The Fusion Energy Dream

One of the most attractive options for our energy future is nuclear fusion, where we can turn hydrogen into helium. Nuclear fusion works, even on Earth, as we can see when a hydrogen bomb goes off. The available energy is huge. Nuclear fusion will solve our energy crisis, we have been told, and it will be available in forty years. That is what we were told about 60 years ago, and you will usually hear the same forty year prediction now!

Nuclear fusion, you will be told, is what powers the sun, however we won’t be doing what the sun does any time soon. You may guess there is a problem in that the sun is not a spectacular hydrogen bomb. What the sun does is to squeeze hydrogen atoms together to make the lightest isotope of helium, i.e. 2He. This is extremely unstable, and the electric forces will push the protons apart in an extremely short time, like a billionth of a billionth of a second might be the longest it can last, and probably not that long. However, if it can acquire an electron, or eject a positron, before it decays it turns into deuterium, which is a proton and a neutron. (The sun also uses a carbon-oxygen cycle to convert hydrogen to helium.) The difficult thing that a star does, and what we will not do anytime soon, is to make neutrons (as opposed to freeing them).

The deuterium can then fuse to make helium, usually first with another proton to make 3He, and then maybe with another to make 4He. Each fusion makes a huge amount of energy, and the star works because the immense pressure at the centre allows the occasional making of deuterium in any small volume. You may be surprised by the use of the word “occasional”; the reason the sun gives off so much energy is simply that it is so big. Occasional is good. The huge amount of energy released relieves some of the pressure caused by the gravity, and this allows the star to live a very long time. At the end of a sufficiently large star’s life, the gravity allows the material to compress sufficiently that carbon and oxygen atoms fuse, and this gives of so much energy that the increase in pressure causes  the reaction  to go out of control and you have a supernova. A bang is not good.

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been working on fusion, and has claimed a breakthrough. Their process involves firing 192 laser beams onto a hollow target about 1 cm high and a diameter of a few millimeters, which is apparently called a hohlraum. This has an inner lining of gold, and contains helium gas, while at the centre is a tiny capsule filled with deuterium/tritium, the hydrogen atoms with one or two neutrons in addition to the required proton. The lasers heat the hohlraum so that the gold coating gives off a flux of Xrays. The Xrays heat the capsule causing material on the outside to fly off at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per second. Conservation of momentum leads to the implosion of the capsule, which gives, hopefully, high enough temperatures and pressures to fuse the hydrogen isotopes.

So what could go wrong? The problem is the symmetry of the pressure. Suppose you had a spherical-shaped bag of gel that was mainly water, and, say, the size of a football and you wanted to squeeze all the water out to get a sphere that only contained the gelling solid. The difficulty is that the pressure of a fluid inside a container is equal in all directions (leaving aside the effects of gravity). If you squeeze harder in one place than another, the pressure relays the extra force per unit area to one where the external pressure is weaker, and your ball expands in that direction. You are fighting jelly! Obviously, the physics of such fluids gets very complicated. Everyone knows what is required, but nobody knows how to fill the requirement. When something is unequal in different places, the effects are predictably undesirable, but stopping them from being unequal is not so easy.

The first progress was apparently to make the laser pulses more energetic at the beginning. The net result was to get up to 17 kJ of fusion energy per pulse, an improvement on their original 10 kJ. The latest success produced 1.3 MJ, which was equivalent to 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for a 100 trillionth of a second. An energy generation of 1.3 MJ from such a small vessel may seem a genuine achievement, and it is, but there is further to go. The problem is that the energy input to the lasers was 1.9 MJ per pulse. It should be realised that that energy is not lost. It is still there so the actual output of a pulse would be 3.2 MJ of energy. The problem is that the output includes the kinetic energy of the neutrons etc produced, and it is always as heat whereas the input energy was from electricity, and we have not included the losses of power when converting electricity to laser output. Converting that heat to electricity will lose quite a bit, depending on how it is done. If you use the heat to boil water the losses are usually around 65%. In my novels I suggest using the magnetohydrodynamic effect that gets electricity out of the high velocity of the particles in the plasma. This has been made to work on plasmas made by burning fossil fuels, which doubles the efficiency of the usual approach, but controlling plasmas from nuclear fusion would be far more difficult. Again, very easy to do in theory; very much less so in practice. However, the challenge is there. If we can get sustained ignition, as opposed to such a short pulse, the amount of energy available is huge.

Sustained fusion means the energy emitted from the reaction is sufficient to keep it going with fresh material injected as opposed to having to set up containers in containers at the dead centre of a multiple laser pulse. Now, the plasma at over 100,000,000 degrees Centigrade should be sufficient to keep the fusion going. Of course that will involve even more problems: how to contain a plasma at that temperature; how to get the fuel into the reaction without melting then feed tubes or dissipating the hydrogen; how to get the energy out in a usable form; how to cool the plasma sufficiently? Many questions; few answers.

What to do about Climate Change

As noted in my previous post, the IPCC report on climate change is out. If you look at the technical report, it starts with pages of corrections. I would have thought that in these days the use of a word processor could permit the changes to be made immediately, but what do I know? Anyway, what are the conclusions? As far as I can make out, they have spent an enormous effort measuring greenhouse gas emissions and modelling, and have concluded that greenhouse gases are the cause of our problem and if we stopped emitting right now, totally, things would not get appreciably worse than they are now over the next century. As far as I can make out, that is it. They argue that CO2 emissions give a linear effect and for every trillion tonnes emitted, temperatures will rise by 0.45 Centigrade degrees, with a fairly high error margin. So we have to stop emitting.

The problem is, can we? In NZ we have a very high fraction of our electricity from renewable sources and we recently had a night of brown-outs in one region. It was the coldest night of the year, there was a storm over most of the country, but oddly enough there was hardly any wind at a wind farm. A large hydro station went out as well because the storm blew weeds into an intake and the station had to shut down and clean it out. The point is that when electricity generation is a commercial venture, it is not in the generating companies’ interests to have a whole lot of spare capacity and it make no sense to tear down what is working well and making money to spend a lot replacing it. So, the policy of using what we have means we are stuck where we are. China has announced, according to our news, that its coal-fired power stations will maximise and plateau their output of CO2 in about ten years. We have no chance of zero emissions in the foreseeable future. Politicians and environmentalists can dream on but there is too much inertia in an economy. Like a battleship steering straight for the wharf, the inevitable will happen.

Is there a solution? My opinion is, if you have to persist in reducing the heat being radiated to space, the best option is to stop letting so much energy from the sun into the system. The simplest experiment I can think of is to put huge amounts of finely dispersed white material, like the silica a volcano puts up, over the North Polar regions each summer to reflect sunlight back to space. If we can stop as much winter ice melting, we would be on the way to stop the potential overturn of the Gulf Stream and stop the Northern Siberian methane emissions. Just maybe this would also encourage more snow in the winter as the dust falls out.

Then obvious question is, how permanent would such a dispersion be? The short answer is, I don’t know, and it may be difficult to predict because of what is called the Arctic oscillation. When that is in a positive phase it appears that winds tend to circulate over the poles, so it may be possible to maintain dust over summer. It is less clear what happens in the negative phase. However, either way someone needs to calculate how much light has to be blocked to stop the Arctic (and Antarctic) warming. Maybe such a scheme would not be practical, but unless we at least make an effort to find out, we are in trouble.

This raises the question of who pays? In my opinion, every country with a port benefits if we can stop major sea level rising, so all should. Of course, we shall find that not all are cooperative. A further problem is that the outcome is somewhat unpredictable. The dust only has to last during the late spring and summer, because the objective is to reflect sunlight. For the period when the sun is absent it is irrelevant. We would also have to be sure the dust was not hazardous to health but we have lived through volcanic eruptions that have caused major lowering of the temperature world-wide so there will be suitable material.

There will always be some who lose on the deal. The suggestion of putting the dust over the Arctic would make the weather less pleasant in Murmansk, Fairbanks, Yukon, etc, but it would only return it to what it used to be. It is less clear what it would do elsewhere. If the arctic became colder, presumably there would be colder winter storms in more temperate regions. However, it might be better that we manage the climate than then planet does, thus if the Gulf Stream went, Europe would suffer both rising sea levels and temperatures and weather more like that of Kerguelen. In my opinion, it is worth trying.

But what is the betting any proposal for geoengineering has no show of getting off the ground? The politically correct want to solve the problem by everyone giving up something, they have not done the sums to estimate the consequences, and worse, some will give things up but enough won’t so that such sacrifices will be totally ineffective. We have the tragedy of the commons: if some are not going to cooperate and the scheme hence must fail, why should you even try? We need to find ways of reducing emissions other than by stopping an activity, as opposed to the emission.

Climate Change: Are We Baked?

The official position from the IPCC’s latest report is that the problem of climate change is getting worse. The fires and record high temperatures in Western United States and British Columbia, Greece and Turkey may be portents of what is coming. There have been terrible floods in Germany and New Zealand has had its bad time with floods as well. While Germany was getting flooded, the town of Westport was inundated, and the Buller river had flows about 30% higher than its previous record flood. There is the usual hand-wringing from politicians. Unfortunately, at least two serious threats that have been ignored.

The first is the release of additional methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is about 35 times more efficient at retaining heat than carbon dioxide. The reason is absorption of infrared depends on the change of dipole moment during absorption. CO2 is a linear molecule and has three vibrational modes. One involves the two oxygen atoms both moving the same way so there is no change of dipole moment, the two changes cancelling each other. Another is as if the oxygen atoms are stationary and the carbon atom wobbles between them. The two dipoles now do not cancel, so that absorbs, but the partial cancellation reduces the strength. The third involves molecular bending, but the very strong bond means the bend does not move that much, so again the absorption is weak. That is badly oversimplified, but I hope you get the picture.

Methane has four vibrations, and rather than describe them, try this link: http://www2.ess.ucla.edu/~schauble/MoleculeHTML/CH4_html/CH4_page.html

Worse, its vibrations are in regions totally different from carbon dioxide, which means it is different radiation that cannot escape directly to space.

This summer, average temperatures in parts of Siberia were 6 degrees Centigrade above the 1980 – 2000 average and methane is starting to be released from the permafrost. Methane forms a clathrate with ice, that is it rearranges the ice structure and inserts itself when under pressure, but the clathrate decomposes on warming to near the ice melting point. This methane has formed from the anaerobic digestion of plant material and been trapped by the cold, so if released we get delivered suddenly all methane that otherwise would have been released and destroyed over several million years. There are about eleven billion tonnes of methane estimated to be in clathrates that could be subject to decomposition, about the effect of over 35 years of all our carbon dioxide emissions, except that as I noted, this works in a totally fresh part of the spectrum. So methane is a problem; we all knew that.

What we did not know a new source has been identified as published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently. Apparently significantly increased methane concentrations were found in two areas of northern Siberia: the Tamyr fold belt and the rim of the Siberian Platform. These are limestone formations from the Paleozoic era. In both cases the methane increased significantly during heat waves. The soil there is very thin so there is very little vegetation to decay and it was claimed the methane was stored in and now emitted from fractures in the limestone.

The  second major problem concerns the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), also known as the Atlantic conveyor. What it does is to take warm water that gets increasingly salty up the east Coast of the US, then switch to the Gulf Stream and warm Europe (and provide moisture for the floods). As it loses water it gets increasingly salty and with its increased density it dives to the Ocean floor and flows back towards the equator. Why this is a problem is that the melting Northern Polar and Greenland ice is providing a flood of fresh water that dilutes the salty water. When the density of the water is insufficient to cause it to sink this conveyer will simply stop. At that point the whole Atlantic circulation as it is now stops. Europe chills, but the ice continues to melt. Because this is a “stopped” circulation, it cannot be simply restarted because the ocean will go and do something else. So, what to do? The first thing is that simply stopping burning a little coal won’t be enough. If we stopped emitting CO2 now, the northern ice would keep melting at its current rate. All we would do is stop it melting faster.

Scientists Behaving Badly

You may think that science is a noble activity carried out by dedicated souls thinking only of the search for understanding and of improving the lot of society. Wrong! According to an item published in Nature ( https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02035-2) there is rot in the core. A survey of 64,000 researchers at 22 universities in the Netherlands was carried out, 6,813 actually filled out the form and returned it, and an estimated 8% of scientists who so returned their forms in the anonymous survey confessed to falsifying or fabricating data at least once between 2017 and 2020. Given that a fraudster is less likely to confess, that figure is probably a clear underestimate.

There is worse. More than half of respondents also reported frequently engaging in “questionable research practices”. These include using inadequate research designs, which can be due to poor funding and hence more understandable, and frankly this could be a matter of opinion. On the other hand, if you confess to doing it you are at best slothful. Much worse, in my opinion, was deliberately judging manuscripts or fund applications while peer reviewing unfairly. Questionable research practices are “considered lesser evils” than outright research misconduct, which includes plagiarism and data fabrication. I am not so sure of that. Dismissing someone else’s work or fund application hurts their career.

There was then the question of “sloppy work”, which included failing to “preregister experimental protocols (43%), make underlying data available (47%) or keep comprehensive research records (56%)” I might be in danger here. I had never heard about “preregistering protocols”. I suspect that is more for the medical research than for physical sciences. My research has always been of the sort where you plan the next step based on the last step you have taken. As for “comprehensive records, I must admit my lab books have always been cryptic. My plan was to write it down, and as long as I could understand it, that was fine. Of course, I have worked independently and records were so I could report more fully and to some extent for legal reasons.

If you think that is bad, there is worse in medicine. On July 5 an item appeared in the British Medical Journal with the title “Time to assume that health research is fraudulent until proven otherwise?” One example: a Professor of epidemiology apparently published a review paper that included a paper that showed mannitol halved the death rate from comparable injuries. It was pointed out to him that that paper that he reviewed was based on clinical trials that never happened! All the trials came from a lead author who “came from an institution” that never existed! There were a number of co-authors but none had ever contributed patients, and many did not even know they were co-authors. Interestingly, none of the trials had been retracted so the fake stuff is still out there.

Another person who carried out systematic reviews eventually realized that only too many related to “zombie trials”. This is serious because it is only by reviewing a lot of different work can some more important over-arching conclusions be drawn, and if a reasonable percentage of the data is just plain rubbish everyone can jump to the wrong conclusions. Another medical expert attached to the journal Anaesthesia found from 526 trials, 14% had false data and 8% were categorised as zombie trials. Remember, if you are ever operated on, anaesthetics are your first hurdle! One expert has guessed that 20% of clinical trials as reported are false.

So why doesn’t peer review catch this? The problem for a reviewer such as myself is that when someone reports numbers representing measurements, you naturally assume they were the results of measurement. I look to see that they “make sense” and if they do, there is no reason to suspect them. Further, to reject a paper because you accuse it of fraud is very serious to the other person’s career, so who will do this without some sort of evidence?

And why do they do it? That is easier to understand: money and reputation. You need papers to get research funding and to keep your position as a scientist. It is very hard to detect, unless someone repeats your work, and even then there is the question, did they truly repeat it? We tend to trust each other, as we should be able to. Published results get rewards, publishers make money, Universities get glamour (unless they get caught out). Proving fraud (as opposed to suspecting it) is a skilled, complicated and time-consuming process, and since it shows badly on institutions and publishers, they are hardly enthusiastic. Evil peer review, i.e. dumping someone’s work to promote your own is simply strategic, and nobody will do anything about it.

It is, apparently, not a case of “bad apples”, but as the BMJ article states, a case of rotten forests and orchards. As usual, as to why, follow the money.