Archives for posts with tag: fission

I assert we will burn everything that will burn until we have a better source of energy. Hydro is good but past maximized, and environmentalists want to tear down the dams we have. Solar is a wimp. It has its place, but not on the grid, and anyone telling you otherwise doesn’t understand the engineering and physics of it. Wind is simply a scam, snake oil. Wind-based power generation drives up costs in the grid and in transmission and in maintenance. It cannot be made better. It is disruptive to our power usage and needs. Turbines kill insects by the millions, bats by the thousands (maybe by the millions), and rare and endangered birds by the hundreds. Wind has no net benefits, only pain. Wind turbines do violence against our neighbors with flashing lights, flashing shadows, vertigo-inducing rotation, incessant noise, fire and throw hazard, and property devaluation.

Thus, we burn.

It is immoral to burn edible food while people starve. Biofuels do more harm than good.

There is no alternative to petroleum for a few applications, but we can convert most of our power needs to electricity, which we can renewably generate with nuclear fission for millennia.

We will convert to nuclear electricity generation. It is our only possibility. If we allow fear to continue to drive us, we will increase suffering caused by other power generation methods until we wise up. It will be painful. The longer we wait to convert to essentially 100% nuclear, the greater the pain and suffering we impose on ourselves and our posterity.

As an aside, persuasion is an illusion. Manipulation is a thing, but not persuasion. Compulsion is real enough (and evil), but it is not persuasion. The only true persuader is pain. The fellow who is convinced he can walk through walls may never admit he is delusional, but after a broken nose or two, when he claims he can walk through walls, he will take the doorway, explain that it is much easier. When our pain from wind power generation is too high, we will quit. (Who will clean up the mess?) Likewise, the large solar installations. Inevitably, we will power our lives with nuclear generated electricity.

Coal is a finite resource, and it is environmentally burdensome, even with modern technology. We will wean ourselves off it, even China and India, long before we run out of it. though. The net benefits from coal are too low to justify using it when we have better alternatives like natural gas and nuclear fission.

Natural gas may be finite. (Well, it is eventually, but odds are we will be extracting it from the earth even a few centuries from now.) Natural gas has substantive net benefit, but it is still somewhat burdensome on the environment, and nuclear fission is far better. We will be using natural gas for many generations to come, but we will see it specialized into small niches. It will become inconsequential to our earthly environment.

Petroleum, well, we are probably going to use it for as long as we have machines. We are probably going to have machines for hundreds, maybe thousands, of generations. Of course, we could have paradigm-shifting technological advances that make it easier to make what hydrocarbons we use more inexpensively with nuclear-generated electricity than by continued mining (drilling, fracking, and other modern extraction techniques, which I think of as mining). {“If it can’t be grown, it must be mined,” is a truth-statement today.} Also, it doesn’t actually seem likely petroleum is a finite resource. That is, for practical purposes, it may be as plentiful as rock. It is reasonable to suppose we will never run out of oil in the earth’s crust. We are not sure, but there are theories that we can’t test significantly yet. Regardless, the extractable oil is more than enough to remain useful for generations to come. We are just as far from peak-oil as we’ve ever been, and every time prognosticators start doomcasting we blow right past their deadlines.

For generating large amounts of stable electrical energy, coal is the most sensible from the engineering standpoint, but the other burdens of its extraction, use, and disposal are too significant. Natural gas is only sensible because we can get so much of it so inexpensively. That situation will not hold indefinitely, but I suspect it will hold for the rest of my generation (let’s assume 40 years). Natural gas is relatively clean, and direct use of it is exceptionally beneficial in terms of benefits to our lives versus the burdens of extraction and use. It takes three times more natural gas to boil your tea kettle with an electric stove top (assuming natural-gas turbine generated electricity) than it does with a direct natural gas stove top. It is quite counterproductive from any standpoint to restrict or ban the use of natural gas in residential or commercial or even industrial use. Natural gas is first choice for direct fuel applications. One could argue for liquid fuels, but it is much harder to deal with liquid fuels in open-flame applications.

Petroleum is not a good fuel for large electrical power generation, which is why we use it for only a small fraction of a percent of our total electrical generation. It is good for small applications, and quick-start applications, but not much otherwise.

We need petroleum for mobile fuel. Liquids are easily stored in tanks for direct transportation usage. It is probably indispensable for aircraft, at least medium- and long-distance flights. It is good with ground transport, but there are several advantages to electrically powered transportation, but the limits of batteries are prohibitive, and will be for the near future. Edison advanced battery technology more than anyone before him, and advancements since have been at a snail’s pace with the significant, but small, advancement of lithium batteries. It looks like 15 to 25 years will bet us that much ahead again. That will give us batteries about twice as good as Edison could make. We need batteries that are 50 times better.

We have a variety of reasonable engineering solutions, but none that will be easy or inexpensive, and some would require significant changes in our societies. We shall see.

Another aside: If we can prove out fully automated transportation, we may switch to all electric vehicles, including short-flight aircraft, by switching to an entirely automated transportation system that would incorporate plains, trains, automobiles, and trucks scheduled to maximize battery life and transportation efficiencies. If so, personal ownership of vehicles would probably be relegated to hobbyists, and we’d generally just tap our phone app to have our ride pull up for us in a matter seconds, zipping us without traffic snarls to our destinations (with, perhaps, stops to transfer to a second transport with fresh batteries if our distance requires).

As an engineer with expertise in physics, I have no reservations asserting we will burn all we need to until we have excess electricity generated from nuclear power sources. Windmills will run their course, and our descendants will curse us for the hardships caused by them. Large-scale solar will be the same, but some solar applications may prove out, but solar power generation will never supply a significant fraction of our overall energy usage.

We will switch to nuclear. It is the only reasonable possibility. There may be some genius-level technological breakthrough, but there is no evidence to support such speculation, and it may be centuries from now even if it is possible.

We will use nuclear fission with uranium and thorium for generations, and we will eventually solve the engineering challenges of nuclear fusion and the materials required to build power production facilities. That might be a century or two (or a couple decades, but my money is on 100 years).

There is no existential threat other than the unknown. There is a plant-killing rock out there, but it may not approach for several centuries. (Of course, if we spot it tomorrow and realize it will hit us in 15 years, we’re probably going to join the dinosaurs and the other 99.9% of species how’ve run their course on our planet. I bet a few survive, or some new species will eventually attain what we call sentience, and life will continue to find a way, at least until the next unknown catastrophic event overtakes them.)

We will burn fossil fuels until nuclear power generation makes it impractical. We will not tip earth’s climate into anything catastrophic for humans or the rest of life on this planet.

Do keep in mind that there are three essential ingredients to life on our planet, water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. The first two are demonstrably the most destructive aspects of our environment. As long as oceans remain, water and oxygen will remain the most significant drivers of maintenance and repair and rebuilding. Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. It is an essential ingredient to life. It cannot exist in nature in quantities that are dangerous to us or other life. Even corals have experienced carbon dioxide levels multiples higher than our current levels. CO2 is only dangerous on our planet in its absence. We must have it, or photosynthesis is impossible. If carbon dioxide gets too low, all plants will die and all remaining life will starve, all of it (well, fungus might manage).

So, are you willing to acknowledge that nuclear is best? If not, you will relegate the next generation to undue suffering, and they will.

We will switch to entirely nuclear-power generated electricity. It is only a matter of time and how much suffering it takes to overcome our irrational fears of it.

I’ve seen more news on fusion power generation lately. Among the various claims, a company in Britain seems to think they can run D-T fusion in a tokamak as small as 1.5 meters.

I doubt it. I really doubt it.

D-T is almost certainly what we will use on earth and, perhaps, the moon, and D-T produces material-damaging 14 MeV neutrons. The neutrons also activate the materials, meaning the entire power unit becomes radioactive waste.

A sufficiently small D-T unit may be able to run longer because it will have low structural requirements, but the neutrons embrittle the materials such that the steel (or other material) walls become easy to break, like glass. At some point, the power unit is not structurally sound. It becomes unsafe and must be decommissioned, dismantled, and disposed of as radioactive waste–all of it.

Fusion power of some sort will be the only significant source of power at some point in humanity’s future, but it is not clean and not limitless. That mostly means it will always be expensive with high engineering requirements. It has very significant engineering and safety challenges, including environmental impacts. Granted, most of these challenges are likely to be easier to deal with than other power options, but it is simply false and misleading to suggest that fusion will be clean and inexhaustible.

We will burn fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. (The alternative is mass murder on the order of a billion people.) Nuclear fission will dominate in coming decades, for decades, perhaps for a century or two, then fusion. Once fusion is working, and we overcome the startup and growing pains, then it will be the only significant source of our energy needs for as long as humans do what humans do. I just happen to think generations of us will pass from this earth before the first gigawatt-hour of consumer-electricity is generated by fusion power reactors.

The Guardian claims, “Nuclear Fusion – Your Time Has Come” (Jeff Forshaw), Wired claims it is, “One Step Closer to Breakeven” (attributed to ScienceNow). Well, unfortunately, “practical commercial” fusion power generation has been “perhaps as little as 20 years away” for a little over 70 years now, and that is still true, and, in my humble opinion, will still be true 40 years from now. Sooner or later, we will figure it out. It is almost certainly the primary energy source for all functions on earth and in space for our posterity. We owe it to them to work at it in good faith, but in good sense too! Fusion will not solve our current problems, nor will it help our children. We will have to work something else out for now, and perhaps our great grandchildren will see it come on line in practical ways that make societal life better. It seems to me reasonable to speculate that the first practical fusion power station will be built on the moon. I doubt anyone thinks we will have a moon base started in as little as 20 years.

The Wikipedia article covers things reasonably, but I’ll add my first hand knowledge here. My biggest gripe about fusion is all the articles perpetrate the fantasy that fusion power will be “clean and inexhaustible.” If you believe that, I have a bridge I could sell you cheap.

What is clean about a system that uses radioactive tritium? What is clean about a building, a whole freaking building, becoming radioactive? Read the wiki for the basics, but get it through your head that this ain’t clean. Safe is a relative term. I think the fusion systems I have studied should be safe enough, as long as you don’t nap in them during refurbishment cycles. Waste disposal with ITER will be a problem. JET will be a problem. They are already using remote handling for everything there. Several minutes of Google search haven’t found me any documentation, so from memory, and I’ll appreciate comments that correct me or point me to documentation, but the TFTR of Princeton Plasma Physics, while a solid overall success, ran for only several seconds of actual fusion, and when they shut it down, it was over two years before they could safely go in and decontaminate and decommission it. They ended up burying nearly the entire lab full of equipment (barge loads) in the Hanford desert. Battelle ran it if I recall, and it was done on time and under budget. Stellar for government work! (Though Battelle has a good record for such. Good on ’em.)

Now to “inexhaustible,” did I mention tritium? Oh, yes, I did. Where do we find tritium? Oh, I remember, we don’t! There isn’t any. We have to make it out of lithium via neutron radiation. So far, we do that in regular nuclear fission reactors, but it seems certain we will be able to produce it in place within the fusion reactors, well, at least notionally it will work. The engineers still have to find a way to make it practical. Since it is not hard to make tritium, no problem, right? Think again. Lithium is just a little bit rare, and we have lots of uses for it besides just burning it up in fusion reactors. So, it certainly is NOT inexhaustible. Of course, deuterium is the other fuel component, and D-D fusion is probably not much harder than D-T fusion, so maybe we can do it without the tritium, but don’t forget that deuterium is still relatively scarce, being only a tiny fraction of the hydrogen on our planet. Good thing the planet is mostly covered in water. Certainly there is plenty of deuterium, but we do have it chemically tied up in our oceans. That is an easy engineering problem, but it is still energy intensive to get it out.

My point is that fusion, like fission, like burning carbon fuels, has plenty of waste products to deal with, and it will always take lots of effort to get the active ingredients away from mother nature, and into our reactors. So, TANSTAAFL.

As to the physics, that is fairly easy. Keep experimenting, and keep the mathematicians working it, we will do it. However, then the engineers have to take over and actually design and build one of these things, and engineers go to jail when things go wrong because people die. Accordingly, engineers are predominately practical and safety minded.

First extreme engineering problem with a tokamak is extracting energy from vacuum–no, not zero point, but superheated plasma at hard-vacuum pressure levels. It will work, but it is a hard problem, which means expensive and likely requiring lots of maintenance. Second extreme problem is plasma instabilities that blast the inner walls. Same as the first problem. We will come up with good solutions with an acceptable set of compromises, but it will be costly both initially and in upkeep. The third problem is harder, and so far, intractable. We must build the system to tolerate 14 MeV neutrons. Lithium blankets may be part of the solution, as the lithium will absorb many of the neutrons and generate the tritium we need, but 14 MeV neutrons do things that seem unbelievable. The wiki article talks about it, but just know that we don’t have materials that can meet the needs of dealing with such energetic and destructive missiles. The simplified version of what happens is that in less than two years, most of your structural components will embrittle to the point that they are no safer than if they were made of plate glass. Of course, these neutrons cause the atoms to become radioactive themselves. Thus, the whole building becomes radioactive waste.

I’m getting rather rambly at this point, so I will stop. I will add that I support fusion research. We will do it some day. It will be all we do for power eventually. In the meantime, we need more fission nuclear reactors (uranium, plutonium, and thorium), and we need to keep working on our efficiencies of burning carbon fuels. Drill, dig, pipe, and burn, baby, burn.

CO2 is an essential ingredient of life. So, CO2 is a good thing. Besides, cold kills, warmer is better.

 

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