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For fifty years the smartest people and the biggest power brokers in the world have designed and funded and constructed huge, expensive tokamaks, laser arrays, and other awe-inspiring mega-technology, trying in vain to reach breakeven energy output in a thermal plasma fusion reaction - relying on the random collisions of nuclei in a chaotic, high-temperature confined plasma to produce a small percentage of fusion events.

But in 2008 Yue Shi, a DARPA-funded grad student at Cornell, designed and constructed prototypes of tiny linear particle accelerators on microchips, capable of significantly boosting the energy of input particles.  Inevitably, she and her advisor Amit Lal examined the tantalizing possibility that chains or arrays of such semiconductor accelerators could push ionized deuterium nuclei to fusion energies.  The math is encouraging--read their 2009 patent application here.

This development has the hallmarks of a breakthrough "small is better" approach that could well bypass the entire "big fusion" debacle.  By contrast with the brute force, hard-way approaches of the last five decades, which attempted to heat volumes of fuel plasma to over 150 million degrees, precision manipulation of smaller numbers of fuel particles in a tightly-confining microstructure may reach much higher efficiency levels in a "microchip fusor"--perhaps high enough to produce small net power in a small package, e.g. at a flashlight-battery level.  Then we would have a safe, sane, and scalable fusion power cell, capable of being "stacked" by the thousands into commercial power arrays--or vehicle power plants ("Mr. Fusion"?).

It would be ironic (though, somehow appropriate) if the macho big-dumb-fusion effort, long the stronghold of elite male physicists, were trumped by a lady grad student with a clever little microchip. :)

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Comment Preferences

  •  That Sounds Amazing. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Mr Robert, FarWestGirl, blue muon

    I've got no skills to think about that branch of physics so I'll be interested to read further comments.

    I do recall my Dad's grad school text predicting fusion power in 20 years. That was in the Big Band era.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 01:04:13 PM PST

    •  The breakthrough is always (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      wilderness voice, blue muon

      twenty years away.

      Back in the 1960s I went to the National Science Fair that was held in Albuquerque, New Mexico that particular year.

      One of the great parts of the fair was being able to take field trips to various national labs including Sandia and Los Alamos.

      At the time, a lot of the research into fusion was taking place at Sandia and they assured us that they expected to reach the breakeven point in no more than twenty years. So not much has changed, they're still saying the same thing.

      The only trouble with retirement is...I never get a day off!

      by Mr Robert on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 03:58:51 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  The fusion researchers that have (5+ / 0-)

    devoted their careers to developing he ultimate clean energy source hardly deserve to be labeled big, dumb, and macho. Why can't you just talk about the creative path taken by this grad student without denigrating every scientist working within the international fusion collaboration?

    •  I concur (7+ / 0-)

      Why wouldn't scientists start working with big, hot systems to get fusion?  After all, that is how nature does it (stars) and we have done it(thermonuclear weapons).  We KNOW that fusion under those conditions works.  Starting with obvious is a good way to work.  

      On the other hand, entrenched science can sometimes be very reluctant to listen to alternative pathways.  It would be hard if you have spent years of your life and millions or billions of dollars and here comes this solution that is elegant and sweet and small...

      "When Kepler found his long-cherished belief did not agree with the most precise observation, he accepted the uncomfortable fact. He preferred the hard truth to his dearest illusions; that is the heart of science."
      Carl Sagan

      Easier said than done.

      Wisconsin, Forward!

      by astroguy on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 02:07:50 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  It is an engineering problem, and requires (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ET3117, DarthMeow504, Blubba

        a lot more funding than the international consortium now invests. We don't know which approach will win the day. But there is absolutely no reason to shit on the vast majority of fusion scientists just because some female grad student had a novel idea. It's just petty and mean. Not what we progressives are all about.

        •  Snooty answer. Nevertheless... (0+ / 0-)

          ... 50 years of failure maybe deserves to get shit on a little, if you must see it that way.  Lot of billions down the drain, not one kilowatt of commercial energy.  New generation thinks outside the box, makes progress.  Sounds pretty goddam progressive to me.  Human race desperately needs progress in this area.  Male big-fusion teams aren't making it.  What's your problem?  Sounds like somebody's ego is hurtin.

    •  It's a brand new thing no one has ever thought of. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      doc2

      Obviously everyone who came before were moronic troglodytes standing in the way of progress.

  •  Energy from fusion reaction - either massive or (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    YellerDog

    micro - would be the greatest invention since the wheel.

    •  not necessarily so (0+ / 0-)

      Micro fusion might also be very available and very cheap. Can you imagine the horrors of massive amounts of cheap energy in the hands of some people? If you think an AK-47 can deliver massive carnage, just give the notion of cheap and unlimited energy in the hands of Billybob a few mental whiffs.

      •  ... (0+ / 0-)

        Yes, and it's probably not good.

        Per watt-hour, fusion generates a lot more radiation/radioactive waste than does fission. (That's the real elephant in the room regarding fusion power.)

        Even fusion reactors that do not generate net power generate considerable amounts of radiation -- high schoolers that have built fusion reactors have generated considerable amounts of radiation.

        You can't readily make a bomb out of a fusion reactor, but you will create lots of radioactive waste that needs safe disposal, and can readily create the fissile materials needed for a bomb.

        •  As I understand it, (0+ / 0-)

          the waste is more radioactive than in fission, but has a much shorter half life.  Figuring out how to store waste safely for 50-100 years is far easier than the generations you have to plan for in fission waste confinement.

          In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.

          by Cixelsyd on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 07:56:56 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Wait, what? (0+ / 0-)

          How the hell do you get fissile materials from a fusion reaction? Fusion involves turning hydrogen (atomic number 1) into helium (atomic number 2). Fissile materials are large, heavy atoms like uraniu ad plutonium with atomic numbers into the 200 range. How the hell do you get one from the other?

          I'd appreciate a citation on this, please.

          "Is there anybody listening? Is there anyone who sees what's going on? Read between the lines, criticize the words they're selling. Think for yourself, and feel the walls become sand beneath your feet." --Geoff Tate, Queensryche

          by DarthMeow504 on Sun Jan 27, 2013 at 08:43:38 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  ... (0+ / 0-)

            If you want them, you take something like uranium (heavy) and expose them to the radiation flux of your fusion reactor. Then chemically extract the plutonium (or thorium or ...).

            Even if you don't want fissiles, your reactor will almost certainly need to include materials like iron, lithium, zirconium, &c, which will become radioactive under flux.

            Cixelsyd is right that these generally have shorter half-lives than the by-products of fission reactors. The downside is that (should fusion become economically and energetically practicable) there are likely to be a lot more of them per MWh generated than a comparable fission reactor.

  •  On a episode of a show on stars a bit of info (0+ / 0-)

    was said that peak my interest and that was that Fusion was when the Hydrogen was traveling 1000 miles per second now I was always assuming that speeds of those atoms had to be way faster like had I been asked I would had guessed at least 60,000 MPS so if this 1000 MPS is correct that means that methods that can get Hydrogen up to that speed should work course my thought was very long Rail-guns firing Lithium Deuterium Tritium Pellets at each other but if those speeds could be done on a Microchip with a few atoms at a time then that would be great.

  •  Totally not part of the original Spectrum article (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    antooo, wilderness voice, eyesoars

    The IEEE Spectrum article talks about a particle accelerator on a chip.  But it doesn't talk about fusion: That's like saying that a spoon can dam the Yangtze River.  

    The article points out that the chip creates energy levels nine to ten (decimal) orders of magnitude lower than CERN.  If the chip can be made a few orders of magnitude more powerful, it might become a medical tool, useful in surgery.  (Proton knives are the latest Big Medicine tool, costing about $100M.  This might become a cheap one.)  But that's still orders of magnitude away from fusion.

    There are basically two possible approaches to fusion.  One is the "big science" approach, using high energy to overcome the forces that prevent fusion.  This is what happens in the Sun under mega-gravity.  It is hard, and may never have a net gain in a practical power system.  It has been thirty years from commercialization for fifty years or so.  The other approach, low-energy fusion, is more controversial.  It is not proven at all; the idea is that maybe there are other ways that nuclei might fuse that don't require more energy input than output and which  work on a small scale at lower temperatures.  The famous/infamous (depends on your point of view) Pons-Fleischmann palladium cold fusion cell is one possible example, though it may not work at all (this is rather controversial -- it is devilishly hard to reproduce but apparently has been done).

    The particle accelerator on a chip takes a big-science approach (particle acceleration) on a small scale (not billions of electron volts), where fusion is simply not in the offing.  It's still a neat development; let's just not misunderstand what it does or what it could be good for.

    •  READ THE F*ing PATENT APPLICATION (0+ / 0-)

      ... that's why I linked it.  The IEEE article, true, doesn't mention fusion.  The inventors' patent application, on the other hand, is all about nuclear fusion applications.  There's no question what they're aiming at.

      I knew I was going to get this off-the-cuff objection based on just the IEEE article, sheesh... people please read first, then yap your yapper.  OK?

      •  Patents are often full of crap (0+ / 0-)

        The USPTO is full of applications for perpetual motion machines, even though they're not patentable.  Often the patent is granted -- the perpetual motion aspect is obscured in the wording.

        There's nothing in the proposed technology that has ANYTHING AT ALL to do with nuclear fusion!  The Spectrum editors figured that out.  You may imagine that somehow a chip can achieve tera-eletron-volt power somehow, but that's not proposed.  Getting a car to go 60 MPH is one thing; getting something to go 60,000 MPH is something else.  Hence the term "rocket science". We've got a cute new little red wagon here, not a rocket.

  •  Huh? (5+ / 0-)

    Getting nuclei to fuse is simple.

    Getting net power out of it is not.

    There's nothing I see here suggesting that there's been any kind of breakthrough on the power collection/management problem.

    Farnsworth Fusactors have been built by quite a few people, including high school students. They readily collide hydrogen (or deuterium or ...) nuclei together, yielding fusion (and its byproducts, including X-rays, neutrons, ...). Getting net power out of them, however, is another issue entirely.

    The bulk of these various reactors is not required to get fusion, it's required to get the energy losses down to manageable levels, to extract more energy than is put in.

    Whatever breakthrough this comprises, it doesn't do anything to address the basic problems confronting fusion power.

    •  You beat me to it. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      eyesoars

      The patent application, which it isn't clear that the author read, says the device "...might serve as a miniature neutron and/or X-ray source for applications including interrogation of packages containing fissile material, a high power efficiency source for collimated ionic streams for medical therapy applications, as a device to provide medically and industrially relevant isotopes, and others." Nowhere does it speculate that it could be used as a net power generator or use the words "break even" like he does liberally in the diary.

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