Hello my fellow crumpteers
I bet you thought this was going to be yet another blog post featuring a tasty array of shirtless hawties didn’t you? You bunch of dirty old perves! Sadly for you the heat I am going to talk about today is of the sort generated by BIG science. Secondly shirtless crumpets don’t make me go “wow” – as I am normally rendered incapable of normal cognition or speech. Anyhow I am going to out myself as a hopeless geek and admit that despite being a “bear of little brain” I find this stuff mind blowing. I’m writing about it because I want to get the very basics clear in my own head. My ultimate goal is to be able to pick apart factual inaccuracies in sci-fi films thus making myself a very annoying person. At the very least I hope to enhance my enjoyment of Big Bang Theory (the TV show and the actual theory).
Let’s kick off with nuclear fusion
We all know what nuclear fission is right? It’s splitting heavy atoms in order to release truck loads of energy in the form of heat. You know how Mother Nature’s a bitch? She doesn’t want us interfering with atoms and there’s some nasty consequences involved. Firstly fission leads to radio active waste that stays live and dangerous for ridiculous lengths of time – like over 100,000 years. Scarily there is still no global agreement about the best way of dealing with it. In fact much of it is just sitting around in drums. Secondly the technology can be leveraged to build weapons. Thirdly no one wants another Chernobyl disaster. Finally there’s just not that much uranium around the place. Its estimated that at current rates of usage the supply will run out in 200 years*.
Nuclear fusion is a completely different ball game – its taking lighter atoms and joining them together as happens naturally inside stars. Its natural but that doesn’t mean its easy – far from it. Anyhow put simply the recipe is – Take two different types of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium – if we are going to get finickity) and cook at over 100 million degrees for a few seconds. Viola! Remove helium, some stray neutrons and an absolute shirt load of energy from the oven.
The sweet thing is that the only byproduct is helium – no carbon emissions, no radio active waste! If we can make this fly it will give us phenomenal bang for our buck as the process expected to give out 10x the energy that we put in. So IF we can get this thing to work, not only will all the world’s energy woes be solved but they’ll stay solved for hundreds of thousands of years. Heck the zombies will be using it come the zombie apocalypse. The problem is as I have mentioned before that Mother Nature is a bitch. She really doesn’t like us human’s messing with the forces that bind atoms together and she’s made it extraordinarily difficult for us to squeeze our way in there.
To overcome the natural forces holding the nucleus of the hydrogen atoms together the gas has to be heated to around 150 million degrees. That’s wicked hot. Its six times hotter than the core of the sun and almost as hot as Fassbender in the buff. Scientists haven’t perfected a way of getting the gas to those temperatures but they are working on it with lasers and magnetic fields. I’d suggest that they fill a cinema with middle aged women and show the Avengers movie.
The second problem is that there’s no material on earth that can contain this sort of heat – anything we can come up with would instantly vaporize. I guess this explains why cinemas full of middle aged women watching the Avengers have simply disappeared. To get around this minor inconvenience engineers are working on trapping the super hot gas within a doughnut shaped magnetic field which is imagined to look a bit like this.
The reactor also has to capture all those rogue neutrons spraying about. The best way to do it is with a “blanket” that covers the inner wall of the doughnut which will absorb the neutron blizzard and convert their energy into heat then electricity. Holey Moley – isn’t it amazing that there are people who can not only think of this stuff but can actually build it!
I cant wait to see how all this pans out. Unfortunately we won’t know if its practical until the 2030s and then it probably wont go mainstream until the 2050s. Luckily the best and brightest minds are currently working on it. CERN and the Large Hadron Collider may be getting all the limelight at the moment but there’s an even bigger project going on just to the south in Provence. Construction is beginning on the first commercial fusion reactor. The ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is the world’s biggest scientific collaboration with contributions from 34 countries. (Only the International Space Station is bigger). Its also chewed through 13 bil pounds so far. Yet despite this epic outpouring of money, resources and man power we rarely hear about it in the mainstream media. Whats’ up with that?
Nuclear fusion – just one thing that is making me go “wow”.
What’s making you go “wow”?
*According to the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA)