Gwynne Dyer: Hello fusion power, good-bye fossil fuels?

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      “We would like to get to a prototype [of a nuclear fusion reactor] in five generations,” said Dr. Thomas McGuire, the director of the Revolutionary Technology division at Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works. “If we can meet our plan of doing a design-build-test generation every year, that will put us at about five years, and we've already shown we can do that in the lab.”

      Dr. McGuire was talking to Aviation Week, the oldest and most widely read magazine covering the defence industry, and he was promising a working nuclear fusion reactor that puts out more energy than it consumes in five years. “It wouldn't be at full power...but basically just showing that all the physics works,” he added—but he did predict a fully operational machine in another five years.

      Lockheed Martin is not a fringe player hyping some technological fantasy in the hope of raising enough capital to build a prototype. It’s the biggest player in U.S. defence-related technology, and it has a reputation to protect. It would not have invited Aviation Week in last week unless it was pretty confident that the project will succeed.

      So suppose there really is a full-scale prototype of a 100-megawatt nuclear fusion reactor, ready to go into volume production, in just 10 years. Nuclear fusion is clean energy—no radioactive waste, no risk of meltdown, and of course no carbon dioxide emissions—so if it is competitive in cost, it could easily sweep the field.

      Fusion power would not replace the “renewables” (wind, solar, and “bio” power), whose cost would probably fall fast enough to stay competitive. But it would rapidly replace the fossil fuels, mainly coal and gas, that are used to generate “base load” power—power that is always available even if the sun is down and the wind drops—especially because the compact reactors would easily plug into the existing gas turbine power infrastructure.

      Lockheed Martin’s T4 project reduces the size of the reactor tenfold for the same output, so nuclear fusion could also replace oil directly in a great many uses, like powering large ships. Its abundant, cheap electricity from a compact source could also eventually drive oil out of most other transportation uses, including automobiles and aircraft. Lockheed Martin talks about meeting global base load energy demand with fusion power by 2050.

      Lockheed Martin is not alone in the field. EMC2 Fusion Development Corp. is working on a similar concept in New Mexico, and other significant players in the field include Helion Energy in Washington state, Canadian-based General Fusion, and Tri-Alpha Energy in California. After half a century of desultory tinkering with fusion power, this is an idea whose time has come. Assuming that it really happens, what would that do to the world?

      For a start, it would kill off the coal industry entirely. Gas would be the next to go, but the demand for oil (and therefore its price) would also go into a long-term decline. The existing nuclear power plants, which depend upon fission for their energy, would be replaced with fusion plants on both cost and safety grounds. The geopolitical impacts would also be very large, as major countries that live on oil exports see their cash flow dry up.

      Russia, Venezuela, Nigeria, and other countries whose precarious prosperity and stability depend on large oil exports might face revolution or civil war when their income collapsed. So might Mexico, Indonesia, Iran, and perhaps some Arab countries. On the other hand, countries that currently spend a lot of their income on energy imports would suddenly find themselves much richer. (The United States leads the pack in this regard.)

      But above all, the threat of runaway global warming would go away.

      It’s already too late to avoid some very large impacts, because there is a great deal of carbon dioxide in the air that has not yet produced its full warming effect, and there are a lot more emissions to come even if fossil fuels are successfully phased out in a matter of decades. If fusion power became available soon enough, however, we would never exceed 2 degrees C higher average global temperature and trigger a global catastrophe.

      So you can fret all you want about terrorism and the other minor complaints of our times, but this is major-league Good News. And if you’re not happy with those predictions about “hot” fusion power, here’s something else to cheer you up.

      Cold fusion power, which depends on low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR), was dismissed with much ridicule when it was first mooted in 1989. Now it’s back on the table, and highly reputable organizations like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are taking it seriously.

      As Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA’s Langley Resarch Center, said in an interview last year, “Several labs have blown up studying LENR and windows have melted....When the conditions are ‘right’, prodigious amounts of energy can be produced and released.” The Age of Wonders is not past.

      Comments

      17 Comments

      William

      Oct 23, 2014 at 2:58pm

      It's bit of a shock to read positive news in a Gwynne Dyer article, but that makes it all the more pleasant :-) .

      My country (Australia) currently makes a lot of money out of selling coal to China so there might be some painful balance of payments adjustments coming down the road, but I think we can live with that if it means we can still grow food and not have to fend off starving refugees from the north.

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      JohnCan

      Oct 23, 2014 at 3:52pm

      I have my doubts about Lockheed, but this technology will get fleshed out sooner or later. When it does, the world will change.

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      Kot Begemot

      Oct 23, 2014 at 6:26pm

      "Lockheed Martin is not a fringe player hyping some technological fantasy in the hope of raising enough capital to build a prototype. It’s the biggest player in U.S. defence-related technology, and it has a reputation to protect. It would not have invited Aviation Week in last week unless it was pretty confident that the project will succeed."

      Oh rly? How about the F-35, which was supposed to be a cheap alternative to F-22 and replace F-16, A-10 and the Harrier. Instead the F-35 became known for delays and cost overruns (it already became most expensive military aircraft project ever). Started in 2001 the project is not out of testing yet, and the pentagon is spending billions to mass produce what is essentially a prototype aircraft. This "fusion reactor" seems like another perpetual prototype, or a ploy to drop oil futures even further.

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      Condolences

      Oct 23, 2014 at 6:54pm

      What would we fight for? J.Pilger writes: 'Australian PM Gough Whitlam, died this week. He dared to assert his country’s autonomy -The CIA and MI6 made him pay:
      Australia was a independent state during the Whitlam years, 72-75. An American commentator wrote that no country had "reversed its posture in so totally without a domestic revolution".

      "Latin Americans will recognise the audacity of this "breaking free" in a country whose establishment was welded to great, external power. Australians had served every British imperial adventure since the Boxer rebellion was crushed in China. In the 1960s, Australia pleaded to join the US in its invasion of Vietnam, then provided "black teams" to be run by the CIA. US diplomatic cables published last year by WikiLeaks disclose the names of leading figures in both main parties, including a future prime minister and foreign minister, as Washington's informants during the Whitlam years.

      When Whitlam was re-elected for a second term, in '74, the White House sent Marshall Green to Canberra as ambassador. Green was a sinister figure who worked in the shadows of America's "deep state". Known as the "coupmaster", he had played a central role in the '65 coup in Indonesia - which cost a million lives. One of his first speeches in Australia was to the Institute of Directors - described by a member of the audience as "an incitement to the country's business leaders to rise against the government".

      The CIA & MI6 worked together. In '75, Whitlam discovered that MI6 was operating against his government. "The Brits were actually decoding secret messages coming into my foreign affairs office," he said later. One of his ministers, Cameron, told me, "We knew MI6 was bugging Cabinet meetings for the Americans." In the '80s, senior CIA officers revealed that the "Whitlam problem" had been discussed "with urgency" by the CIA's director, Colby, and the head of MI6. A deputy director of the CIA said: "Kerr did what he was told."

      Whitlam was shown a top secret message sourced to the notorious head of the CIA's Asia Division. The message said that the pm of Australia was a security risk in his own country. Kerr sacked the democratic gov. on Nov11 - the day Whitlam was to inform Parliament about the secret CIA presence in Australia.'
      http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/23/gough-whitlam-1975-...

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      James Garrett-Chen

      Oct 24, 2014 at 1:09am

      @ Condolences

      Thank you so much for adding so much value here. He was a great man and a contemporary of other greats, including Allende and our own Dave Barrett. R.I.P.

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      Lee L

      Oct 24, 2014 at 11:02am

      Lougheed and it's approach to fusion is not the only player in the game.

      One of these players is the US Navy which has developed a repeatable and verified procedure for duplicating early and widely questioned 'cold fusion' claims.

      No these are not turnkey powerplant technologies and no such claim is being made here, but they are strong candidates for the energy technology that anyone who has thought about it knows will power the planet. Rather than wasting huge amounts of money on unreliable, weak and useless wind and solar (oh dear Germany!), we should be pouring that money and incentivizing fusion research and engineering. It's what has to happen eventually, you know. Why not now?

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      RUK

      Oct 24, 2014 at 11:12am

      @kot

      I'm not a huge Lockheed fan, but I don't hang the F35 debacle-before-our-eyes on them. First, I don't recall that they ever said the F35 would be an air superiority fighter that could hang with the F22. Second, the cost savings was supposed to come from not having to maintain stores or training for multiple types based on the F35 being able to do them all. Third, the Pentagon bought the F35 off of specs, instead of funding multiple companies to build up to a fly off. That's the Pentagon being stupid. Of course the F35 wound up being years late and way over budget.

      Fusion is a different department, it seems like LM is gonna make it and then sell it later. I see no reason to wish them ill - fusion energy would be an amazing asset to humanity

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      bcameron54

      Oct 24, 2014 at 8:02pm

      Desalinate seawater at a great scale, sod the Sahara and Great Western Deserts for wildlife, feed the world by irrigation of intensive horticulture, and reforest the continents. Fusion power could change everything.

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      G.R.L. Cowan

      Oct 25, 2014 at 5:41am

      Lithium and deuterium want to go, a few scientists and engineers want them to go -- and they did, in the Tsar Bomb -- and when they do, the world will change ...

      ... a little. Fission already provides inexhaustible clean inexpensive energy, guaranteeing that governments will someday lose their daily billions in fossil fuel revenue. The protracted difficulty of this will be essentially the same when the usurper is fission-plus-fusion as now, when it's just fission.