Friday, January 14, 2005

More Atomic Energy News

I've never been a big fan of France the collective, though I have worked with some very nice French folk over the years. One of my former employers, in fact, was a French concern, and to the extent they left us alone, it was a very pleasant place to work indeed. But I digress. I link today to this story indicating the French are pressing on with more nuclear research and power plant designs, bucking the prevailing anti-nuclear headwinds so prominent elsewhere in Europe. Well: good for them, I say. Somebody needs to do it, and Germany, which has ill-advisedly fallen into the clutches of a red-green plan to decommission its nuclear powerplants, finds itself importing electricity from France -- who generates 80% of its power from the atom. So Green claims that Germany is turning toward renewable is largely based on a sham.

Meantime, if you're a German wondering where the lights went, you're likely not alone. Even with heavy subsidy, renewables have their limits, and when the wind stops blowing, something has to take up the slack. That something, apparently, is coal, and now there's talk of restoring coal mining in the Ruhr Valley and firing up coal-burning power plants, an unintended consequence the Greens surely haven't given adequate thought to.

But: back to France. France has the distinction -- dubious though it unfortunately is -- of hosting the largest breeder reactor in the world, the Superphénix. The point of such reactors is to create more fuel -- various isotopes of plutonium, mainly. Doing so would vastly prolong our ability to generate electricity by nuclear means. But, plagued by delays, mishaps, high operating costs, and environmental litigation (which no doubt contributed to the high operational costs), the Superphénix was shut down in 1997.

The U.S. long ago banned reprocessed nuclear fuel, which essentially killed breeder reactor programs in the U.S. Prior to the September 11th attacks, President Bush came out in favor of reprocessing nuclear fuel. The Japanese have built a reprocessing plant at Rokkashomura, Aomori Prefecture, which they hope to have online by 2006.

Despite the troubles in nuclear fission, work proceeds, albeit slowly, in the realm of fusion. First, MIT and Columbia University have started work and reported initial results from a new reactor called the Levitated Dipole Experiment, or LDX for short. A lengthier summary is available at Wired, the relevant parts being
After many years of developing theories and calculations and culling $10 million from the Department of Energy, the LDX was turned on in August. In the first round of experiments, the device generated magnetic pressure that was 14 times greater than the plasma pressure. The plasma pressure isn't high enough to produce fusion energy, but if the scientists could figure out a way to bring the plasma pressure and the magnetic pressure closer together, fusion could be the next step, [Columbia professor Michael] Mauel said.

They won't actually create fusion energy in the experiments because the plasma won't be dense enough, Mauel said. Rather, scientists are trying to learn more about the workings of plasma in magnetospheres, and depending on those results, fusion could be the next step.

If researchers' theories hold up, in about 30 years plasma might be a viable source for creating fusion energy, Mauel said -- despite a running joke in the business that the goal has always been 30 years away.

Thirty! Good grief. I sometimes wonder if these guys are on the same page as the rest of us.
One kind of fusion I didn't discuss in my earlier fusion roundup is sonocavitation fusion, more popularly known as bubble fusion. The idea is that sonic waves in a fluid can create collapsing bubbles with sufficient energy to create localized fusion reactions. Rusi P. Taleyarkhan published early work in Science claiming he found fusion from a solution of deuterated acetone. This met with a great deal of skepticism, when subsequent work at Oak Ridge National Laboratories refuted the claims, saying the neutrons released were consistent with conincidence. In 2004, Taleyarkhan ran another series of experiments using better detection equipment, and claimed again to have detected fusion under more stringent conditions.

Yet the scientific doubt doesn't seem to be stopping the discoverers -- whether that's what they should be called or not -- of this phenominon. They have founded a new company to exploit the energy they get from this -- whatever that might be. Already, other companies -- Impulse Devices, in particular -- are selling commercial sonofusion reactors -- only $250,000 each! What a deal! Now if we could only get the thing to work...

Update: a much, much fuller history of sonofusion can be found here.