Tuesday, November 03, 2015

What the hell is a stellarator? It won't matter if big money in politics has its way

A fair number of news outlets are carrying the story of yet another stellarator, a machine designed to provide safe, clean and abundant energy for mankind. As you can gather from the name, a stellarator is a machine designed to mimic the conditions of the interior of a star in order to induce fusion, the process of joining two atoms together to make energy. Most stars like our sun fuse hydrogen together and that releases the light we see here on earth.

The Wendelstein 7-X is the latest incarnation, with 19 years in the making and is housed in Germany. The project is seeking regulatory approval to run it's first plasma test before the end of this month. If results are positive, this could be a game changer for the entire course of fusion power research. You can learn more about stellarators here, at the Wikipedia page. The Wendelstein 7-X also has its own Wiki for those among you who want to learn more about it.

I've been fascinated with fusion since I was a kid and have always thought that eventually, humans would be able to control the power of a star. Fusion is much different than fission in one simple sense. Nuclear fission splits atoms to release energy. Fusion puts two atoms together to make a bigger atom and releases four times more energy than fission per reaction. Here is a nice table to give a big picture view of the differences.

This is great news if it works. But even if it works, we'd still be decades away from commercial fusion power. The best estimates suggest that commercial fusion power is about 50 years away. That's too far away to be meaningful for my generation, the next one and probably the next one.

What we do know is that energy production has sparked revolutions each time a new source is harnessed. From coal, to oil, to uranium, we've seen a transformation of humanity away from slavery and on into freedom. Granted, slavery is still a problem in the world, but with each new energy source, we can expect to see slavery as less of a problem. We can also reduce our production of carbon dioxide with each new source of energy we harness.

For now, I have confidence in thorium reactors. There is enough effort going into thorium molten salt reactors now that analysts are confident we'll see commercial thorium energy production within the next ten years somewhere in the world. China is most likely to be first, followed by India. China is in partnership with the US to build a working thorium salt reactor, but they'll get to market first because they seem to be able to resist the efforts of the carbon energy industries to stall it.

In America, even before the first fission power plants, the oil, coal and gas lobbies were there, seeking to stall nuclear power. This is a problem when big money is allowed into elections as a source of influence. The existing carbon energy industries will attempt to use their first mover advantage to stall new technologies. We are also seeing the same effort with alternative energy systems like solar and wind.

Thorium, fusion, wind, solar, geothermal, they're all great possibilities and realities, and we'll need all of them. But those energy sources must contend with a legacy carbon based energy system with deep pockets intent on maintaining its de facto monopoly power. If we want that green energy for us and our progeny, we will need to wean ourselves off of carbon and to prohibit big money in politics at the same time.

We've sent men to the moon and brought them back. There is no technical reason why we can't replace all carbon based energy with something else that works while saving the planet. It's just a matter of uniting against carbon energy industries in a political revolution.
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