Art Carden  

What Does Fusion Mean for the Future?

It's the economy, stupid ... A Stigler Story...

Writing at (for whom I am also a contributor), William Pentland discusses Lockheed Martin's alleged breakthroughs in fusion technology. We've heard "fusion is just around the corner!" for a very long time now, but as Tyler Cowen notes, this time oil prices are down (albeit not necessarily as a result of this).

What else should we observe if we're less than a decade away from essentially unlimited, pollution-free energy? For starters, it might be the time to sell not just oil, but also land in and bonds of oil-producing countries. If this seriously dents climate change, maybe Miami real estate will be a better long-term investment. What else?

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COMMENTS (18 to date)
PaulJC writes:

Invest in aluminum producers. Ultra-cheap electricity available anywhere means aluminum becomes cheaper than many plastics and related synthetic materials, with the additional advantage of being much more environmentally friendly.

mucgoo writes:

Miami real estate doesn't currently have a large flood risk discount. Even if fusion was 50% cheaper than coal within a decade sizable sea level rises are probably locked in. Not a good option.

Depending on how cheap large scale desalination would be viable. Coastal desert could quickly become very productive farmland. Short food prices at the same time.

mico writes:

Oil prices are not that relevant to the viability of fusion, which would be used to provide baseload electricity generation. Almost all electricity in the developed world is generated from coal, gas, and, a distant third, nuclear fission.

Nuclear fusion may, if the current projections are fulfilled, provide a non-intermittent, carbon neutral electricity source that has no meltdown risk, little radioactive contamination risk, and produces little radioactive waste, none of which would require long-term stewardship. It would do so at a price almost certainly above that of current electricity generation methods.

One problem with fusion is that current proposals are based on the use of tritium fuel, which is a rare and short-lived by-product of nuclear fission. I'm not sure there is enough tritium in the world to make this interesting, though there are other (less energetically favourable) fusion reactions possible.

Mike Buckland writes:

Peace in the Middle East.

My pet theory as to why that area is so volatile is the lack of air conditioning. It's hard to stay home in the Summer when the house is an oven. So people tend to spend lots more evenings out with friends. Air conditioning will keep people off the street and blunt the call of those rallying the faithful against the enemies.

Let 'em chill at home tonight.

Rob writes:

I take the job of pointing out the darkest consequences. Cheaper energy means humanity can build and sustain more torture prisons and factory farms. Just like longevity tech means they can make old people and imprisoned people suffer longer.

This is one thing where economics and ethics depart: Sadly, one can use growth to maximize harm. Evil getting richer means the world gets worse, not better.

Tom West writes:

I remember this discussion when cold fusion seemed like it might be real.

The answer I remember was that it would be like the Romans trying to guess what a society where where food & hunger was no longer a primary driver of *everything* would be like.

Namely, futile, except for the entertainment value of the participants.

This isn't quite as miraculous, but the need for energy is the driver of almost everything and the absence of the need would turn the world upside down.

Where cheap, safe, limitless energy is concerned, I only hope that (1) it's real and (2) the transition takes a generation so that the world doesn't self-destruct trying to adjust too quickly.

Daublin writes:

Be careful about what the actual claim is.

The first breakthrough that fusion needs is to produce net positive energy at all. That might be all that L-M is claiming, though it's hard to tell from the given links.

It is a long road from there to get cheaper than fossile fuels and fission. From there, it's an even longer road to get results that are *much* cheaper.

mike shupp writes:

Mico - Lockheed figures Lithium would make a good blanketing material for their fusion reactor. Most of its atoms have 3 neutrons and 3 protons. Hit one of these with a slow neutron produced by the deuterium-tritium reaction, and it will fission into one atom of helium (2n 2p) and one of tritium (2b 1p).

Lithium's fairly cheap, compared to tritium.

Jonathan Goff writes:

I liked a comment from a friend of mine on another forum:

"Just because it has Lockheed Martin's marketing department behind it doesn't make it more likely than the other Alt-Fusion approaches."

Basically while this is interesting, there are other promising approaches being pursued commercially as well. Check out Helion Energy for instance (I work with their parent company on some space propulsion stuff), or Tri-Alpha, or the PolyWell guys, or the Dense Plasma Focus guys. It's not clear which of these is most likely to work, but they're all making progress on much smaller budgets than the government-funded work on Tokomaks like ITER.

Whether or not this will result in near-term cheaper-than-fossil-fuel base power is an interesting question. Personally I'm fairly bullish on Helion's approach, but am glad there are also people working on cleaner fission technologies, and solar/batteries, and natural gas, etc.

But what if one of these works? First I think it'll make the industrialization of the rest of the world happen in a much more environmentally friendly way than would happen otherwise. Also, I think you'll start seeing more solutions to problems that require lots of energy. Stuff like possibly actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere, more use of metals like aluminum and titanium that are energy intensive, more electric cars and other vehicles, desalination and irrigation of parts of the world that are current very barren, etc.


mico writes:

mike shupp - Indeed without tritium breeding from lithium, this reaction would be entirely unviable and fusion research might even have been abandoned. But this only allows one to keep current reactors going and open new ones as more tritium is bred at a slow rate (doubling period in the low decades). There isn't enough tritium to start up more than a handful of reactors at the outset - so even if fusion exceeds current projections and provides much electricity at a lower cost than grid parity (as most commenters here seem to assume) it won't be an important grid component for probably centuries.

mike shupp writes:

mico - interesting point. Much depends on how many of those neutrons released by those deuterium-tritium reactions are captured by the lithium atoms in the blanket, and how many simply escape. If the capture rate is close enough to 1 for 1, then this fusion scheme might work well -- you'd be creating fuel just about as fast as you burn it. (Granted, a host of other problems might emerge, but a shortage of tritium wouldn't have to be one of them.)

OTOH, if a tritium shortage does turn out to be a problem, it's long been hypothesized that the lunar regolith is rich in hydrogen and helium isotopes deposited by the solar wind. And if that's the case, in a few more decades, we might make fusion work by "mining" our fuel on the moon. Lockheed has some business involvement with that kind of thing as well. Maybe a little too uncertain and too far out for your tastes, but you did say "centuries."

Finch writes:

> And if that's the case, in a few more decades,
> we might make fusion work by "mining" our fuel
> on the moon.

FWIW, I think most people who think that far ahead have moved on to thinking that extracting fusion fuels from the gas giants is easier and more economical than mining it on the moon, for various energetic and technology reasons. You still see moon mining mentioned a lot, but mostly as a form of moon boosterism rather than as part of a well-thought-out plan.

Normally, we just manufacture tritium in special fission reactors which emit neutrons aplenty. Wikipedia tells me we've made about 500 pounds in the US, mostly for nuclear weapons.

Long-term, I think most people want to use D+3He reactions anyway.

That said, I think Jonathan Goff had the most thoughtful comment on here and expressed the right degree of skepticism.

mico writes:

mike shupp - Again, a >1 breeding ratio is essentially a requirement for D-T fusion to be pursued at all. But this only means that the reactors will produce more tritium than they consume; it does not mean they necessarily do so quickly. The breeding ratio is in fact quite limited because it is one factor that determines how often the plant needs to be shut down for maintenance. A high breeding ratio plant would need to be shut down often to remove the tritium, which would make it unviable as a commercial electricity generator. None of this is necessarily a problem, and wouldn't be if there were a lot of tritium available relative to the amount required to start up a new plant. But there isn't. We are likely to be limited to only single digits of plants, perhaps just one, with waiting times in the decades to double this number.

You can of course set up fission reactors to produce more tritium. But then why not just set up fission reactors to produce electricity? The whole point of the fusion fuel cycle is to avoid the problems of the fission cycle while retaining its advantages.

Finch writes:

> You can of course set up fission reactors to
> produce more tritium. But then why not just set
> up fission reactors to produce electricity?

You don't need nearly as many fission reactors this way and you get more value out of their use.

William Newman writes:

Anything built around a reaction that emits neutrons isn't likely to be "pollution free" in any strong sense, at least without additional engineering so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic. The reactor will naturally be transmuting the matter around it, and it will be very difficult to prevent a noticeable proportion of the transmuted matter from being radioactive waste as opposed to useful stuff (useful stuff like whatever proportion of the tritium referred to by previous posters that might be captured as fuel instead of ending up as waste) or as opposed to nonradioactive isotopes (generated by arranging for the neutrons to be captured entirely by isotopes which are carefully chosen to transmute to nonradioactive isotopes).

If you hope for something very close to "pollution free" from foreseeable engineering improvements on known physics and materials science you probably have better chances from other routes. E.g. it wouldn't surprise me if before we have practical fusion power, we have self-replicating robots that we can send to the moon. Then let them build solar power satellites, launch them toward Earth from magnetic accelerators, and beam down the power with microwaves. Of course, if you're not on the good side of the Green coalition then you can't do that because a bird might fly through the beam or because microwaves are radiation or because you haven't been allowed to file your lunar tidal impact study, but if you achieve the kind of pull routinely developed by alternative energy lobbying technology today, maybe every roasted bird can be a sacrament glorifying Gaia and you can receive a subsidy for it.

FWIW, I think current fission reactor tech has entirely manageable technical issues with pollution (expected human impact of pollution small compared to other costs of energy production), and fusion reactors could quite possibly have significantly less radwaste per joule than fission. (Many of the fission products are unavoidably highly radioactive, and then fission reactors also have a neutron-transmutation issue very similar to fusion reactors, although the engineering tradeoffs are different.) So I'm not saying fusion reactors would be impractically bad by objective technical standards, just that they wouldn't be close enough to absolutely-no-radioactivity to avoid the current qualitative weird ritual purity politics around fission reactors and especially around radwaste disposal, and therefore even highly practical fusion reactors might well face a political stonewall for an arbitrarily long time.

mico writes:

Neutron irradiation will produce an amount of low-activated steel which would need to be kept in simple storage for about 100 years. It is a categorical difference and not just one of degree. You are quite right though there is a purely political rhetorical problem of not being able to say "completely free of nuclear waste".

Pithlord writes:

I think we can rule out the possibility that oil prices are down as a reaction to this. According to the Retuers story, LM shares fell marginally on the day of this announcement. Either markets aren't quite as efficient as we thought, or this is a longshot.

Mark Bahner writes:
You can of course set up fission reactors to produce more tritium. But then why not just set up fission reactors to produce electricity?

The U.S. and European countries could manufacture the tritium for use in fusion power plants in Iran, North Korea, or other places where the U.S. and European countries would rather not see fission reactors operating.

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