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Monthly Archives: February 2012

"The building blocks of all creation"

There are only 2 known options when it comes to Nuclear Fusion Reactor. The first is a Laser Ignition Fusion Reactor and the second is a Plasma Fusion Reactor.

Laser Ignition

This machine has already been constructed in California. It involves 192 of the most powerful lasers in the world being fired into a single point. At this point of focus, temperatures reach tens of millions of degrees celcius. A small container of fuel is then entered into this space (Deuterium – an isotope of Hydrogen). This fuel is then instantaneously turned to plasma, and the deuterium particles begin to fuse together to produce Helium.

The current problems with this machine are the following:

– It is very difficult to contain the fusion, so the fuel is a very, very small volume (measures in microns cubed)
– levels of precision necessary are ridiculously high
– It is difficult to sustain fusion
– It currently draws more power than it produces

Plasma

These machines have also already been constructed. There is one in England (already mentioned in this blog – Tokamac) and one in South Korea (known as KSTAR). These machines use super powerful magnets to hold super heated plasma in a loop or donut shape. This plasma is held for months at a time, fusing continuously. They have already reached energy stable – max energy in = max energy out.

The current problems with this machine are the following:

– large numbers of rare semi-conducting magnets are needed
– Parts of the KSTAR machine need to be kept at -269.9 degrees C.
– Not yet possible to run continuously (i.e. years at a time)

 

So fusion reactors are not entirely things of science fiction. They are there, in the background. Maybe Nuclear Fusion is not as far away as some people may think? Here is some food for thought:

During WW2, it took the words greatest minds 6 years to unlock the secrets of nuclear fission in a massive secret project known as the Manhattan project. This project was going to save the world from the threats of fascism and communism.

If we gathered all the worlds greatest minds now, in 2012, how long would it take to save the world?

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We were given a lecture by Seaton Baxter from Dundee University looking into ecological design.

Baxter pointed out the current trends that humanity are showing and that – if we continue as we are now – surely catastrophe will result. In Baxter’s opinion, it would surely make sense to seek recession and shy from growth. He points out this does not need to be taken in a negative light, and that we could view it as “falling into paradise, not climbing into hell.”

Baxter’s views are well founded, I think. There are simply too many human beings on the planet, not enough food to support our ravenous hunger, not enough raw material to make our stuff, not enough fuel to burn and we are simply not clever enough to dig ourselves out of this hole.

There definately needs to be a social change involved in the solution (if there even is a solution). This social change is not just large scale (political) but also small scale (personal).

However, there seems to be a large part of the problem that baxter seems to have overlooked. The decline that Baxter is hoping for would inevitably result in millions of humans suffering and dying.

We in the west would be in a better position to ride out a large scale fall, but people in developing nations would seriously struggle. What about the families that need many family members to work, to bring in money and food so that that family can survive? This is the problem with just saying “oh well, just adopt China’s one child policy.”

It may work for us, with our relative comfort in the west. But, for much poorer families and communities – this is simply suicide.

I don’t really know what my point is here. I suppose this highlights how complex the problem is. There is really no easy way out of the hole that humanity has dug itself. Even with some world-saving energy source (such as nuclear fusion), there are still massive problems getting away from fossil fuels, growing enough food, sustaining the environment, etc.

Short of kulling 3/4 of the population, how can we possibly get out of this?

We were given a lecture by Nicolas Oddy – a Lecturer at GSA, who was exploring the need for designers in society.

One major point that he raised was that, in his view, design has always tried to overstep its purpose. The idea that good design is morally good, and bad design is morally bad seems –  in Oddy’s view – to be simply nonsense.

 

"Good design = morally good, bad design = morally bad"


Is this true?

Personally, I am not sure of the answer to this question. I think the answer lies somewhere inbetween yes and no. I think good design can influence society in a positive way, just as poor design can have serious negative connotations.

Looking at something as trivial as types of patterned carpet somewhat degrades the argument. What about the design of hospitals? The design of machines of war?

What do you think?

What we leave behind for our descendants

Nuclear waste is one of the most dangerous, most feared and most worried-over materials known to man. Highly radioactive materials that have been spent as nuclear fuel inside some nuclear reactor, now to live the rest of their (not-so-short) radioactive lives buried miles underground.

To put it simply… Radioactive waste is.. well.. it’s annoying.

The typical reactor fuels found in large scale nuclear fission reactors are: UOX (Uranium Oxide) & MOX (plutonium and mixed oxides with depleted uranium). When these fuels are “used up” (which means they have become less efficient at splitting atoms) they are dangerously radioactive for approximately 10,000 – 100,000 years.
Even with a radioactive half-life (the time in which it takes the materials radiation levels to half) of 50-70 years, UOX & MOX still are dangerous 1000 years after decommission.

This is rather irritating. We have to find big caverns deep underground (sufficient to isolate the gamma & X-Ray radiation) to effectively hide our shameful waste.

This is the real problem with Nuclear Fission Energy. It is a nightmare to get rid of the waste.

However, with Nuclear Fusion Energy – what kind of waste products could we expect? How many thousand square kilometers would have to be used as nuclear waste deposits? How many glowing, green barrels would we leave for our children and their children?

Well.. the answer, to all three, is none. The only by-product of nuclear fusion is helium and heat.
Hence why fusion is so exciting!

 

"Some people wait for Technological Cavalry to arrive..."

I have to admit folks, I am certainly part of the hopeful crowd waiting for technology to arrive to save the day. And, if you have read my blogs, no doubt you can guess what I am waiting for to save the day…

The idea of changing my entire life to be drastically more sustainable is very difficult for me to deal with. Which, I suppose highlights some more negative aspects of (at the very least) my own nature, such as selfishness, greed and sloth. Ben mentioned something which really confused me. He made a comment on windmills, that he would rather drastically change the way he lives than install a windmill every 3.5 km. Personally, I would much rather install the windmills, and get on with my life… Is that bad?

I think that long-term, Ben is totally right about changing our social attitudes being more important than changing our technology. Unless we drastically change our social/political stance, even with solutions like nuclear fusion, we will still encounter problems like global warming.

On a more optimistic point, I really enjoyed Ben’s numerical approach to some problems. It is exciting to see how simple some of these calculations are to do, and to see the useful numbers you can calculate easily and quickly.