Monday, February 2, 2009

General Fusion: Flights of Fancy?

Recently it was reported that we were only five years from producing energy from nuclear fusion. And that within 10 years that full scale operations would be in progress.

A couple of notes, first of all some people may try to search for publications by this company, General Fusion, and to you I'll say, don't bother. The company hasn't made any formal publications, according to the founder, he doesn't enjoy the process of submitting papers for review.

Which is fair enough and shouldn't cause us to view his claims any more skeptically.

I should point out one thing, General Fusion is a company that seeks and receives money for its research, so any publicity that it receives aids its fundraising processes. Therefore, it is in its own best interests to publish 'good news' and to predict quick success. CTV did a terrible job in its article as it provided no balance or tempered optimism or even an examination of the future problems that must still be overcome. The article that I linked to in the Financial Post and the one I link to later by Technology Review do a far superior job in that respect.

About the science itself, I won't go into the nitty gritty details about this kind of nuclear fusion frankly because I don't know it well enough to speak with any authority but my searches for any further information are coming up with a few peculiar things.

There were other more formal experiments done by the Los Alamos National Laboratories on the same kind of technique that General Fusion is proposing. The last report listed states that experiments involving the plasma would begin in spring of 2008. The webpage, however, hasn't been updated since February 2008 so its impossible to ascertain what progress they have made, if any.

I think there is a widespread misconception that we do not know how to get nuclear fusion to work. That's not the problem at all, getting electricity out of it in a form we can use is the real problem. We've performed nuclear fusion many times before, most notable in hydrogen nuclear bombs where typically two isotopes of hydrogen are fused together, generating massive amounts of energy. Moreover, researchers in New Mexico two years ago created a device that produces electricity from nuclear fusion but only in spurts, which is not necessarily a useful form but might be useful to provide energy to heat a steam engine and turbine system.

In short, be skeptical but don't be pessimistical. General Fusion may well indeed be on the verge of a major breakthrough. Or they could just be overly optimistic in their predictions. The only way we'll know for sure is in 5 years.


Scanner said...

What on earth ar you talking about. Have you the brain worm?

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