Monday, May 02, 2005

More Small Fusion?
When it comes to long-term energy solutions, nuclear fusion remains the holy grail. And while mammoth projects like the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor provide the best prospects for fusion, the idea of achieving it on a scale small enough to power a house, car or clothes dryer is still exciting. A couple of weeks ago I posted concerning “sonofusion”, a technique that some researchers claimed was achieving fusion through the collapse of bubbles. That process remains controversial. Now there is a new small-scale fusion development, based on colliding molecules of heavy hydrogen inside crystals.

Accelerating and crashing deuterium ions with electric fields in a crystal makes more intuitive sense than collapsing bubbles with sound waves to achieve the temperature and pressure required for fusion. Intuition hardly constitutes a basis for proof, though, and Dr. Putterman and his colleagues at UCLA will be busy for some time defending their findings, particularly the emission of statistically-significant quantities of neutrons, a classic fingerprint of nuclear reactions.

I find it reassuring that no one is claiming that this process, even if proven, will produce useful quantities of energy anytime soon, if ever. I’m more intrigued by some of the non-energy applications cited, such as medical devices or spacecraft propulsion. There might also be other, serendipitous applications for a small source of neutrons and x-rays that could indirectly contribute to meeting our energy needs, such as in creating a smaller, safer nuclear fission power plant.

It’s encouraging to see this kind of research continuing, but it won't solve our problems today. A breakthrough in a lab might translate into a world-changing energy source within a couple of decades. Meanwhile, we must continue to wrestle with the mundane problems of fuel efficiency, intermittent renewable power, NIMBY-provoking infrastructure projects, and the provision of enough oil, gas and coal to get us through the next big energy transformation.

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