Why Fusion Power Isn’t Happening

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In 1961, Kennedy said, “Hey, Russia. We saw your Sputnik, and that was cool. But hey, guess what? We’re going to put a dude on the moon. That’s right. That moon.”

And we did. In 1969, Neil Armstrong ambulated in a way that was at once small and giant, once again proving that distance is dependent on perception–without a doubt the most important discovery of the Apollo missions.

So that’s why things like this are really frustrating. Why is it that this so complicated? I would really like it if someone could explain to me why it takes fifteen years to build a nuclear reactor, when Wal-Mart can throw up a store in seven weeks? Is it a question of money? They’ve got the design already. What is it that costs so much?

We used to be able to set a goal and meet it. What went wrong? Is it a matter of money? Motivation? Are we simply not smart enough?

What is this barrier that’s preventing us from cranking out a working tokamak in six months? The design and the technology exist today. If it’s a problem of motivation, perhaps it’s that we don’t have anybody with a forceful enough personality to come out and say, “Here’s how shit’s going down, so listen up.” We need an Alexander. We need a Genghis. We need a freaking Kennedy. And none of the old, red-faced, boring Kennedys. We need the young Kennedy who told us we could land on the moon. Nuclear fusion should be a walk in the park by comparison. I had high hopes for Obama. I’m not seeing the results that I want, but I haven’t given up on him. Yet.

We know that there’s an astonishing amount of money locked up in hydrogen. The math is solid and so is the physics. It’s a given. It’s clean energy. It solves almost all of the energy problems that currently plague us. It’s as abundant as stray cats in Rome.

The deputy director of the project says, “you really need to know whether the major components work. It’s absolutely clear that this is the right approach.” I’m not so sure. But I can see a couple of different perspectives.

It’s entirely likely that this is a situation where we have too many hands in the pot. It’s great to see an international project that brings people together into a unified goal. But when that goal is just a huge, inefficient money sink, then it’s not serving anyone’s needs. My problem is the fact that this is actually something that we need. This needs to happen or we’re all screwed. Fifteen years is too long to wait for a solution to our budding energy crisis. We need it like yesterday.

Maybe it wasn’t Kennedy that was our motivator. Maybe it was the Russians. It was a threat that the Russians were going to beat us to the moon that really kicked the space race into high gear. What we need is the new millennium’s Russia. Terrorism is obviously not it because they’re not strong enough, not pervasive enough, and nobody really takes them seriously. There’s no palpable fear. We need a threat the size of Russia during the Cold War to drive us toward what we’re actually capable of. Alien invasion, maybe?

Perhaps the guy is right. Maybe the fusion project actually is too big to complete without the kind of bureaucratic machine behind this one. If that’s the case, then I have my doubts about whether we’re capable of such a feat. I mean, look at the Large Hadron Collider. It was proposed and approved in 1995. Fourteen years ago, we decided to build it. That means that it was theoretically possible for us to build it fifteen years ago. This means that technology has not improved in that time. It was beset by problems and delays and other nonsense and despite the fact that it was successfully activated, it broke pretty much right away.

If we extrapolate that out, assume that the same level of ineptitude is likely to plague this fusion project, there’s very little hope that this thing will be operational until 2050, far too late to solve any of our energy problems.

Our only option, as far as I can see, is to not hold our breaths on this one. Our current attitude toward goal-setting is pretty loose. In the 60’s we set goals and we met them. We don’t really do that so much anymore. Multiple sources of energy are going to be needed to fill the gaping hole left when oil prices get too high. Solar, wind, and possibly good old fashioned nuclear fission. Fusion is probably going to remain a pipe dream for some time yet.

Bummer.

You anti-Matter

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The word for the day is bureaucracy. NASA is in the final stages of assembling the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. Part of the machine’s purpose is to search for evidence of the existence of anti-matter by reading the cosmic rays. Since not all rays on planet Earth are, by their nature, cosmic, the gadget needs to be mounted on the International Space Station, sort of like a satellite dish bolted to the top of a mobile home. Sort of high-tech white trashy.

The problem with this whole thing? Despite the fact that they are almost done building this thing, there’s no guarantee that it will launch. You see, we only actually have three space shuttles. That’s right. Three. Five were built. Two blew up. The nature of science is such that most projects take a very long time to complete. So this spectrometer project has been going on for a while, but when Columbia disintegrated in 2003, they had to alter the launch schedule. I mean, we have been pushing these ships to the limit. It’s a tough job. They are old! Older than my crappy Beretta and that thing is on its last legs. With only three space-worthy shuttles, that puts the US in a pretty awkward position. The entire world depends on our shuttle program, and the entire fleet (such as it is) is going to be retired next year. It’s pretty sad, honestly. So they finish building the spectrometer and hope that they can launch it.

Part of the AMS’s mission is the search for evidence of anti-matter. And, as anyone who has read a Dan Brown novel knows, anti-matter is pretty tricky stuff. It’s exactly like normal matter except that if it comes into contact with normal matter, both substances “annihilate” which is, they cease to be matter and are transformed into pure energy, mostly in the form of heat. In layman’s terms: big freaking explosion. Pretty cool, huh? The question is, since our galaxy is made of normal matter, is it possible that there are entire galaxies, solar systems, planets, or even intelligent life forms made entirely of anti-matter? It sounds like a plot from a bad comic book, but the fact remains that it’s entirely possible. The crazy of it is, that we could never actually meet these beings because if we tried to shake hands, we would blow each other straight to oblivion.

How much energy is released in one of these explosions? Remember the famous equation, E=mc2. You take the mass of the two beings–one made of normal matter, the other, of the anti-variety–and add them together. Probably 180kg, assuming they are about the same size as we. You know, it doesn’t matter, because no matter how much mass they are, you end up multiplying it by c2. What does c stand for? The fucking speed of light. That’s right. And you square it, which means that an incredibly huge amount of energy is locked up in matter. But we all knew that, right?

Wouldn’t it be ironic if NASA never got the funding to launch this machine, so we never discovered whether or not there were anti-matter galaxies, and then, say, a few years from now, some amazing energy source is found that allows us to travel between galaxies, and, wouldn’t you know it, the first galaxy that we travel to is made entirely of anti-matter? It could happen, people. It could happen, and won’t we all feel like dorks for not giving NASA their measly two billion dollars?

In other news, soon, the internet will be able to answer all of your questions. Finally! I’m so sick of the internet being totally useless. At long last, I never have to wade through google and wikipedia to find just about any information I could possibly hope for. I jest, of course, this thing looks totally keen.

Last but not least, since I’m a little strapped for time, let’s see if I can toss two stories into one sentence. Soon, you’ll be able to use your brand new, silicon invisibility cloak to avoid spiders that want to inject sperm into you with hypodermic penises. That is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen.

Discuss.