Monday, March 8, 2010

Sun In A Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion

Writer: Charles Seife
Published by Penguin, 2008

It says a lot about our culture’s general lack of interest in the sciences that this book hasn’t created a bigger stir than it has. Or really, any stir at all. This is the one book SF fans, and supporters of NASA’s recently defunct moon project, don’t want to hear about. Seife is a well regarded science writer and journalist and in this book he takes us through the development and history of fusion energy. And what a strange history it is.

Beginning with Edward Teller and his dreams of bigger nuclear bombs and peace time applications for nuclear weapons he takes us through the decades long attempts to actually make fusion power work and the many “breakthroughs.” Unfortunately, the breakthroughs, starting with Richter in Argentina and through to cold and bubble fusion have not only proved to be dead ends, they have been marked by bad science and even fraud. It’s a reality that has left an indelible mark the subject. Fusion doesn’t get a lot of respect and the question raised by this book is, does it deserve any?

Some people have argued that Seife’s concentration on things like bubble fusion and the controversy surrounding it take away from serious work in the field, but this book gives us an interesting counterpoint: the serious work has been no more successful in giving us fusion energy that the frauds. After decades of research and billions of dollars, no one has ever reached the breakthrough point. No one has built a fusion machine, and there are many, that produce more energy than it takes to run the machine. Unless that can be accomplished, there is no future here. Period. The whole effort is nothing more than a dead end. I almost wrote ‘little more than a dead end,’ but its not. Unless a fusion reactor can actually produce more energy than it consumes it has no value whatsoever outside of academic research. Moreover, Seife has another cloud with which to rain on advocate’s fusion dreams: it isn’t actually safe. Sure it leaves only hydrogen as a byproduct of its fuel, but it irradiates the machinery. The reactor itself. The research reactors being used now have to be completely rebuilt every few years. Fusion is cleaner than fission, but it isn’t the consequence free energy source many imagine.

Personally I find the whole thing disappointing, but I don’t think its fair to blame the messenger. I wish fusion did work. I hope some day it will. But as things stand, any advances will be a step at a time and a long way off. I think Seife should have addressed helium 3 and why proponents believe it so important - its pretty much relegated to a footnote - but all the helium 3 in the world, or on the moon, won’t change reality.

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