Taking on the Giants: Skunk Works Aims for Commercial, Compact Fusion Reactor Within Ten Years

Ever since major industrialized nations learned how to fuse atoms in megabombs able to blast scores of square miles to smithereens, the quest has been on to harness the vast potential energy store that is nuclear fusion as a viable means to peacefully fuel modern civilization.

Unlike fission, which involves the splitting of atomic nuclei, fusion both produces more energy while generating no radio-active waste. The primary fuel — H2 — is abundant and non-radioactive. Because conventional fusion reactors involve containment fields that force these non-radioactive elements together, they do not operate under dangerous conditions similar to nuclear fission reactors. The fusion reaction bi-products are also common, non-polluting elements together with a heat source used for mechanical work.

Fusion reactors aren’t vulnerable to the same kinds of terrible melt-downs seen at Fukushima and Chernobyl. And the energy density of the fusion reaction itself is extraordinary, producing a potential for very high energy returns on energy invested.

A world where an energy source of this quality is compact, economic, and widely available, is one within reach of a progression of advances and wonders. A human civilization with a growing capability to solve emerging problems involving a number of difficult limits.

The Quest for Viable Hot Fusion

As such, viable fusion is seen as a kind of holy grail energy source. And ever since the 1950s, engineers have been pursuing technical and cost effective means to harness it. For part of the problem in harnessing fusion was the highly energetic nature of the energy source itself.

To contain massive, hot, fusion reactions, magnetic plasma bottles were needed. Doughnut-shaped containment fields engineered to trap substances as hot as a sun. And the magnetic bottles themselves were energy-hungry beasts requiring major investment in infrastructure and materials.

The reactor facilities necessary to produce such high-energy bottles were massive, involving megawatts of energy for the magnetic fields that would contain the super-hot fusion reaction and its resultant plasmas. Such tokamak fields were very expensive to erect and maintain.

Tokamak_fields_lg

(Tokamak fusion reaction containment field. Image source: Commons.)

In most cases, more energy was needed to keep the fusion reaction in check than could be gleaned from the reaction overall. But slow and steady advances continued — primarily aimed at building a large enough containment vessel to glean a useful return on the energy dumped into the tokamak fields.

As the massive tokamak projects entered the 21st Century, a coalition of countries including the EU, the US, Russia and China, pooled efforts to construct the 23,000 ton ITER project. At a cost of $50 billion dollars US and growing, the project aims to provide a 10 to 1 energy return on energy invested by converting 50 megawatts of containment field energy into 500 megawatts of commercial energy. Such provision of a viable fusion energy store would, indeed, be a breakthrough and likely result in spin-off reactor technology if such offerings could be reproduced at relatively low-cost.

ITER plans to begin testing in 2020 and hopes to be online and producing energy by 2027.

It is worth noting, though, that the massive size and cost of projects like ITER serve to limit the likelihood that fusion energy will become commercially viable on any time horizon sooner than 20 years even if the energy production efforts are successful (although, one can well compare the 50 billion over decades cost of ITER with the $650 billion or greater annual cost of current ongoing oil and gas exploration).

Unexplained Experimental Results

For much of the mainstream scientific community, the large fusion plasma containment field projects like ITER serve as the only hope for a viable fusion energy source. But ever since the late 1980s, an underground science has developed around what was, at first, called cold fusion.

This fringe field emerged onto the world stage as an off-spring of work conducted and announced by Pons and Fleischmann in 1989. The two scientists provided reports observing a positive energy fusion reaction of deuterium occurring at low temperature in the presence of a relatively low-energy electrical current and a catalyst (palladium).

It was also a continuation of previous work by Graham, Paneth, Peters, and Tandberg during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Most notably, Tandberg stated in 1927 that he had fused hydrogen into helium in an electrolytic cell with palladium electrodes. Ironically, this work was mostly unknown to Pons and Fleischmann at the time of their announcement.

Pons and Fleischmann’s paper rocked the scientific community — triggering an article about the researchers in Time Magazine and Congressional inquiries together with speculation that a dawn of a new energy era was at hand. Much of this speculation was fueled by the researchers, who provided extraordinary claims about the usefulness of the energy source they discovered.

But the Pons and Fleischmann experiment was a sketchy subject for observational proofs. For like Tandberg, who had a patent based on his experiment rejected on the notion that ‘he could not explain the physical process,’ Pons and Fleischmann found resistance due to the fact that their observations would upend most of what was currently understood about atomic physics — chiefly that it should take a massive amount of energy to fuse atomic particles.

Even more bedeviling, the experiment was difficult to reproduce. Sometimes, the positive heat energy reaction that Pons and Fleischmann reported was observed and sometimes it was not. This inconsistency continued to fuel doubt in the validity of this line of research.

Even worse, there was very little in the way of sound scientific theory that could explain what was actually going on inside the reaction chamber to produce the observed heat. Conventional atomic science couldn’t produce a mechanism for such a reaction. And so the observations hinged on convincing the gate keepers of conventional science that a loop-hole existed in atomic fusion theory. A rather high bar to cross.

Since no current accepted and peer-reviewed theory could explain the cold fusion reaction to make it viable, this lead to researchers in the field fighting off the label of ‘scientific pariah.’

Nonetheless, work continued on so-called cold fusion (now often labeled low energy nuclear reactions or LENR) at a number of government and commercial laboratories around the world. Japan, Italy, France, Israel, and the US all continued to conduct validation and observation experiments related to Pons and Fleischmann’s efforts. And a variety of commercial efforts also emerged — with some producing rather extraordinary but, as yet, still disputed claims.

Last year, a team of scientists produced an observational study of a controversial generator called the E-Cat which claimed to use LENR technology to produce excess energy. The study validated the claim, but, as with most LENR work, has received broad criticism.  A second potential paper, produced by the same authors, was listed on a blog earlier this month. The draft has yet to appear in any of the major scientific libraries.

Lockheed Martin’s Compact Fusion

LOCKHEED-FUSION_300

(Lockheed Martin working on experimental fusion design. Image source: Lockheed Martin.)

Until recently, commercial agencies working to develop fusion as a viable energy technology have split into two camps — the large corporations which have chiefly funded experimental efforts, and the small corporations like Rossi Energy which have been promising, but failing to deliver, viable LENR generators for the past few years.

Now, as of last week, Lockheed Martin has entered the fray by making an announcement that it aims to produce a commercially viable small fusion reactor within the next ten years.

Spear-headed by Skunk Works — the same group that produced the first stealth bomber and a number of other breakthrough technologies — the effort aims to have an experimental reactor off the ground within 5 years, military capable technology for ships, vehicles and aircraft within 10 years, and non-government/military reactors within less than 20 years.

The Lockheed Martin reactors are planned to be compact — small enough to fit in an 18 wheeler truck bed. These compact designs would produce a relatively large amount of energy — about 100 MW. Such a design could power a moderate sized city, allow an aircraft to fly indefinitely, be used to power larger vehicles, and serve as an energy source for ocean-going vessels. Such a small design would be less costly, more useful, and more easy to rapidly test, develop, and deploy.

Fusion-Graphic Magnetic Mirrors

(Lockheed Martin’s fusion reactor desing uses a layered plasma containment approach. Image source: Cosmos. Image credit: Anton Banulski.)

The key to Lockheed Martin’s smaller design is the creative use of older containment technologies. According to reports from lead Lockheed Martin scientists, the Skunk Works team is using a technique that involves a cusp confinement method — which uses ring-shaped electromagnets to contain the fusion plasma. The electromagnets generate a field that bulges in the middle. Magnetism pushes the fusion particles together. The further away from the fusion medium the particles stray, the greater the magnetic force pushing them back in.

In the 1970s, cusp confinement was found to be too leaky to produce a fusion reaction. Martin’s solution is to surround the cusp field with a second magnetic mirroring field — also a somewhat leaky field. However, another innovation by Lockheed Martin is to shunt escaped particles back into containment using a third field layer.

According to the, now anecdotal, reports from the initial research team, the experimental design features a viable  fusion containment field using only 1 kilowatt of power. A claim that, if it bears out, could put this new design onto the cutting edge for fusion development, but would require quite a bit more testing to reach full power loads.

From a recent article in Cosmos:

McGuire said he and five to 10 researchers have been working for four years and have built their first experimental device. They carried out 200 test shots while commissioning it. He declined to say what temperature, density or confinement time they had achieved but he said the plasma appeared stable and they had heated it with up to one kilowatt of power.

A Big Corp to Take on the Fossil Fuel Giants?

As of yet, the Lockheed Martin announcement provides no scientific proofs (Lockheed says it has a scientific paper pending). And given the history of past fusion innovation claims, this prestigious company may well be taking a substantial risk in its early and apparently confident announcement. Some publications have already pointed out that LM is putting its reputation on the line.

That said, perhaps the entry of the prestigious Lockheed Martin corporation into the fast track for attempting to provide viable fusion technologies is a sign that some of these energy sources — whether Tokamak or LENR based — are on the verge of a period of breakthrough.

If so, what I wrote last year about fusion energy in Growth Shock may well apply:

Even if the first high hurdle of commercial viability is crossed, whatever industries provide fusion systems will have to survive competition with the wealthy, influential, and politically powerful fossil fuel industry. One can expect a similar campaign of disinformation, undermining, delaying and detracting that has been waged against the world’s solar, wind and biofuel industries. Misinformation and fear mongering are most likely to arise as soon as any announcement of commercial viability goes widely public. This second hurdle may well prove to be even higher than the first and oil, coal, gas and, possibly, traditional nuclear special interest groups may well join to keep this option in its bottle.

Before becoming overly optimistic, we must remember that both wind and solar energy showed great promise early on and have taken many decades fighting both real world limitations and entrenched special interests to gain the minor foothold they have now established. And these are both proven technologies that are in a vicious competition with the established smoke-stack interests. One would not expect much difference with fusion. If viable, it poses a greater threat than any current renewable energy system, so the opposition media campaign, in the event of publicly proven viability, would likely be shrill in the extreme.

But fusion technology may have a few strikes in its favor. Though it may well be disruptive to traditional fuel suppliers, it may not be as disruptive as current alternatives to traditional utilities. Most of the applications that the new fusion producers are attempting to license would be plug and play… fusion generators could directly replace those in coal, gas, and nuclear plants. The new infrastructure, essentially, is limited to a reaction chamber or boiler. And should fusion prove viable, this ‘plug and play’ aspect of the technology may prove to be a crucial advantage.

The compact nature of Lockheed’s prospective offering — 100 MW scale truck-sized reactors — should they emerge, could well be a critical fossil fuel replacement desperately needed in an age of ramping anthropogenic climate change. So let’s hope this is not a miss-fire on Lockheed’s part.

Links:

Compact Fusion

Is Lockheed’s Fusion Project Breaking New Ground?

Lockheed Developing Truck-Sized Nuclear Fusion Reactor

Growth Shock

Could Ultra-Cheap Energy be Just Around the Corner?

Tokamak

ITER

Cold Fusion

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88 Comments

  1. Well, we sent a man to the moon and returned him home within ten years of setting the goal back in the 1960’s…

    But even if LENR technologies did leap-frog into service lickety-split, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning are just our biggest environmental problem… We still have massive ecosystem breakdown to deal with, if we don’t dramatically reassess the impact of 7, 8, 9 billion people living on this beautiful and harassed planet…

    Reply
    • It would give us a bit more room to maneuver. But, yes, there are still major problems to face. At that point, population restraint and a major reorganization of food consumption (shift away from meat) becomes pretty critical.

      Not a done deal at all. But something to keep an eye on. LM is a major player. Oh, and the offering is a compact version of a traditional fusion reactor — not LENR.

      Reply
    • Something to keep an eye on to say the least.

      Reply
  2. Griffin

     /  October 27, 2014

    Sure would be great to see, but given LM’s performance with the F-35, I wont hold my breath on any breakthrough from them. They have brilliant engineers I am sure, but the leadership will contort and corrupt the process until they have bled the taxpayers dearly for empty promises of a better tomorrow. The technological hurdles of a next generation fighter pale in comparison to those involved in a revolution in energy generation.

    Reply
    • Like the F22, the F35 is one hell of a fighter — with one hell of a price tag. Lockheed also produced the F 16. So, perhaps there is a small hope that such a project could go off without a boondoggle.

      In any case, in this market, we have numerous competitors. So the price lowering pressure will be stiff — which should help prevent some of the nonsense we see with pure defense contracts.

      Reply
    • I think the problem with the F-35 is Congress. They view it more like a state / regional welfare project than an aircraft. How many different engines do we need again? Each made in a different state….each defended tooth and nail by some politician as mission critical.

      Reply
  3. Rowan

     /  October 27, 2014

    Helium is not abundant and if this breakthrough is true we may regret all those party balloons…

    Reply
    • Abundant compared to the size of the ignition mass needed. We’d use more helium in balloons than in fusion reactors. In any case, hydrogen is extraordinarily abundant.

      Reply
  4. Ken Barrows

     /  October 27, 2014

    Having practically unlimited energy would be the guillotine to the biosphere. Be careful what you wish for, ladies and gentlemen.

    Reply
    • Burning carbon is the near-term guillotine for the biosphere… Unlimited, zero carbon energy provides options. That said, we will still need population restraint together with far more sustainable food and land use practices. So no panacea, but certainly helpful.

      Reply
      • National Academy of Sciences says even brutal world conflict or lethal pandemic would leave unsustainable human numbers.

        I know I am expected to make a comment, but I’m so aghast that I can’t even think of one:

        http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/28/global-population-science-growth-study-wars-disaster-disease

        Reply
        • Population restraint helps over long terms:

          “Our work reveals that effective family planning and reproduction education worldwide have great potential to constrain the size of the human population and alleviate pressure on resource availability over the longer term,” he said.

          But we need to focus on reducing impacts now:

          “The corollary of these findings is that society’s efforts towards sustainability would be directed more productively towards reducing our impact as much as possible through technological and social innovation.”

          As such, a combination of efforts — reducing human impact short, medium and long term, and reducing human population overall — are needed.

    • wili

       /  October 27, 2014

      How about another metaphor–we are eight-year-olds wildly wielding live chainsaws throughout the house inflicting all the damage one might expect from such activity.

      Right now they’re (mostly) gas-fueled saws, and the fumes are starting to asphyxiate us so some are starting to think of slowing down or moving to much slower gentler wind-powered tools.

      But instead of taking this opportunity to rethink the wisdom of further wild wieldings (by which we have already destroyed most of the furniture pets), we suddenly latch onto new fusion-powered saws that will give even more power and never quit and never asphyxiate us.

      I guess it’s nice not to be asphyxiated. But what’s left of the furniture and pets would be more pleased if we just gave up the chainsaw and went back to our blocks and crayons.

      Reply
  5. I question if we as a species and civilization are mature enough to utilize such a thing without destroying one another with it.

    Reply
    • climatehawk1

       /  October 28, 2014

      That’s a reasonable question, Andy. How can we encourage people to mature more quickly? If it can be developed, it will be, so what to do?

      Reply
      • vardarac

         /  October 28, 2014

        The ending of Deus Ex’s sequel posits that the only way to solve the problems caused by humanity is to mass re-engineer it by inoculating everyone with brain-changing nanites. It’s a scary thought, but sometimes I wonder if something so drastic might really be necessary to save us from ourselves.

        A better and more near-term way to change behavior (if not “maturity”) might be to use media to undermine the insecurity-driven marketing that underlies part of consumer culture. That is, divorce the concept of gaining confidence from spending money on stuff; instead, show them how to do it at less cost and let them find other (and more powerful) ways to attain value to others. If it works, you’ll place less of a strain on the world’s resources and decrease the chance of catastrophic conflict.

        The second is to convince people not to make so many babies. That we could pay people to do, and I bet you dollars to doughnuts it would work, but I don’t know where we would get the money to do it. (Actually, I’m surprised VHEMT doesn’t do this; where are the people passing out condoms and “no-breeding-checks”?)

        Reply
  6. Jim

     /  October 28, 2014

    Fantastic! We will be able to have unbelievably powerful ship mounted electric rail guns that can be fired at will with virtually unlimited ammunition. Cynical and sarcastic? Yep.

    Reply
  7. LJR

     /  October 28, 2014

    That video looks like something produced by Don Draper. It’s one thing to have a plasma the temperature of the sun in a box the size of a semi-trailer and quite another to solve the problem of harnessing it. There was nothing in that piece but fluff and a few pretty pictures. There was no mention of actually having created a fusion reaction of any sort. This sounds like a ploy to get some stock market appreciation to me. Too slick for my jaundiced eyes.

    Bussard at least presented hard evidence of a fusion reaction and, though the research is supposedly continuing, we haven’t heard of any breakthroughs on that front. He was using an electrostatic vs: an electromagnetic containment – which made a lot of sense to me since the containment force vectors are radial vs: axial.

    I think molten salt conventional nuclear with a transition to Thorium is a viable approach. We can use that technology to provide base load generation to augment solar and wind.

    Reply
  8. Ok – It’s mainstream and off-topic but I find it interesting –
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-29788754

    Reply
  9. I find it extremely uninspiring that the first applications of this technology, if it even materializes, would be for engines of war. Right there, that should further reinforce the lesson that our basic societal structures – capitalism and militarism – are the root of the global heating problem, and that this won’t be a fix.

    A military contractor building a proprietary fusion reactor is nothing like the all-hands-on-deck effort our civilization desperately needs now.

    Reply
  10. jyyh

     /  October 28, 2014

    I think the design is trying to minimize the damage done to the coils by the released neutrons by keeping the compact plasma amount the smallest possible. so even if this works it’ll be a whole new problem to scale this design up. true, the tokamak design has this problem worse, but if this system can keep the maintenance costs lower than tokamak, it might still be a step towards a working fusion reactor. not entirely convinced that this cannot work, but yes the military-industrial complex may well keep this to them selves, build self-repairing carbon-fibre Megatrons and eat wheat from the arctic circle in vain attempts trying to stop these in just 200 years.. could be a scam, but it’s not for me to say. meanwhile the sustainable tech spread out to the world by communist agents would render the fusion power unnecessary, only to be replaced by the said megatrons. Imagine living a peaceful sustainably working countrylife and seeing an offensive robogiant rising from the horizon seeking hay as rawmaterial for it’s damaged tibia. (oops, wandered a bit) . neat trick, sonoluminesence. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LWO93G-zLZ0

    Reply
  11. Thanks Robert for a great blog. Fingers crossed, for sure we need breakthroughs like this before the climate will have smashed our society to smithereens.

    Reply
    • We can hope. Announcements related to fusion have a tendency to be hyped. So we’ll see where this one goes. It’s a bit outside the box for LM, though. So small cause for hope.

      Reply
  12. Loni

     /  October 28, 2014

    In an increasingly pessimistic world, (and justifiably so), this is indeed good news, and for my money, a functional congress would investigate this and if it proves viable, fund it Manhattan style.

    Reply
    • Cautiously hopeful. Will wait to see the supporting science.

      I think some of the pessimism here is warranted. Some of it is completely over the top.

      Reply
  13. Loni

     /  October 28, 2014

    p.s. Thanks Robert

    Reply
  14. You couldn’t ask for a better example of TECHNO-UTOPIAN THINKING.
    Totally nuts thinking that this is going to help.
    Sorry Robert – but you’re really grasping at straws.
    I can’t wait fir XRay Mike’s comments ;-))

    Thanks for your good work all them same.

    Reply
    • I think it was similar critics of so-called ‘techno utopian thinking’ who said the Bakken would never produce more than 100,000 barrels per day.

      I think a more realistic approach is that technology is a powerful if imperfect means for problem solving. That we should apply technology where it is helpful and prevent its use where it is harmful (as fracking the Bakken, in my view, was certainly not the correct use of technology).

      Taking the Luddite view is not at all helpful.

      Reply
  15. Off Topic followup for Andy in San Diego re recent: CA/USA school $ weather priorities — air conditioning vs ephemera. This one up-coast in Long Beach:

    ‘Students forced to endure sweltering temperatures in Southern California classrooms’

    ‘The recent heat wave during the first three weeks of school in September left teachers and students in Long Beach, California sweltering in their classrooms.’

    http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2014/10/20/long-o20.html

    Ps So. Cal is awash in federal defense dollars (Lockheed Martin, Edwards AFB- Skunkworks, et al.) Douglas Aircraft/McDonnell Douglas was based in LB (airport was Douglas Field).

    Reply
    • Pardon the any repetition here, Robert. But the photo adds to my comment about our (USA) energy/climate priorities, and our societal capabilities.
      – On a side note, many of my observational skills skills were honed during the 1980’s as a very capable Quality Control Inspector building data communications equipment, working with Military Specs. I was working with people from Martin Marietta, and other like places. Later, I used these skills as a field naturalist/photographer and climate worrier-watcher.

      Boeing Administrative Offices, 4300 Douglas Center, Long Beach, California:

      Reply
  16. Reblogged this on The Secular Jurist and commented:
    MUST READ: Amazing piece on some very hopeful nuclear fusion technology developments. This could be big, and it is certainly long overdue!

    Reply
  17. lesliegraham1

     /  October 28, 2014

    What – again? Fusion has been the ‘fuel of the future’ since I was 5 years old.
    More likely development is a sudden spike in Lockheeds share price following this ‘timely’ press release, followed by a CEO sell-off followed by a share price slump.
    Yeah – I know – I’m a realist.
    Even if there is some truth to it I can’t see it being deployed quickly enough to prevent climate change wrecking the global economy.
    I really hope I’m proved wrong about this – at long last.

    Reply
    • Gerald Spezio

       /  October 28, 2014

      Leslie, you are SO negative. These people are trying to help us, I think – maybe?
      You make their benevolent toils sound like they just want to make money & would actually resort to subterfuge to stunt & distort our impressionable brains.

      Reply
      • lesliegraham1

         /  October 29, 2014

        : )
        Yeah – well like I said – I hope they prove me wrong. We’ll see won’t we.
        I think our best hope is massive roll out of solar – both PV and solar thermal.
        In fact climate progress have a reasonably informative article out today.

        http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/10/28/3583720/solar-power-revolution-charts/

        And yes – I know dear ol’ Joe can get a bit over-excited sometimes but the information seems pretty sound to me.
        Solar has made nuclear obsolete – they just don’t know it yet.
        Apart from all the obvious reasons of waste, expense and time constraints that have made nuclear fission an absolute non-starter – by the time fusion is rolled out (if ever) we probably won’t need it.
        Solar IS nuclear fusion technology.

        Reply
        • Completely agree with the support of solar and the issues RE pricing. There would be serious barriers to any new fusion coming out. And the fact that solar is on a fast track is certainly helpful now without having to wait for new tech.

          Fusion could help some utilities keep their business models if it comes out soon enough… so maybe the utilities should push for viable fusion reactors😉

        • climatehawk1

           /  October 29, 2014

          “And the fact that solar is on a fast track is certainly helpful now without having to wait for new tech.”

          And wind. Wind is close to providing 5% of U.S. electricity supply today, and would likely be double that had it not been for Ronald Reagan. Could easily triple in the next decade, if its tax incentive were simply left in place instead of being allowed to expire every two years or so.

  18. joni

     /  October 28, 2014

    http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/10/lockheed-martin-nuclear-fusion-skeptical

    http://finance.yahoo.com/news/scientists-share-really-think-lockheed-173000568.html

    It sounds really nice and exciting until the reality of not having materials nearly strong enough to withstand the heat generated by LM’s compact reactor knocks it down. It should also be noted that LM’s announcement came within a week of another claimed fusion breakthrough, likely to bump up the company’s stock prices ahead of a sell-off while also giving them more ways of escaping with their reputation barely affected.

    The language used by the company in the announcement is also not nearly as hype-fueling as some in the MSM, so I’ll wait until the scientists themselves start claiming a breakthrough has been found before getting even a little excited.

    Reply
  19. Reblogged this on GarryRogers Nature Conservation and commented:
    I once thought abundant, non-polluting energy could be the solution to all our problems. Having looked closely at the ways that we humans use and change our environment, I am no longer sure there is a solution. I proposed Immediacy, the philosophy of consequences. However, the proposal explicitly recognizes that humans aren’t smart enough to adopt such an ethos.
    The Center for Biological Diversity is handing out condoms. There is no money for “no-breeding-checks” (Vardarac in the comments on this article). Is it nonsense to hope we might ever achieve wise landuse and control over our desire for reproduction? I’m beginning to suspect that new technological innovations will only add to our ability to destroy Earth’s biosphere.
    Thanks to Robert Scribbler for this article and to his readers for their comments.

    Reply
    • We should push for technologies with lower impacts across the board while also changing behaviors and restraining population. I don’t think there’s any single solution. Instead there are groupings of solutions. Fusion has prospects, but it is not a panacea.

      Reply
  20. Drying Amazon Could Be Major Carbon Concern

    “It’s well-established fact that a large part of Amazon is drying. We’ve been able to link that decline in precipitation to a decline in greenness over the last 10 years,” said Thomas Hilker, lead author of the study and forestry expert at Oregon State University.

    Since 2000, rainfall has decreased by up to 25 percent across a vast swath of the southeastern Amazon, according to the new satellite analysis by Hilker. The cause of the decline in rainfall hasn’t been pinpointed, though deforestation and changes in atmospheric circulation are possible culprits.

    http://www.climatecentral.org/news/drying-amazon-carbon-concern-18241?utm_source=Daily+Carbon+Briefing&utm_campaign=40d785a10f-DAILY_BRIEFING&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_876aab4fd7-40d785a10f-303422033

    Reply
  21. Ouse M.D.

     /  October 28, 2014

    Hydrogen is derived from Methane CH4- so, it`s not carbon neutral. You have to split the Methane- if I`m not mistaken.

    Reply
    • wili

       /  October 28, 2014

      Good point. There are other possible sources (H2O), but in this real world, they all need some kind of energy-intense processing and bring up other issues.
      “The fuels — hydrogen and helium — are abundant ” In the universe, yes. On earth not chemically attached to other atoms, not so much, for hydrogen at least.

      Reply
      • As noted above, the hydrogen used in fusion reactions is heavy-water based deuterium 2H. CH4 is not a common source of deuterium.

        A good try from the fossil fuel centric world viewers, though😉

        Reply
    • You’re mistaken. The kind of heavy hydrogen used is derived from sea water. Heavy water hydrogen is not abundant in CH4.

      Reply
  22. danabanana

     /  October 28, 2014

    Biggest Fusion reactor we have access to is working fine yet instead of using it we now have a company with dubious/dark past performances and deals to build one here on Earth.

    The Fusion reactor I’m referring to is of course our Sun.

    Reply
  23. Colorado Bob

     /  October 28, 2014

    Unprecedented Rainfall Triggered Worst-Ever Floods in JK: Study

    It said there were incessant rains on September 4 for continuous 30 hours. “In three days, the rainfall touched 450 mm, which was very unusual.”

    Link

    Reply
  24. That hydra headed fossil fuel beast keeps daring us to stop it.

    ‘Denver and the West
    Dead babies near oil drilling sites raise questions for researchers

    VERNAL, Utah — The smartphone-sized grave marker is nearly hidden in the grass at Rock Point Cemetery. The name printed on plastic-coated paper — Beau Murphy — has been worn away. Only the span of his life remains.

    “June 18, 2013 – June 18, 2013”

    For some reason, one that is not known and may never be, Beau and a dozen other infants died in this oil-booming basin last year. Was this spike a fluke? Bad luck? Or were these babies victims of air pollution fed by the nearly 12,000 oil and gas wells in one of the most energy-rich areas in the country?

    http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_26800380/dead-babies-near-oil-drilling-sites-raise-questions

    Reply
  25. Colorado Bob

     /  October 28, 2014

    World losing 2,000 hectares of farm soil daily to salt damage
    October 28, 2014
    Source:
    United Nations University
    Summary:
    Every day for more than 20 years, an average of 2,000 hectares of irrigated land in arid and semi-arid areas across 75 countries have been degraded by salt, according to a study. Today an area the size of France is affected — about 62 million hectares (20 percent) of the world’s irrigated lands, up from 45 million hectares in the early 1990s.

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/10/141028082628.htm

    Reply
    • Thanks, CB. Won’t we also lose a lot of acreage to salt water intrusion from rising sea levels?
      I remember the terrible impacts of selenium salt buildup in California’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley, 30-40 years ago. Vast tracts of land — a couple meters of top soil sitting atop of nothing but hard pan were irrigated with enormous amounts of water, and the salts just kept accumulating. Kesterson reservoir and Wildlife Refuge also, became biological/avian nightmare on the Pacific Flyway.

      Reply
  26. Colorado Bob

     /  October 28, 2014

    Reply
  27. I highly recommend an easy and slow read of this piece. I’m sure many here can relate to some extent.

    Two years ago, Camille Parmesan, a professor at Plymouth University and the University of Texas at Austin, became so “professionally depressed” that she questioned abandoning her research in climate change entirely.

    Parmesan has a pretty serious stake in the field. In 2007, she shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore for her work as a lead author of the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In 2009, The Atlantic named her one of 27 “Brave Thinkers” for her work on the impacts of climate change on species around the globe.

    Parmesan certainly isn’t the first to experience some sort of climate-change blues. From depression to substance abuse to suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, growing bodies of research in the relatively new field of psychology of global warming suggest that climate change will take a pretty heavy toll on the human psyche as storms become more destructive and droughts more prolonged. For your everyday environmentalist, the emotional stress suffered by a rapidly changing Earth can result in some pretty substantial anxieties.

    For scientists like Parmesan on the front lines of trying to save the planet, the stakes can be that much higher. The ability to process and understand dense climatic data doesn’t necessarily translate to coping with that data’s emotional ramifications. Turns out scientists are people, too.

    http://grist.org/climate-energy/climate-depression-is-for-real-just-ask-a-scientist/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=daily&utm_source=newsletter&utm_term=Daily%2520Oct%252028

    Reply
  28. wili

     /  October 28, 2014

    Here’s another one worthy of an “easy, slow read”: http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-10-23/living-and-breathing-in-a-black-swan-world

    A particularly topical quote for this thread:

    Historian Ronald Wright describes our autism as the result of a progress trap. “Technology,” he writes, “is addictive.

    Material progress creates problems that are, or seem to be, soluble only by further progress.”

    Reply
    • When have humans not used technology?

      The blanket attack on all technology is counter-productive.

      Reply
      • wili

         /  October 29, 2014

        I can see how the passage I took out may look like that. But I think the longer essay is more nuanced than that. Any useful technological innovation is never just what it seems to be.
        Basically, things have consequences. Powerful things have powerful consequences. We tend to focus on the potential positive consequences, but there is almost always a ‘shadow’ consequence, intended or (more often) not.

        Wright (and many other historians and writers) make the same claim about complexity. That doesn’t mean that they are making “blanket attacks” on complexity. Only that, as they have seen from observing dozens of civilizations, complexity has costs, costs that civilizations generally attempt to deal with by employing yet more complexity, and so on.

        (Feedbacks don’t happen just in climate systems!)

        That doesn’t mean that they are _against_ all complexity in society, exactly (how could they be)? But that societies which want to persist need to think very carefully about what kinds of complexity (and technology) they use, and in how much for what purposes.

        There are lots of interesting books to read on these things (in all your copious spare time ;-)) if you’re interested.

        Reply
        • Points well taken. There are always up intended consequences.

          If we look at wind and solar, though, the level of negative externalities are comparatively much lower. However, it’s probably fair to say that the externalities RE fusion haven’t been fully assessed.

          My opinion is that simply having abundant energy isn’t a bad consequence. It’s how having that energy abundance is achieved which is the primary issue. Secondary consequences regarding materials use related to access to energy is a sustainability issue and needs to be addressed in kind.

  29. wili

     /  October 29, 2014

    “Fusion won’t save us from climate change”
    http://grist.org/climate-energy/fusion-wont-save-us-from-climate-change/?utm_source=syndication&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=feed

    (Apologies if this was already linked and I missed it.)

    Reply
    • From the Article:

      “First, to address climate change, we need to stop using fossil fuels fast. To stay below the internationally agreed upon limit of 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise by the end of the century, we need to reduce carbon emissions by 90 percent by the year 2050. If we put off our reductions until the second half of the century, we will have overstuffed the atmosphere with so much carbon that we will be sailing into 3 degrees C and greater temperature rise by 2100, triggering very serious long-term feedback loops that put us at risk for warming that will continue for centuries, even if we get our carbon emissions under control.”

      If we are to rapidly reduce carbon emissions, we need a rapid replacement of fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy systems starting now and completing by mid century. Adding fusion within 10-20 years (if possible) aids along the 2030 to 2050 time horizons.

      The danger of course is assuming that fusion will be available and to simply sit and wait for it. Of course we can’t afford to do that, as fusion may not even emerge as a viable so soon.

      So we should continue rapid efforts to add wind and solar. That said, if fusion does become viable, it provides another tool for fossil fuel energy replacement.

      Would I hang my hat on it, no. But it would help matters if it does come on line.

      The Grist article fails to account for replacing current natural gas systems on the 2030 to 2050 year time line. Fusion would help in that regard. A fact that Grist seems to have missed.

      Reply
      • wili

         /  October 29, 2014

        “The danger of course is assuming that fusion will be available and to simply sit and wait for it.” Well put. That is indeed part of my concern about these stories.

        Reply
        • It’s a valid concern. Remember all the effort wasted pursuing hydrogen based cars and fuel cells when solar and wind energy were already viable?

          I think the upshot here is that we need to go full bore with wind and solar now, not rely on hopes for new energy. If they do, then so much the better.

      • wili

         /  October 29, 2014

        “I think the upshot here is that we need to go full bore with wind and solar now”
        We can certainly agree here. But I would add things like efficiency and, yes, curtailment/contraction–lots of stuff we do with energy just should not be done; and lots of other stuff could be left undone without great harm to anyone (and sometimes with some benefits).

        Reply
        • Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more.

          I tend to push very strongly for fossil fuel replacement as it would help evaporate some of the damaging political interests that are preventing widespread positive action on climate change including the sustainability and efficiency related measures you mention.

  30. A bit off-topic — but still in the techno problem solving realm (overcoming gravity):

    (Reuters) – An unmanned Antares rocket exploded seconds after liftoff from a commercial launch pad in Virginia on Tuesday, marking the first accident since NASA turned to private operators to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.
    The 14-story rocket, built and launched by Orbital Sciences Corp, blasted off its seaside launch pad at the Wallops Flight Facility at 6:22 p.m. EDT/2222 GMT, carrying a Cygnus cargo ship bound for the space station. It burst into flames moments later, then plunged to the ground in a huge ball of fire and smoke, but authorities said no one was hurt.

    The six crew members in orbit aboard the space station – two NASA astronauts, one from the European Space Agency and three Russian cosmonauts – watched the launch via a NASA TV feed, said Mike Suffredini, the space station program manager.

    “They were disappointed … of course they are well aware that they have plenty of resources on orbit,”…

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/29/us-space-orbital-idUSKBN0IH2F220141029

    Reply
  31. JoeT

     /  October 29, 2014

    I’ve been in this field for the last 30 years. Rather than critique the whole article, I want to make 3 points.

    1- Hydrogen and helium are not the fuels that fusion reactors will use. The easiest reaction, which only takes temperatures of 100 million degrees use deuterium and tritium, which of course are hydrogen isotopes. There is a reaction which needs even a higher temperature and uses deuterium and helium-3. This form of helium is very rare. Some advocate mining it on the moon. No one on earth even considers using hydrogen.

    2- Lockheed did not achieve fusion. Not even close. If someone told you this they are misinformed.

    3- To my great disappointment fusion will not even begin to solve the climate crisis. Although astonishing progress has.been made, I don’t see it impacting the electrical grid until 2080. By then it’ll be too late.

    Reply
    • 1. Dueterium is H2, Tritium is H3 — both forms of heavy water hydrogen…

      2. Noted.

      3. Opinion noted.

      Reply
    • Per my fact check of your Query #2:

      Recent interview from Cosmos:

      McGuire said he and five to 10 researchers have been working for four years and have built their first experimental device. They carried out 200 test shots while commissioning it. He declined to say what temperature, density or confinement time they had achieved but he said the plasma appeared stable and they had heated it with up to one kilowatt of power.

      Reply
      • JoeT

         /  October 29, 2014

        I’m confused whether you think this quote supports your statement that anecdotal information says Lockheed made fusion. The statement you quoted contradicts that assertion. They put in so little power that their plasma is barely ionized —– far, far, far from approaching fusion temperatures.

        As for the isotopes, everyone knows what an isotope is. Deuterium is plentiful, but to get enough Tritium you either have to get it from a fission plant or you breed it in your fusion plant with a lithium blanket. As for helium-3 that is extremely rare. It should not be confused with the stuff everyone is familiar with.

        Reply
    • In any case, you’re splitting hairs over the hydrogen and helium comments. Either it’s H2 or H3 used as reactants or it’s some form of hydrogen and helium. So my apologies for de-jargonizing the subject in order to make it more readily accessible.

      Reply
      • JoeT

         /  October 30, 2014

        I appreciate the changes in the article. I still think you’re misreading the kilowatt of power. This is not a good thing. That kilowatt is what’s going to heat the plasma. That’s why I say that their temperatures are so minuscule that they can’t even breakthrough the radiation barrier. In my lab we put in 200 times that power and get temperatures of 30 million degrees.

        When I first got into this field I thought we would have fusion power plants by now. I wanted a safe clean source of energy that could lift the world out of poverty. What a lot of us didn’t realize then is how difficult the physics is.

        A few years ago I started to learn about climate. It’s why I read your blog where I’ve learned a great deal from you. Back in The early part of the year I tried to write up how I thought fusion would be instrumental in dealing with the climate crisis. I started out very optimistic. By the time I was done I changed my mind. Fusion is becoming irrelevant. If you want, you can read my writ-up here.

        https://sites.google.com/site/opportunityforfusion/

        I would appreciate your critical assessment. The article will explain my statement that fusion won’t impact the electrical grid until 2080. Much to my considerable anguish.

        Reply
        • Joe —

          Thanks for your work and your efforts. I can certainly understand why you may feel anguished — as still far too much money, political support, and effort are aimed at developing fossil fuels much to the detriment of the alternatives. If even a portion of the funds chasing new oil and gas were funneled to efforts like advancing alternatives like solar and fusion, then we might be able to escape some of the worst bits of the emerging climate trouble. To my mind, we still are living in an age where massive amounts of wealth and talent are aimed toward endeavors that will hurt us, and hurt us greatly, in the end.

          I read your write up and found it to be both very informative and helpful. I do not hear your hopeless tone there, but I do see the appeal for more effort put toward so called conventional fusion research and fast track development.

          Do you feel that, regarding conventional fusion, the matter can be solved by larger investment alone? Or are the technical hurdles too high to cross regardless of funding?

          My sense has been that the issue with conventional fusion was often a matter of scaling, of building large enough apparatus to get the containment/net energy calculus far enough on the positive side to become economic. I saw ITER as a first step toward that. But the plodding and costly nature of the project weighs against it.

          RE more unconventional fusion… The three ring circus surrounding Rossi (less so for Brillouin) is discouraging and invites an all-too easy criticism. Other small start-ups like Brillouin provide more cause for cautious consideration.

          With the new LM offering, I’d lump them into this group. Pushing a breakthrough compact containment design for conventional fusion isn’t LENR. But it is far enough outside the conventional physics to put them on the fringe.

          Do I think they will succeed? I guess I’d say that the risk for failure is quite high.

          Stepping back a bit, I see a lot of potential for new energy in the form of wind, solar, and battery storage to make strong advances and even to begin to dominate — even without the added capacity of fusion. It would be helpful if fusion could make a strong offering, but it isn’t entirely necessary. Without fusion, however, we are looking at severe shocks in the way energy is produced and distributed — leading to political rivalries, schisms, and outright active suppression of new energy by established industries. Fusion provides an out for some of the large utilities, should it become a player soon enough and this might help ease the political battle and reduce polarization. Without a more conventional offering like fusion, there is a very real risk that the old utilities and smokestack industries succeed in shutting out wind and solar for long enough to maintain their gas and coal plants well into the second half of this century.

          Such an instance would be disastrous for the climate, locking in at least an RCP 6 and probably an RCP 8.5 type scenario. Of course, wind and solar could dominate and radically alter the whole energy landscape. But would you want to bet your world or your children’s world on that possibility?

          Fusion, in this sense, is both revolutionary and a compromise, giving utilities, primarily, another out that uses the old centralized grid and distribution system.

          Reduction of poverty…

          Abundant energy tends to have that effect IF the benefits of such cheap, abundant energy are shared more equally. Under the current system in which benefits are funneled to the top and not redistributed more equally, I don’t hold out too much hope that any centralized system would have such a result. I suppose it is possible that if the fusion systems were cheap enough, small enough, and distributable enough, then the net result would be a reduction of future poverty — which is why more compact fusion systems like unconventional fusion and the LM offering are so interesting, should they emerge.

          Again, I’d like to thank you for your efforts and your focus on reducing harm and eliminating poverty. We desperately need progressive thinkers and, dare I say, Idealists, like yourself who at least attempt to forge a better future. If tempered by practical thinking, such efforts can have a good result. So I wouldn’t lose heart yet.

          –R

          PS Regarding the 1kw plasma containment issue — my sense now is that we see a plasma containment at low energy but one that requires quite a bit of scaling to reach fusion? I suppose this is the primary challenge to the LM design and what we do not really know is if the design can handle the physics needed to achieve fusion and maintain it with net energy gain. It would seem the lessons of conventional fusion point against this possibility?

          Textually, I’ll see what I can do to re-word the article to get this point across.

          Best to you and thanks again.

      • JoeT

         /  October 31, 2014

        Robert

        Thanks very much for the kind words. I very much appreciate it.

        I’m actually at a weeklong conference at the moment typing this on my iphone. Hence I have to make this brief.

        To answer some of your questions — I think the problems facing fusion are complex, but ultimately doable. The question is whether fusion would ever be competitive economically. Short answer- I don’t know.

        Fusion could have been much further along if the funding hadn’t been slashed over the decades. The field was devastated under Reagan when money poured into the useless Star Wars program. It never recovered. This country would rather fight useless wars in Iraq than invest money in developing clean energy sources. Look outside the US for the big breakthroughs. China, Korea and Japan will be building fusion reactors long before the US does. One thing I learned this week is that there may be even more delays for ITER. There was talk of a push back in the start date to 2027. If that’s true look for the US to pull out.

        You are quite correct in the observation that the piece I wrote is more optimistic than the views I expressed here. I wrote that as part of a Coursera MOOC I was taking on climate policy. I wrote as an incentive for more public investment in the field. But if you look at the European roadmap for fusion, where the impact on the grid doesn’t come until 2080, it’s hard not to be pessimistic. If anyone leapfrogs over the roadmap, it’ll be China.

        One last thing — if you want to keep an eye on a private company that could make a breakthrough, check out Tri Alpha. Some very legitimate scientists working there. They even presented today at the conference.

        Again thanks for the encouragement. All the best to you and thank you for a great blog.

        Reply
        • I’ve done a read-through on Tri Alpha…

          Interesting. It seems that quite a few corps are pursuing the truck-sized 100 MW design through various avenues.

          Will need to digest further… Thanks for the tip!

  32. Colorado Bob

     /  October 29, 2014

    Why are so many fish in the Chesapeake Bay suddenly intersex?

    Maryland Senators Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara Mikulski announced today that the University of Maryland would receive a $238,055 federal grant to study why so many intersex fish have been found in the Chesapeake Bay region.

    The grant was awarded by the U.S. Geological Survey and will allow researchers to determine why the number of intersex fish in the Bay watershed has jumped so dramatically. Specifically, UM scientists will study the effect of pharmaceutical byproducts on flathead minnows.

    The byproducts are caused by agricultural runoff and sewage treatment processes. The researchers are especially interested in “gestagens,” chemicals that could increase hormones in the fish population.

    Link

    Reply
  33. This subject was mentioned in the recent post ‘Climate Change Plays Havoc With World’s Weather..’ But I don’t think this link, published online 26 October 2014, was part of it.

    Nature Geoscience | Letter

    Robust Arctic sea-ice influence on the frequent Eurasian cold winters in past decades
    ‘Over the past decade, severe winters occurred frequently in mid-latitude Eurasia despite increasing global- and annual-mean surface air temperatures. Observations suggest that these cold Eurasian winters could have been instigated by Arctic sea-ice decline…
    … Both reanalysis data and our simulations suggest that sea-ice decline leads to more frequent Eurasian blocking situations, which in turn favour cold-air advection to Eurasia and hence severe winters…

    http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ngeo2277.html

    Reply
    • I found the above link from the following Mashable story:

      Arctic Ice Melt Doubles Risk of Frigid Eurasian Winters, Study Finds

      ‘… The new study generally lines up with a hypothesis first put forward by Jennifer Francis, a climate scientist at Rutgers University, and Steven Vavrus, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin.

      Francis and Vavrus have argued that Arctic warming and sea ice loss has resulted in a weaker jet stream that is more prone to forming large waves that are difficult to dislodge. A wavier jet stream, they say, can lead to more extreme weather patterns. This hypothesis has received a great deal of publicity in the past few years.

      Francis told Mashable that this study, along with a few others that have been published recently, “…seals the deal in establishing this linkage” between Arctic warming and a wavier jet stream.

      “This paper… demonstrates that sophisticated models forced only with sea-ice variability in the region north of Scandinavia (Barents/Kara Seas) produce a ridge in the jet stream over the ice-loss region (owing to extra heat transferred back to the atmosphere from the newly ice-free area), which strengthens the downstream surface high-pressure area, and circulates Arctic air southward over central Asia,” Francis says. “This cold wind chills the region and depresses the jet stream southward, creating a stronger ridge/trough pattern, or a wavier jet stream,” she said.’

      = JF definitely jibes w/ many here. Aye.

      Reply
  34. joni

     /  October 29, 2014

    http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/russia-could-be-facing-35-year-cold-weather-spell-scientist-says/510285.html

    “The early onset of winter experienced this year by residents in Siberia and the Ural Mountains could mark the start of a 35-year cycle of colder weather, a leading Russian scientist said Wednesday.

    “Changes in climate are cyclical. From 1946 to 1976, there was a cold cycle, which was then replaced by a warmer one. This [warmer] cycle was supposed to end at the start of the 20th century, but lasted a bit longer due to increased solar activity,” Vladimir Melnikov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was quoted as saying Wednesday by the TASS news agency.”

    This will definitely impact the rate of arctic methane release assuming it doesn’t get swamped by anthropogenic warming like other natural cycles betweeen hot and cold weather will in the next 20 years.

    Reply
    • wili

       /  October 29, 2014

      “From 1946 to 1976, there was a cold cycle”
      Hmmm. One sparrow doth not a summer make, and one stretch of non-warming (not really cold, exactly) does not a ‘cycle’ make. I would want to see that this cycle recurred many times and have a good explanation for what drives it before accepting that there is any such cycle.

      Reply

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