin of the ‘sky is going to fall’ food vs. fuel crowd there were no shortages of food or even noticeable price increases – rather U.S. taxpayers are finally off the hook for the multi tens of billions of dollars in subsidies paid over decades for corn production.  Corn and other raw feedstocks have always followed the price of oil, and for the years to come it will be that way – ethanol or not.  What to look forward to is the change over where the price of oil follows the biomass price.  That’s the turning point.  It’s coming as sure as another sunrise.

The most engaging, interesting and high potential field is in bioengineering.  This writer is hoping that 2010 will see the announcement of a fully designed and engineered organism with attributes of bacteria and fungi or however the ideal biomass to fuel precursor is built.  Imagine you are an R&D executive at a major independent oil company, the handwriting is on the wall, hydrocarbons are very easy to make, it’s the productivity and processes that human intelligence has to master.  There is no surprise then that Exxon-Mobil has put $600 million on the table.  More is sure to follow from others.  Yields and efficiencies are just setting up at the starting gate.

Liquid fuels are humanities’ favorite energy storage – so far.  The electrical storage research field is the single most exciting research business for 2009.  We saw air battery technologies in both zinc and lithium metals gain traction and fast funding opportunities.  Consortiums have formed, the most notable one led by IBM.  Chemical electron storage research has just hit the fast lane for batteries.

The capacitor arena seems dominated by Eestor and their still ‘secret’ capacitor.  This firm is another ‘doubt is passing by’ technology.  At the scale of investors, executives and signed non-disclosure parties in on the developments, there is something huge going on there.  There are competitive answers too.  Carbon capacitors at very low price points can get to market if the funding gets to the innovators.  Should Eestor come out functioning the investment money should flow heavily.  Cheap electron storage is the salvation for all intermittent power production. There’s getting to be an awful lot of investment in intermittent power production and should a really disruptive technology such as BlackLight go to market whole industries will be headed for dire straights with a need for storage.

That’s the good stuff, now for the worst of the bad.  The limitation on humanities’ creativity is the capacity of the individual mind for imagination.  Societies that seed and nurture those minds are going to lead, prosper and grow pulling the whole of the world along.  The U.S. has had the leadership for generations.  But somehow the electorate chose an administration that has an ideology that puts the consensus of decisions in the government’s hands.  2009 could not have been a more clear demonstration.  A year has been lost to the attempt, which astonishingly looks like it will succeed, to seize one seventh of the national economy moving a huge share of the freely chosen individual decisions into bureaucratic hands.  Choice and self-determination is being replaced by law, regulations, bureaucrats and documentation requiring individual compliance.  No more destructive social choice could do more harm to so many individuals.

This is a demonstration of the central control danger to human progress.  Entrenchment, either from a political agenda seeking power and rents, or the idea in science from the past denying new ideas be they a fact, a fiction or a sham, or an industry rich in influence closing opportunity to better ways or just plain ol’ human intransigence – the past year is a warning.  The U.S. is showing its age, fearfulness and corruption.

The worry should go across the entire energy and fuel territory from investors, lenders and management to workers, consumers and ultimately the researcher, innovator and creative minds in every field of endeavor.

Wealth creation and capital formation are the engines of prosperity. They can exist only when risks offer great rewards.  Centralizing power, in any industry, is a cold shower warning of a drowning.  Wealth will move to safety when threatened and the U.S. electorate has just threatened itself with dire results likely on the way.

2010 doesn’t hold quite the promise of 2009.  The profits are smaller, the government has changed priorities, and risks seem larger compared to the rewards.  Maybe it’s just a recession without leadership answers that make much sense.  But the seeding for 2009s results were in the past years, 2010 will be in part the choices made in 2009.  And the seeding rate is sinking.

Post written by: New Energy and Fuel

Bussard Fusion (IEC) Progress Is Accelerating

The University of Wisconsin hosted the 11th US-Japan Workshop on Inertial Electrostatic Confinement Fusion on October 12th and 13th in Madison Wisconsin. Over the two days some 28 presenters covered the activities, progress and plans spread over the eight U.S., Japanese and Australian leading Inertial Electrostatic Fusion (IEC) research universities.  Plus Los Alamos National Lab was there, presenting as well and shared participation from Lawrenceville Plasmas Physics, Kurita Manufacturing, and a presentation by Phoenix Nuclear Labs.  IEC is being researched much more thoroughly than one might suspect.

Polywell Illuminated Graphic.

The participant name most familiar to us in the energy field is Richard Nebel of EMC2, the firm of the late Dr. Robert Bussard.  Mr. Nebel chaired a session on day one as well as prepared a summary. As the leader of the leading power production research firm, Mr. Nebel would be needed there as well to learn what’s going on outside of power research and see what be applicable.

The interesting points found across the 28 presentations are the depth of understanding unfolding across the research field.  The issues for this point in time seem to focus on the materials used in the various IEC designs, the effects of the temperature both in the physics, the engineering choices and materials, and the progress to goals spread across the IEC’s potential.

It’s the applications outside of power generation that amaze, space thrusters, neutron sources with transmutation doping, forming beams, plus low energy nuclear reactions, isotope separation, transmutation, and helium implantation.  All that plus power production are on the table now.  The field is getting richer every year.

There is also the learning path exposing new resources, problems and solution ideas.  There are such concepts as finding ways for using the negative ion production, the extended validation of the early Hirsch work, new fast ions, new takes on atomic physics, issues of special fusion distribution and the matter of microchannel formation.  All these plus experimentation for electricity gathering are out in view now. Of note is University of Wisconsin research is already looking into the impacts of 3He on materials that will get to solving the matter of intensely energetic 3He unloading power into the proposed mechanisms for extracting the electrical power.

The eight universities include the University of Wisconsin with 10 presentation credits, the University of Sydney with 4 credits, the University of Kyoto with 3, the University of Illinois with 2, Kasai University with 2, Tokyo Institute of Technology with 2, and one each from the University of Maryland and the University of Missouri.  It seems the field is attracting more programs.  Of greater significance is that the breadth and depth of IEC is going to both put at ease concerns about the significance of IEC as well as more strongly motivate research funding.

One might think the physics matters are worked out.  In the main that’s so, but detractors, amazingly remain.  Fusion in IEC is widespread now, with the University of Wisconsin operating no less that 4 different kinds of fusors.  Across the U.S, Japan and Australia IEC fusion might have more fusion events per year than any other form of fusion, probably far more.  That might be enough to unsettle other method’s research participants.

The tokamak field is operating to a much less successful extent and falling behind in making progress very fast indeed.  It must be unnerving, when it comes to competition for funding; IEC has a successful story with gaining progress across several fields to measure against ever more funds and more time extensions for progress by tokamak supporters.  Previous funders who missed early opportunities must be chagrined as well.  The arena in which IEC is seen is changing for the better, and very deservingly so.

For those interested primarily in energy release and production from fusion the pickings in the workshop presentation list seem thin.  It may be simply that the leader is funded and restrained by the terms about the release of information.  But the presence of Mr. Nebel is comforting.  Nebel is likely seen as the leading authority about the Bussard theories and being there for the small discussions, making some part of the allowed knowledge and insight available privately one hopes, should help move others along.

The reverse is true as well.  The wealth of experimental results, the insights and questions of the hundreds of people now involved needs a forum for getting that know how spread about.  Hundreds of minds and perspectives are better than a few or one, and the relationships such workshops seed are immeasurably valuable. What Nebel took and shared is unknown, as it should be, and Nebel may well have new insights to take home as well.

For those of us outside, a review of the Nebel Summary and a look through the presentations is worthwhile. This writer read them all and came away with a much better sense of what’s going on along side the power production effort.  What stands as obvious is the field is growing in sophistication, the certainty that commercial results is growing, there is a wealth of different targets, and that much of the work is going to impact across the whole field.  This point in time for IEC is the very most exciting, the physics work concluding, the research into the potential is beginning, the problems as they surface are being addressed and seem to be other opportunities as well.

All this points to IEC as being a sharp and pointed edge of the blade into the future.  What comes of it is getting more certain.  Hundred of minds are concentrated now, and hundreds more if not thousands will be over the coming years.  It’s invention stage passing proving, launching into exploration and soon innovations and more developments.  This is without doubt, the most exciting field in science today.  I just wish Dr. Bussard were here to see it for himself.

Post written by: New Energy and Fuel

New Life for the Old Tokamak

From two different places the old tokamak confinement method has gotten a new lease on life.  Well, its life is set by the ITER effort paid for by governments across the planet with tens of billions of dollars.  It might make one cringe or celebrate, depending on one’s view towards the basic tokamak concept to confine plasma to yield fusion.

The bigger news maker comes out of Italy at the RFX-mod Reversed Field Pinch (RFP) fusion device located in Padova, Italy.

Reversed Field Pinch Device. .

Reversed Field Pinch Device. .

To explain, if you twist up a string or rubber band at some point it starts to kink into knots in a disorganized way.  The image is akin to what’s going on inside a tokamak with the whirling plasma inside the tokamak’s donut.  The phenomenon concerns scientists exploring fusion power, who use powerful magnetic fields inside tokamaks and stellarators to confine plasma during their experiments.

A discovery made in the RFP fusion device demonstrated that when increasing the current above 1.5 million amperes, the helix becomes very smooth, the trapping of the plasma in the magnetic fields improves and the plasma gets hotter. Moreover, the helical state appears to be the preferred one at high current and is spontaneously chosen, or self-organized, by the plasma.

Past RFP experiments suffered from poor stability, which reduced confinement performance due to magnetic turbulence (those knots in the string). But as a result of increased order in the self-organized helical state, magnetic confinement improves and a broad zone of the plasma becomes hot. This renews the fusion prospects of the RFP device, a magnetic confinement configuration germane to the tokamak, which uses a magnetic torus for plasma confinement, because a current flows in the plasma doughnut, and to the stellarators, which uses a magnetic helix, because the plasma takes on a helical shape.

Now here’s the kicker, most of the RPF’s magnetic field is produced by the current flowing in the plasma. (They’re not saying how.) This eliminates many of the costs and technical difficulties associated with producing strong magnetic fields using high-tech superconducting coils, such as those used in pure tokamak and stellarator fusion containment designs. The helical shape of the plasma comes with an additional bonus: the current lines are also helical. This greatly increases the length of the electrical circuit with respect to the tokamak. This could make reaching thermonuclear temperatures possible with only the electric power dissipated in the plasma. In principle, no additional heating is necessary, an additional positive economic and technical feature.

The RPF’s issue is to stay relevant for fusion as its been studied for decades already.  The Italian team is going to try to increase the density and improve the shape of the helix.  The hope is progress in magnetic control; a further increase of plasma current, and use of modern wall-conditioning techniques might accomplish this.  We’ll see.

Meanwhile at the DIII-D National Fusion Facility in San Diego CA, scientists are confirming long-standing theoretical predictions that performance, efficiency and reliability are simultaneously obtained in tokamaks.  The facility is run by General Atomics and the experiments designed to test these predictions have successfully demonstrated the interaction of these conditions.

DIII Tokamak

DIII Tokamak

These new findings were presented at the American Physical Society — Division of Plasma Physics 51st annual meeting.

The GA team using a laboratory tokamak, where power performance is determined by the temperature and density achieved by plasma, an ionized gas formed when hydrogen isotopes are heated to temperatures of over 10 million degrees Celsius. A key element of recent experiments is the confirmation of theoretical predictions that one can rely on the walls of the tokamak chamber to improve plasma stability at high pressure. Once plasma becomes sufficiently hot and dense, fusion occurs, producing large quantities of high-energy helium ions (known as alpha particles). For optimal efficiency, this self-generated heat must be well contained within the tokamak’s “magnetic bottle.”  Computer models have predicted that the heat loss from the tokamak due to turbulence is quite sensitive to the exact details of the magnetic field configurations.

DIII Tokamak Unique Diagnostic Ensemble.  Click image for the General Dynamics page about the photo.

DIII Tokamak Unique Diagnostic Ensemble. Click image for the General Dynamics page about the photo.

The news is the GA team recently found that turbulence is minimized in the same configuration necessary for achieving the highest pressures. Therefore, performance and efficiency can be synergistic.  It just seems so conveniently odd.

Those knots in the string apply here as well, turbulent eddies in the plasma can also affect plasma heating by high-energy helium nuclei formed by the fusion of hydrogen atoms. Recent theoretical work suggests that these energetic particles not only “feel” turbulence differently, but can also stir up large eddies of their own. While these fine-scale turbulent eddies are predicted to cause negligibly small transport of energetic alpha particles, the new large eddies can increase this transport substantially. As the alpha particles cool, their transport becomes similar to the background level. Note this is theoretical work, not experimental results.

But the recent work has shown that tokamak plasmas can be induced to exhibit the following relationships: higher pressure => more self-generated electrical currents that help control the plasma => less reliance on external controls => longer pulse (including potentially steady-state) operation => higher reliability.

The news release made Science Daily, ending with a little promotional commentary, “After decades of effort to improve the behavior and output of fusion plasmas, scientists are discovering that nature may actually be so kind as to simultaneously allow high performance (lots of electricity!), optimal efficiency (affordable!), and high reliability (the electrical outlet will always work!) in the design of future power plants.”

All three of these, the RPF Pinch, Tokamaks and Stellarators are old ideas.  Maybe they have all hit on something, in the short version, “turn up the power” so that they can find an economical means to exist.  The history isn’t encouraging to date.  Untold billions of dollars have already gone into these efforts with little to show but decades more to go and more tens of billions of dollars.  It would be gratifying if these three or Bussard fusion, Lerner fusion or the other ideas would finally get to power production and on to net power.

Outside of the old three, the innovators have made great progress for mere fractions of a penny in comparable investment.

One wonders, those knots in the string image might be better understood and exploited than theoretically determined to be a problem in search of solutions.  A little creative innovation might go a long way in this part of the fusion field.

There are surely lots of fusion ideas working.  Which one will finally work?

Post written by: New Energy and Fuel

The Strongest Magnet Attempt

The National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee Florida has been awarded nearly $3 million to build a novel kind of superconducting magnet that’s expected to break records for magnetic field strength, make possible new types of science and save vast amounts of energy and money.  Of interest is the technologies that could benefit from improved magnetic fields such as the Bussard Fusion team.

The magnet is funded by a National Science Foundation grant of $2 million and a matching award from The Florida State University of $1 million.  The goal is to generate a magnetic field of 32 Tesla, the scientific unit of measure of magnetic field strength. The National High magnetic Field Lab press release says, “That is more than 3,000 times stronger than a typical refrigerator magnet, and about 45 percent more powerful than the strongest superconducting magnets available today.”

Brian Wang’s NextBigFuture site offers these applications:

  • Better quantum oscillation measurements
  • Hopefully advanced the understanding of superconductivity physics
  • Should lead to even better superconducting magnets and hopefully breakthroughs in understanding that lead to room temperature superconductors.
  • It will allow more detailed investigation of other superconducting materials
  • It will provide low cost permanent high field magnets instead of pulsing to this field strength or using resistive magnets that are expensive to get up to high field strength.

This is just the tip of the scientific iceberg. The material that will be used for this magnet, a type of high-temperature superconductor called yttrium barium copper oxide, or YBCO, promises to revolutionize research in high magnetic fields.

NHMFL 32 Tesla Diagram. .

NHMFL 32 Tesla Diagram. .

Non-superconducting electromagnets, called resistive magnets, consume massive amounts of electricity. At the magnet lab, the average cost to run a resistive magnet is $774 per hour – 40 times more than a 20-tesla superconducting magnet.  A current example is superconducting magnets have been powering hospital MRI machines for decades at about 1 to 3 tesla, and are commonly used in other high-field research. They are valuable in part because they are made with special superconducting materials that conduct electricity without any friction, and therefore use very little electricity.

Opposite to that are the downsides to superconducting magnets in that the materials they are built with work only at temperatures so low that expensive cryogens, such as liquid helium, are needed to operate them. Also, traditional superconducting materials stop working inside a magnetic field above about 23 tesla, so resistive magnets have always been able to outperform them.

NHMFL 32 Tesla Superconducting Coil. .

NHMFL 32 Tesla Superconducting Coil. .

But YBCO oversteps both these hurdles. It belongs to a class known as high-temperature superconductors. These materials perform at much higher temperatures than their “low-temperature” cousins, making them more practical and cheaper to operate – and they continue to operate beyond the point at which low-temperature superconductors cease working.

YBCO has another huge benefit: Superconducting magnets create more stable magnetic fields than resistive magnets, which produce better data for scientists. All of this means the 32-tesla project will be the first of a whole new generation of powerful, low-cost superconducting magnets.

William Denis Markiewicz, principal investigator on the project says, “The objective is to develop and demonstrate the technology that can be used in magnets that will eventually replace the resistive magnets in our facility.  The advantages that will follow include lower operating costs and quieter field conditions for the scientist.”  Markiewicz isa veteran engineer at the lab whose design achievements include the lab’s world-record 900 megahertz, ultra-wide-bore superconducting magnet.”

Stephen Julian, a University of Toronto physicist who sits on the magnet lab’s External Advisory Board and is a co-principal investigator on the grant said, “To have 32 tesla, at such high quality, for such a bargain price will be nothing less than a boon for physics.  This magnet opens up new possibilities for measurements that we have previously only dreamed of. With these new magnets, researchers will be able to stay at these very high magnetic fields for as long as they like. This will dramatically increase the quality of data for many measurements. We can look forward to breakthroughs in biomedical magnetic resonance imaging, studies of protein structure, semiconductor physics and the physics of metals.”

The project is already making connections. David Larbalestier, chief materials scientist at the lab and the other co-principal investigator on the grant whose primary interest is the high temperature superconductors, expects the new magnet will advance superconductor research.

The research team expects to get the magnet built and running in the Fall of 2012.  They’re going to use about 5 miles of the YBCO wire, some 8 kilometers.  One can fairly expect the project will yield a high quality magnet at a field uniformity of 5