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A Star in a Bottle (newyorker.com)
276 points by numlocked on Feb 24, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 157 comments

As a child, I read Friday by Robert A Heinlein, which portrayed a future in which energy needs are addressed by energy storage devices called "Shipstones", which are described as a way to pack more kilowatt-hours into a smaller space and a smaller mass than any other engineer had ever dreamed of. To call it an "improved storage battery" (as some early accounts did) is like calling an H-bomb an "improved firecracker."

In the novel, the Shipstone's eponymous inventor realised "that the problem was not a shortage of energy but lay in the transporting of energy. Energy is everywhere—in sunlight, in wind, in mountain streams, in temperature gradients of all sorts wherever found, in coal, in fossil oil, in radioactive ores, in green growing things. Especially in ocean depths and in outer space energy is free for the taking in amounts lavish beyond all human comprehension.

"Those who spoke of "energy scarcity" and of "conserving energy" simply did not understand the situation. The sky was "raining soup"; what was needed was a bucket in which to carry it."

Ever since then, I've been far more interested in new methods of storing and transporting energy than in new methods of generating energy.

Also, what happens if the mechanisms that contain the "Star in a Bottle" fail? Will the French Alps suddenly and catastrophically acquire a new valley?

  Also, what happens if the mechanisms that contain the "Star 
  in a Bottle" fail? Will the French Alps suddenly and 
  catastrophically acquire a new valley?
This is a reasonable concern, but your intuitions on the physical processes involved are off by a couple orders of magnitude.

From a previous comment on another fusion story, two years ago: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2839722

  Fusion reactors are fundamentally different from fission 
  reactors. You have to get a tenuous wisp of hydrogen (the 
  reactor in this particular experiment was running at 10 
  mTorr, or 0.0013% atmospheric pressure) very, very hot, and 
  keep it away from solid matter, which is millions of 
  degrees of colder than the fuel plasma, and will suck all 
  of the energy out of the reaction.

  You shut off the containment coils, and tremendously hot 
  plasma ions leap away from each other, instantly stopping 
  the reaction. If the reaction somehow "runs away", which it 
  absolutely can't, then it brushes the walls of the vacuum 
  chamber, poisoning it with cold metal ions, like injecting 
  lead shavings that have been chilled to absolute zero 
  directly into your heart.

  If our magical "runaway reaction" somehow overcomes this, 
  and melts a hole in the vacuum chamber, then the atmosphere 
  rushes in, both freezing cold and at intolerably high 
  pressure, like the North Sea flooding into the hull of a 
  submarine resting on the ocean floor.

  Fusion reactors don't melt down, or explode. At all. It 
  just can't happen, much like how a Yugo rear-ending a 
  garbage truck in Brooklyn doesn't instantly consume all of 
  New York City in a gasoline fireball.

"a Yugo rear-ending a garbage truck in Brooklyn doesn't instantly consume all of New York City in a gasoline fireball."

My new favorite metaphor.

The metaphors that arise to describe worrying about things that can't actually happen are also my favorite. The one most memorable to me:

"Putting a speed limiter on a Zamboni just in case the accelerator gets stuck"

It's possible. Albeit the Yugo needs to move at the speed of light.

Which might sound plausible for anyone that never heard of Yugo, or the speed of light.

I'd just like to point out that the Yugo metaphor is invalid because the article specifically states that the experiment involves "beams of uncharged particles — the energy in them so great it could vaporize a car in seconds".

So there.

Similarly, the YUGO (825kg curb weight) contains about 7.4e19 joules of energy, when converted purely.

Which comes out to 17.7 billion tons of tnt, or 1.1 million times the force unleashed on Hiroshima.

If we're being pedantic.

How much energy is there in a Ferrari?

1735 kilograms (Ferrari California curb weight) * (the speed of light^2) = 1.55934024 × 1020 joules

How many Hiroshimas is that?

Well, that turns out to be a unit of energy which GNU unit (my favorite shell utility) doesn't have, nor does it have kilotons (or tons) of TNT).

However I've found a calculator that does do kilotons of TNT:


So one Ferrari is 37.13 * 10^6 kilotons. Hiroshima was 15 kt, so one Ferrari contains the energy released in 2,475,333.3 Hiroshima atomic bombs.

And for reference, 1 kilotonTNT is:

4.200e+12 joule

1.003e+12 calorie

1.003e+9 kilocalorie

At 3600 kcal/lb fat, one kilotonTNT is equivalent to 278,611.11 lb of fat. Which is to say, if everyone (313 million people) in the US lost 1/5 of an ounce each, the energy released would be equivalent to one Hiroshima bomb.

3.978e+9 BTU

1,167 MWh, or 1.2 GWh. Roughly the energy a large generating plant produces in an hour. Which is to say that the time over which you release energy matters.

And you've also inspired me to figure out how to add my own units definitions, so now I have kttnt:

686 barrels of oil, almost exactly 100 tons of oil, 1.16 GWh, 143 toncoal, 154 tons of charcoal, or about 51 grams of pure uranium.

And checking: 100 tons / 51 grams is 1,778,793, which is to say, atomic energy has roughly 1 million times the energy storage density of our best chemical energy sources.

You'll note that 100 tons of oil is a lot less than a kiloton (1000 tons) of TNT. Turns out that what makes TNT so special isn't its energy content but the rate of release of that energy. Oil (or aviation fuel as the occupants of 120 Cortlandt St., NYC, discovered a few years back) has about 10 times the energy content of explosives, it just delivers it over a longer period of time.

That addresses the concern about the fusion reaction. But when the plasma melts a hole in a building-sized vacuum chamber and air suddenly rushes in, I expect that you'll get a big implosion, which will ricochet off itself and become an explosion, like if you punched a hole in a CRT with a nail. The article talks about a solenoid that exerts more force than the Space Shuttle does to lift itself to orbit. When the vacuum chamber deforms the solenoid, that energy is going to go somewhere. Plus, they mention gigajoules of electricity going through superconducting wires. I expect that the vacuum chamber implosion would destroy them before they heated up and no longer became superconducting. So instead of gigajoules going through essentially giant resistors and heating up something fierce, that energy will do something else, not sure what.

I don't think this will destroy a mountain, but I would expect the reactor and building to be catastrophically destroyed by the vacuum chamber implosion, along with some, shall we say, interesting, but certainly powerful, effects from the solenoid and other magnets.

> Also, what happens if the mechanisms that contain the "Star in a Bottle" fail? Will the French Alps suddenly and catastrophically acquire a new valley?

Unlikely. The reaction is not self-sustaining; it needs the very high pressure provided by the containment, and without that it would fizzle rather than boom (a hydrogen bomb works by using a fission explosion to compress the hydrogen part enough to fuse). The tritium in the fuel is radioactive and releasing it into the atmosphere would be... not ideal, but the reactor doesn't use a lot of it and it's light enough to fly off into space fairly quickly.

Reality isn't like movies or tv, fusion reactors can't turn into bombs. For one, there simply isn't enough fuel in the device at any given time. For another, maintaining the conditions that allow fusion reactions to happen doesn't happen easily. If the equipment goes offline or haywire the worst case scenario is that the reactor stops.

Fusion reactors are like balancing a pencil on its tip. If anything goes wrong it simply falls over. Fission reactors are different in two ways. One, it's possible for them to have a positive feedback in fission reaction rate due to lolss of coolant (this is called a "positive void coefficient"), but this can be changed in the design of the reactor and all modern reactors have a negative void coefficient. Two, fission byproducts are both extremely radiologically hazardous and continually producing heat from decay over long periods of time. This means that reactor fuel and used decomissioned fuel still needs to be actively cooled for a very long time, and if not then it can melt down which is very difficult to contain. These two problems are the genesis of the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima, respectively.

In contrast, the products of fusion reactor operations don't get hot and as mentioned the reaction will just stop running if anything goes pear shaped. These factors alone are major reasons why fusion power is so desirable. It wouldn't use of fossil fuels nor produce CO2 and would be unimaginably safer than fission power.

> Two, fission byproducts are both extremely radiologically hazardous and continually producing heat from decay over long periods of time.

It's probably worth pointing out that those two things are the inverse of each other. The elements that take the longest to decay are inherently the least radioactive, because that's what radioactivity is: The consequence of radioactive decay. Something with a half life of 24,000 years is barely radioactive at all. Something with a half life of 24 seconds will give you radiation poisoning very quickly if you encounter a lot of it but won't be anywhere to be found if you come back in an hour.

The waste problem is also largely a political rather than scientific problem. The commonly-cited 24,000 year half life is for Plutonium-239 ("weapons grade plutonium"), which can be mixed at the outset with Plutonium-240 to make it unsuitable for bombs and impossible to separate, and then used as reactor fuel to destroy it entirely.

The most radiologically dangerous fission byproducts (largely Sr-90 and Cs-137) are the ones with ~30 year half lives, making them radioactive enough to cause significant damage and also long-lived enough to persist for several decades, but they also have significant market value in nuclear medicine or radioisotope thermoelectric generators or scientific research.

The massive political stupidity is in not removing the spent fuel from the reactor site and separating it into its constituent elements so that it can be put to productive use rather than sitting around waiting for disaster to strike. And the entire concept of burying it under a mountain for a million years is just ridiculous.

I see what you're getting at, but I would argue that all attempts of "generating" energy are actually "transporting" energy from one storage to another.

Take oil, for example; it is just a method of storing energy. In the same way, the hydrogen atom is the stored energy. Any of the methods you mentioned - sunlight, wind, streams, temperature gradients, etc. - are all examples of that same stored energy. The game is in converting it for our consumption. We're never actually "generating" energy.

With that in mind, the single item with the highest "energy density" is the hydrogen atom. When we are capable of "transporting" it's stored energy to one of our storage mediums, we will have all the energy we need.

Seems like it's worth the risk.

I would argue that there is a large difference between transporting and transforming. It is easy to transport/store hydrogen in a pressurized cistern.

It is also fairly easy to transform hydrogen just by burning it. Of course burning fossil fuels and releasing tons of CO2 is how we got into whole global warming business anyways, so we want a more efficient transformation technology.

But wait, it get's more complicated. Compare transportation and storage of hydrogen versus electricity. Vast difference, requires radically different technologies, so let's not call all energy 'same'.

Burning hydrogen itself is clean, producing only water vapor (which can be fairly trivially condensed, if necessary.) The problem is acquiring the hydrogen.

Good point, no carbon involved.

I think you're mostly right and energy storage advances are much more exciting. However, they can substitute for each other to an extent.

For example, moving transportation off of messy and expensive fossil fuels is almost all about storage. If there was a $5, 2kg battery that could hold enough charge for a car to go 3000 miles, the world would switch to electric cars almost instantaneously.

We are also using fossil fuels to generate energy for lots of fixed usage where transmission is already in place. Take all of the coal power plants in the country and replace them with magical clean energy generation plants and you've made a vast improvement without any change in storage technology.

If storage was magically solved, then you could use wind and solar and whatever much more easily, and replace fossil fuels that way. But storage seems to be a much tougher game.

Laboratory fusion is a rather delicate process, once described as 'containing a blob of jello with rubber bands'. The typical Tokamak fusion plasma is orders of magnitude less dense than air, and if it hits the wall of the containment chamber, it rapidly loses heat and stops fusion-ing. The challenge is really to keep it going long enough and strong enough for it to be useful; there is no runaway mechanism.

There isn't very much fuel in the reactor at a given time, and the reaction only happens in the very center. If the containment fails, the material will just continue in a straight line instead of being redirected to the center, and it will spread out and cool off very quickly. A bigger worry might be that too much fuel is added at once, but heating and ionizing all that fuel is already very difficult for the reactor, so it would probably just quench it.

I found this to make some sense to me


I had fears that fusion could become fission but seems like that is not possible.

The elements involved are some of the lightest that exist. It's nearly impossible to get them to fission in the best of cases.

"Also, what happens if the mechanisms that contain the "Star in a Bottle" fail? Will the French Alps suddenly and catastrophically acquire a new valley?"

To a first approximation a magical 100% effective explosion of a 500 MW fusion plant would be about as destructive as the explosion of a 500 MW coal plant. So yeah, dead stacked like cordwood and an impressive hole in the ground, but not much more than a nasty industrial accident. You'd lose a lot of windows but in bulk the building foundation would likely survive.

Why an explosion would magically be 100% as effective as splitting a steam boiler like a bratwurst is a mystery, as the short version of why it takes so long to build these things is before they work they fail containment a lot of times. So its like building that 500 MW coal burner and designing it to split in half and get put back together over and over until with some fine tuning it works.

In the long run, in like 2300 AD or whatever, I'm sure cheapskates will create some fascinating industrial accidents by neglecting to build in ablative shielding or liq H2 overpressure burst disks or whatever and the accidents will be quite exciting as a typical industrial accident.

The principle is sound but the analogy is flawed:

In this case the bucket's main contribution would be to collect the water, not carry it. If soup were indeed raining from the sky, a bowl or small cup would suffice.

"Also, what happens if the mechanisms that contain the "Star in a Bottle" fail? Will the French Alps suddenly and catastrophically acquire a new valley"

As seen in the article, the most worrying concern could be having the four-story tall metallic magnetic core launched through the roof with twice the thrust of a space shuttle.

It's not energy storage, per se, but entropy gradients (and the means to tap or trigger them) which humans (and, well, pretty much all other entropic processes) rely on.

The challenge for fusion is that it's so phenomenally difficult to tap that gradient (without annoying the neighbors) that it may well prove impossible forever.

> Will the French Alps suddenly and catastrophically acquire a new valley?

They'll get a shiny useless building at best. A perforated building at worst. With a lot more vapor.

"Also, what happens if the mechanisms that contain the "Star in a Bottle" fail? Will the French Alps suddenly and catastrophically acquire a new valley?"

As others have said, this is hot fusion not cold fusion, so the answer is most likely it would damage some very expensive components. The holy grail of fusion research (which so far seems largely unachievable) would be fusion at something relatively close to room temperature (so called cold fusion), as opposed to this experiment where you're dealing with temperatures comparable to the heart of the sun. The reason that's such a big deal is that before actual fusion occurs on a hot fusion reactor, you obviously must first reach the target temperature which takes a not inconsiderable amount of energy to achieve, and then further energy to maintain. The trick to making hot fusion practical is to somehow get more energy out, than you have to put in to maintain those insanely high temperatures. Obviously if you can find a way to still achieve fusion at a much lower temperature the situation becomes much easier as you've got a bigger gradient to play with (I.E. it produces the same amount of power, but requires much less power to get it to the state necessary to produce that power).

In order to achieve the massive temperatures necessary they do a couple things. First, you're talking about an incredibly tiny volume of space that's being heated to these temperatures (think of this as the difference between boiling the ocean vs. boiling a cup of water). Secondly they reduce the pressure to near vacuum. Thirdly they maintain these conditions inside of a magnetic bottle which is necessary primarily to provide insulation, both for the fusion material (the hydrogen) and for the apparatus that are heating and containing the fusion material (super conductors like it very cold and must be very close to the fusion material, so you're talking a pretty steep temperature gradient here).

Now, assuming they actually get this thing working, it's going to consist of a very very tiny super hot ball of very very thin hydrogen gas, surrounded by a near vacuum, and then a shell of super cold super conducting magnets. If containment were to suddenly fail, that small ball of gas would very rapidly expand outward until it collided with the walls of the containment vessel which would most likely consist of super conducting magnets, and whatever insulating material they can find to slap between them and the hydrogen. But remember, this is a very tiny quantity of hydrogen and it's surrounded by what is effectively a vacuum, as it expands outwards it will rapidly cool and become even more tenuous. Some of the atoms my still be energetic enough upon impacting the containment vessel to pit it or otherwise damage it, but absolute worse case scenario they do some damage to the super conductors and the vessel walls. There's basically no scenario in which containment failure leads to anything that the average person would describe as an explosion.

Now, what I would personally be worried about, and would be far more destructive is not a loss of containment, but some sort of catastrophic failure of the super conducting elements. Still probably not something anyone would worry about outside the facility, but it has a lot more potential to do damage that might conceivably hurt someone in the plant than something like loss of containment would.

I'm pretty sure if this failed, the Earth would catastrophically jettison its atmosphere.

My father worked on the ITER project for many years. This article goes some way to express the shear scale of this project, it's absolutely vast.

When I was a lot younger I was taken on a tour of JET (http://www.efda.org/jet/) and was overawed with the size of it. ITER is an order of magnitude bigger.

The machine that follows ITER is where things get really interesting. Called DEMO, it's still in the planning phase - but will provide a template for future commercial fusion power generation. They're talking about possibly putting fusion generated power into the grid by 2040. Truly exciting stuff.

My favorite memory of being in France a half year back was visiting the ITER site. Partly because we misjudged how to get there and trekked 3km up the highway from the bus stop in the middle of nowhere to get to it.

It was still just a hole in the ground then - they were getting ready to put in the seismic dampeners for the base layer of the Tokamak structure. Since then I've had it liked on Facebook so I can see the progress bit by bit.

> getting ready to put in the seismic dampeners for the base layer of the Tokamak structure

I love that this sentence sounds like 50s pulp scifi.

It's fascinating seeing it progress (albeit from afar), true cathedral scale engineering.

I can't seem to find any current pictures using Google. Can someone provide a link or is it prohibited to take pictures of the construction site.

Hate to nitpick, but it's sheer scale

Shear is a verb (or noun); I shear the sheep

Sheer is an adjective; I was awestruck by the sheer cliffs

quite right - thanks for pointing that out :)

and then there is PROTO (seriously, these guys love acronyms)

The use of pronounceable acronyms is European post-war tradition so that people speaking the multiple languages can use common words. CERN is another example.

Well they are engineers... what did you expect?

It's crazy that the US blew over 4 Trillion and countless lives for oil in Iraq. Yet, we spend practically nothing on technology that could offer clean, safe, energy independence.

I'm happy to see any money going into fusion research, but it does seem that Focus Fusion has a much better chance of delivering in the near term. If you're unfamiliar with the technology, check out the Google tech talk below.


We didn't go to Iraq for oil, we went there so that more of our own money could be funneled from government coffers into politicians' bank accounts by way of defense contracts.

Even that goes too far.

We're terrified of the fact that we live in an arational, incomprehensible world. It's a comforting fiction that some large conspiracy controls everything for the benefit of itself at the expense of everyone else, because at least that admits the possibility of control. And if societies can be controlled, at least in principle they can be fixed.

Much scarier is the idea that power stumbles blindly around like a drunken three legged elephant, arbitrarily murdering half a million people for no coherent reason beyond, well, why not?

I didn't say that the entirety of society is under the control of a single cabal, only that the people in power at the time were able to exert enough influence in that instance to send the country into an unnecessary war so as to benefit themselves financially.

Perhaps scarier and more accurate is the idea that it's done for a very good reason, but that we lack the context/intelligence to understand it as individuals. No one wants to be the organism in a superorganism.

Seriously. The regular and systematic murder and disposal of countless innocent intestinal flora, sometimes bordering on genocide, is considered healthy and even joke-worthy by some of us superorganisms.

The scary thing is (whether true or not) that just by comment you are now on a list, tucked away for the government to use against you in the future.

If that comment were enough to be used against me, then they would not need that comment.

"Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence." -Napoleon

If we had wanted oil out of Iraq then Saddam would have been quite happy to give it to us as the price of remaining in power. Heck, we could have just lifted the embargo and all of Iraq's oil would have gone onto the world market and we'd be able to buy more for cheap.

If you want to say that the US invaded Iraq because the embargo was going to fail anyways, and this way Iraqi oil production would be delayed by years causing oil production in Texas to be more profitable at least then you'd have a conspiracy theory that made sense.

But really it was mostly Saddam overestimating US intelligence capabilities, assuming we'd know that he didn't have any nukes despite what he was telling his supporters, while really the US was relying on the reports from those of Saddam's supporters who defected.

Cui Bono doesn't work in a world where there are multiple equally intelligent forces trying to fool each other.

Sorry. No. Cheney and Bush decided to invade, for whatever reason, and concocted a convenient justification.

Hans Blix (UN inspector) repeatedly, emphatically explained that Saddam had no WMDs. Etc.

Saddam would have been quite happy to give it to us as the price of remaining in power.

Saddam had completely capituated and agreed to all of Cheney Bush demands.

They invaded any way.

There are some who propose that Iraq was invaded in response to Saddam's switch to use Euros rather than Dollars as reserve currency [1].

From a plutocratic viewpoint, that might well be a considered as vile an act as say, using bio-weapons on the Kurdish separatists.

[1] http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/03/22/the-usa-attacked-iraq...

Call me naive, but I think it was Junior surrounding himself with folks who wanted him to finish the job that Pops started. I think they (like most who start wars) dramatically underestimating the costs and complexity. I'm less inclined to believe that it has to do with gassing their own people (why start caring now?) or going to the Euro.

But I do agree with the above points that we spend an awful lot of time fighting symptoms, when we don't worry nearly enough about ridding ourselves of oil dependency. Energy independence is a long out problem with a lot of vested interests lined up against it - this is precisely the type of investment that does warrant government funding.

According to those who interviewed the principal decision makers, your "naive" belief is roughly correct. For example, from Mark Danner's recent article (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/mar/06/darknes...) --

"According to those attending National Security Council meetings in the days after September 11,

  The primary impetus for invading Iraq…was to make an example 
  of [Saddam] Hussein, to create a demonstration model to guide 
  the behavior of anyone with the temerity to acquire destructive
  weapons or, in any way, flout the authority of the United States."
In other words, single out one of the bullies, attack him, knock him out, and by so doing, scare the rest of the bullies. I'm not saying it was either a good idea or an effective idea, but such was was the strategic thinking (if we can call it that).

It was strategic thinking. One could argue whether it worked or not, but it was an application of game theory to international relations.

> Call me naive, but I think it was Junior surrounding himself with folks who wanted him to finish the job that Pops started.

Given that those same people spent much of the Clinton Administration advocating for war on Iraq from outside of government, its a pretty good bet that that was part of the reason.

Though, to be fair, there's plenty of reason to consider that the "job that Pops started" was itself about oil, and that insofar as Iraq was targetted as an example to others, one of the reasons the particular example was chosen is because Iraq -- to borrow one of those vary same Bush II war cheerleaders description of why North Korea was treated differently than Iraq -- "floats on a sea of oil".

I would say brinkmanship and groupthink are a much more likely explanation than theories about defense spending or oil production or currencies, which fall flat on analysis. Not to say that people didn't make hay with government contracts, but there are easier ways to swindle public cash than to get high-placed politicians to start wars.

It also leaves out a very significant factor : vote winning. Patriotism wins elections, because it, in of itself, is just another form of groupthink.

>there are easier ways

If you're a military contractor, a military buildup or war is optimal.

Linked article is not very sensible. It purposely conflates the dollar's role as a reserve currency and its role as the numeraire in international oil transactions. The first is a decision any central bank can make, and most keep a number of currencies on hand, though dollars predominate. The other is a decision made by OPEC in the 1970's which they have not seen fit to revisit, and frankly not something Iraq could do unilaterally.

Beyond that, the idea that there is any action Iraq could have taken which would have caused the dollar to fall in value 40-50% is ludicrous at its face. The economy of Iraq compared to that of the United States is tiny. The dollar reserves held by Iraq are tiny. And frankly while the oil production of Iraq is not tiny, Saudi Arabia could make up the difference without breaking a sweat. (Saudi Arabia produces well below capacity to manage the price.)

Finally, I don't think that a decline in the dollar of 50% would have quite the effect described in the article. As the largest external holder of dollar denominated debt, China would smart, but even more than the paper loss on there debt, their exports would no longer be competitive in the US, and they would lose their leading customer. (Which is why China would not let it happen...) On the other hand, American manufacturing and natural resources would once again more become competitive as real wages and costs fell. Such a decline in the currency would lead to a real decline in quality of life no doubt, but its quite possible, that rather than a recession, you'd see very low unemployment.

I rather think those guys have a very interesting approach:


> I'm happy to see any money going into fusion research, but it does seem that Focus Fusion has a much better chance of delivering in the near term

What do you base that on? I've found very little in the open literature.

> will stand a hundred feet tall, and it will weigh twenty-three thousand tons—more than twice the weight of the Eiffel Tower.

This is a strange sentence.

  (1) Notice Height of object-A; 
  (2) Notice Weight of object-A; 
  (3) Compare Weight of object-A to Weight of object-B
      where object-B is known more for its property of  
      Height than of its Weight.
The sense here (I think) is that the Eiffel tower is significantly taller than than ITER, and therefore ought to be significantly heavier. But it's not! ITER is heavier, and heavier by a lot. Go figure!

But what a silly line of reasoning. Is it a common conclusion that taller things should also be heavier things?

Further, this seems to me to be of the same breed as "bigger than the state of Rhode Island"-type of arbitrary comparisons -- only in this instance more confusing!

The article's full of fairly silly elaborate descriptions. My favourite so far (3 pages in):

> Some in the field believe that a working machine would be a monument to human achievement surpassing the pyramids of Giza.

Which suggests that the pyramids of Giza are a monument of human achievement that hasn't yet been surpassed. You only need to take a look at almost any 20th century bridge, skyscraper or even ship to know that that isn't really true. Certainly the pyramids of Giza are a monument of ancient Egyptian achievement, but the last few centuries have completely and utterly surpassed that.

> the pyramids of Giza are a monument of human achievement that hasn't yet been surpassed.

> [...] the last few centuries have completely and utterly surpassed that

In terms of what they were built for, that is travel through time mostly unharmed for several thousands of years, a literal vessel of eternity, this claim is undebatably false. Few things we have built in the last two centuries will survive more than a decade if left unattended, and even fewer more than a century. It takes but a trip to Normandy to see german bunkers getting swallowed by nature. The smarter we get, the less durable we build things: we split atoms, we flick electrons and we land proxy explorers on nearby celestial bodies but our grandeur is a delusion and nothing will remain should our kin be obliterated. The testament of mankind that are such incredible buildings can only be surpassed by moving our butt out of this rock and sustain a decent living on the next one, ensuring our species survival. Any technological achievement is but a bullet point towards that goal.

Many, many things last more than a decade. A stone house (of which there are many abandoned in the UK) will stand visibly for centuries.

There are many differences between bunkers and the pyramids. The biggest one is that bunkers were designed to be as low profile as possible. They are nowhere near the scale of the pyramids. Probably the next most important difference is the location. The pyramids were built in a desert environment which is hostile to the biggest enemy of manmade buildings - vegetation.

I'm not arguing that the pyramids aren't an incredible feat, or a monument to the achievement of an otherwise very low-technology early society. What I'm arguing against is the idea that the building of a fusion reactor would somehow be the first human development which would surpass the pyramids of giza as a monument of human achievement. The fact we have spacecraft in distant orbits which will remain exactly as they are for centuries or millenia is surely a much greater monument (albeit one which is hard to find). Our major cities (which are so entrenched that even if they were abandoned today would exist in some form for centuries, and certainly be easily identified for millenia) are vast monuments of human achievement. Can you really argue that the entirety of London is less of a monument of human achievement than the pyramids of giza?

> It takes but a trip to Normandy to see german bunkers getting swallowed by nature.

Or, especially for the SF Bay Area crowd, you could go to the Marin headlands and see US bunkers from the same era -- intended to defend against Japanese attack -- doing the same thing. Shorter trip.

We didn't expect the Japanese to wage a centuries-long war with us. They were made with a shortish fixed lifespan in mind. This is why they appear in disrepair. I imagine the Germans had the same calculus when they built theirs. But, yes, a they're good examples of things reverting to nature, slowly.

You went from "a monument to human achievement surpassing X" to "the first human achievement surpassing X". Fairly silly you said? ;)

Fun fact: if you were to construct a cylinder that perfectly fit the Eiffel tower, the air within that cylinder would weigh more than the tower.

I think you're overanalyzing it. 23,000 tons is hard to visualize. Eiffel Tower is easy to visualize.

I think it was an interesting analysis (sounds like something I would have done). The Eiffel Tower example is strange not because it is a concretion, but because it is an example that one would expect be used in the description of something tall, not something heavy.

Just imagine a steel cube 3.6 meters wide. That's about 23,000 tons.

Here are some things, ordered by weight:


Given a lot of the article is about how they're having to reinforce the floor and so on to bear the weight of the thing, I think it's emphasising how dense the core is going to be.

You are easily confused.

This is unfair - he (I assume ryanklee is a he) merely said it was confusing, not that he was confused, and spent the entirety of his comment explaining why it was so (and I agree, it is an odd comparison). If you disagree, rebut him instead of condescending.

Hate to be that guy, but how can a star in a bottle cost only ~105% of WhatsApp. One of them is incorrectly valued.

One is a cost, the other is a valuation -- two completely different things. A ditch can cost a million dollars to dig, but have a ~$0 valuation.

True, but on the other I hand it's simpler to say that I need $20B to buy ITER, $19B to buy WhatsApp, and $11B to buy the LHC. One of those things is not like the other.

I totally understand that I am cherry-picking here. There are many things in the world that are over- or under-valued when you compare their economic contribution to their societal contribution. I just thought this would be an interesting point to make on Hacker News.

> I need $20B to buy ITER, $19B to buy WhatsApp, and $11B to buy the LHC

No, you could say that it would cost you $20B to build a copy of ITER -- very different. You can't buy ITER for what was paid to build it. Or maybe you can. We have no idea because the valuation is unknown. The project is so risky, we're spreading the cost around 35 countries. If we thought it was more of a sure thing, every country would be trying to build their own. Many companies, too.

The valuation is so unknown that the project has its own currency: the ITER unit of account. True, that was done because 3 dozen countries with their own (mostly) separate currencies are collaborating on the same project, but it makes for a nice excuse. :)

That made me legitimately chuckle!

Though think about how popular of a communications platform that WhatsApp is, particularly in parts of Asia and Africa. It's transformed the communications industry in those areas!

That still may not account for the relatively small difference between the two, but it helps put into perspective exactly why WhatsApp was so valuable.

I think WhatsApp is great, but is something that _didn't need to exist_. And by that I mean, the carriers structured their SMS fees in a way that did not mirror technical reality. "Data" was billed a more realistic rate as opposed to hyper-inflated SMS rates and allowed SMS type-traffic to flow over the data channel.

Had carriers priced themselves properly, WhatsApp would have never had a foothold.

Not a SMS pricing issue. I believe it's the fact that it costs anything at all. When wifi is free, and you have a method that enables communication without a phone plan.. that's goodness.

Correct, but that is a failure of the carriers not supporting their customers. Cellular carriers should be supporting VOIP over data (3g,4g) and internet wifi. But since they are rent seeking, they won't disrupt their voice and sms traffic, enabling plays like WhatsApp.

No debates there; it will be interesting to see how phone carriers fight being 'dumb pipes', which I believe we all want to see as inevitable.

PSTN and TV are dead, they just don't know it yet.

Because there is no markup on the star in a bottle. They can build a trillion dollars of value - as the U.S. Government did when it created the Internet - and bill at cost. It will not even be recouped. It's billed to taxpayers. And that's why centralized governments are so great.

This is a roundabout way of saying that you are really looking at just the cost - what it takes to build this thing. Nobody is appreciating the value of it except the nations that signed up - and they're not selling a percentage.

On the other hand, the WhatsApp people have a working prototype. The final total cost to build a fusion reactor that has a net energy gain is still unknown, because nobody has done that yet.

Check this out, Japan is going their own way instead of this experiment

According to researchers at a demonstration reactor in Japan, a fusion generator should be feasible in the 2030s and no later than the 2050s. Japan is pursuing its own research program with several operational facilities that are exploring several fusion paths.


Also, they are already planning the successor to ITER, a commercial plant called DEMO


You can get the date fusion power will become feasible by adding 30 years to the current year. Been holding steady at 30 for quite some time.

Well I get that logic but this time they are putting some serious money where their mouths are.

Even the USA/Russians could not come to an agreement to build such a project.

That's only because, as soon as that claim was made in 1980, the fusion budget was immediately (and thereafter, steadily) cut.

"We're only 30 years away? Bah, what's the rush?"

Actually, Japan is one of the biggest contributors to ITER. Notably, they are continuing a strong domestic fusion program -- compare this to the U.S., where most of the fusion budget is going to ITER, at the expense of domestic fusion programs (such as Alcator at MIT).

Gotta fuel those giant mecha suits.

No one knows iter’s true cost, which may be incalculable, but estimates have been rising steadily, and a conservative figure rests at twenty billion dollars—a sum that makes iter the most expensive scientific instrument on Earth.

And WhatsApp cost how much?

I wonder if a more open design approach would help them to build trust, increase quality and reduce expense. Rather than the team doing all the work themselves they could open up more data to outsiders to look at and spend more of their time on management. See italic points below. The more of the article I read, the more it sounds like by sharing information openly they could save massively.

" As the meeting ended, he noted that there was not enough time to vet the components that occupy the third floor: plans had to be gathered, specifications brought up to date, problems reconciled. “It is not reasonable,” he said. “It means that we would need to process thousands of data points in three weeks.” Chiocchio asked if things would speed up after early floors were finished, but there were simply too many details to work through before delivering drawings to the contractor. “We have no more float,” Cordier said. “If we delay now, we will have a real delay. The only way to avoid a schedule loss is to increase our resources to cope with it.”

That afternoon, Chiocchio joined me for lunch. He seemed exhausted. iter, by the time it is finished, will contain ten million individual parts, but he had only twenty-eight people working for him. He later showed me a room near his office where three men sit at workstations every day to hunt down conflicts. Before each man, there was the huge iter puzzle in miniature, filling up two computer screens. Up close, the design looked as though someone had taken the industrial landscape that runs alongside the New Jersey Turnpike and compressed it into a cube the volume of a Holiday Inn. “We have to check everything, from clashes to interfaces—like here,” one of the men said, pointing to a schematic where a support structure for the tokamak was not lining up with an embedment plate."

Obviously the tech is really awesome, but I was curious how the projected power level compares (500 megawatts)

Comparison to existing powerplants: http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=500+megawatts

TL;DR: We already have significantly bigger plants. ('average' coal and nuclear plant produces about twice as much power)

Well, yes, but this is a test reactor. It wouldn't make much sense to build a "production scale" reactor just for (initial) testing.

For those curious, the Three Gorges Dam in China is the largest powerplant in the world and has a maximum power rating of 22,500 MW (22.5 GW).

To be fair, Three Gorges (like any large hydro) is comprised of many turbines, 32 700MW turbines in this case.

To counter, the biggest nuclear power plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, has 7 generating units which are each above 1 GW. Two of those units are at ~1.3GW, nearly double a Three Gorges turbine.

For more perspective, the smallest nuke in the States is Fort Calhoun which has a single reactor at 502MW.

But there's only a few hundred years' worth of uranium and coal remaining (and we better not be burning the latter for that long for greenhouse reasons). There is millions' of years worth of fusion fuel on Earth.

The fact that it's "only" half a coal plant is hardly a criticism.

Well, $20 billion and counting for half a coal plant is a bit of a problem... And actually, it's not half a coal plant, because the half coal plant is net + 500 MW, and since ITER isn't supposed to reach the ignition point, the output is 500 MW, but the input is > 500 MW.

If fusion requires wonder-of-the-world kind of technology to not even break even, it makes me somewhat pessimistic. (However, I still say, more power to them, fund them, let's see where this goes)

> since ITER isn't supposed to reach the ignition point, the output is 500 MW, but the input is > 500 MW.

Actually, it's supposed to reach about 10x breakeven, but there can be reasonable debate on how possible that is. Ignition is something different, when the fusion power itself keeps the plasma hot enough to sustain it. This is unlikely for ITER.

But your point is valid. It won't actually function as a power plant.

> If fusion requires wonder-of-the-world kind of technology to not even break even, it makes me somewhat pessimistic. (However, I still say, more power to them, fund them, let's see where this goes)

I agree, and I too think it's well worth it. I'm certainly not suggested we rely entirely on fusion research for getting us through the upcoming energy crisis, but it will be essential if we ever want long-term (centuries) sustainable industrial growth.

I wouldn't compare it to existing plants but to something more like the Chicago pile: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_Pile-1

I am awestruck by ITER. This is the reason that I am in this field.

ITER is a money hole. It was setup to suck R&D money away from real fusion research.

While I do think that alternative fusion paths should be better funded, cranks aside, I don't think that it's the fault of ITER that it's the most promising and best developed and so the best funded one. The entire field is ridiculously underfunded for what it can offer and we shouldn't be having to risk it all on one or two projects.

Exactly. This article just makes me mad - they are penny-pinching on quite simply the most important piece of technology that humanity has ever tried to develop. If commercial reactors are switched on by 2040, the planet's CO2 output will have dropped drastically by 2060 - way more than all but the most optimistic estimations linked to climate change.

$10b is nothing compared to what was destroyed in the GFC. It's nothing compared to what the US spent on a largely futile war in Iraq. It is nothing compared to what G8 governments spend every year on defence. FFS, damages from Hurricane Sandy are estimated at twice that figure. It's peanuts.

Somewhere along the line, the message that this is R&D, and not science has been lost. Politicians honestly seem to think that this is another of those toys that scientists are always wanting to build, and not the solution to the world's energy problems. Dear politicians - no, this is not another space telescope. It's not even another LHC. It is nothing more or less than the one technology that can save the planet from the worst ravages of climate change, and they quibble about the cost. Madness.

> Politicians honestly seem to think

I am not making an anti-American point here. UK politics has equally daft politicians. But politics is full of people like this:


> "Wind is God's way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it's hotter to areas where it's cooler. That's what wind is. Wouldn't it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I'm not saying that's going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. I mean, it does make some sense. You stop something, you can't transfer that heat, and the heat goes up. It's just something to think about."


It's a little bit over the cost of a single aircraft carrier.

I tend to agree. But maybe part of the problem is that few people have an understanding of what commercial fusion reactors will look or behave like. And people have even less of an estimate of the risk or cost inherent in their operation.

I certainly don't have a great idea. I'm assuming you won't be able to put a fusion reactor in a car or airplane. Will a fusion power plant be roughly the scale of a current fission plant? What will be the output? What are the risks? And how much do we trust these projections?

If your objective is to lock up control of all the energy available rather than just secure a reliable supply for yourself, then fusion probably doesn't look nearly as attractive as oil wars. Madness in that case too I suppose, but of a different sort.

Why is ITER not real fusion research? And by "set up" do you mean intentionally, to hold back fusion research? If so, by whom, and why?

I believe he's referring to assertions made by Robert Bussard in this talk http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rk6z1vP4Eo8. Bussards comments on the DOE and funding tokomaks is toward the end iirc. Bussard is by no means a crank, he IS from a different era for sure.

Edit; for those just discovering polywell fusion; Bremelstrung radiation is the primary reason why it may or may not be practicable.

Bussard was one, but there's a lot of alternative fusion research going on, including MIT's levitated dipole, Sandia's MagLIF, several variants of laser fusion, stellerators, focus fusion, General Fusion, Helion, Lockheed's high-beta design, Tri-Alpha, and probably others I've forgotten.

Some of these are well-funded, others are struggling. Even some of the other tokamaks are struggling. MIT's Alcator C-Mod has the highest magnetic field of any tokamak in the world, and the potential to lead to a smaller, cheaper power plant. The whole project was nearly cancelled a year ago.

Can you explain what you mean by this?

I hate for my only comment on this fascinating piece to be largely irrelevant, but has anyone else noticed that the publication date is March 3, 2014? It's only the 25th of February.

I read this article, and I couldn't help thinking — Couldn't they spend these billions on something like deep geothermal energy and get a much better (and more likely) return?

One good resource for this kind of question is David MacKay's book "Sustainably Energy - Without the Hot Air" (free online: http://www.withouthotair.com/). He goes through each type of sustainable energy source and estimates how much power it can provide.

At least in the UK, the total potential for geothermal energy is quite small, much less than other sources such as wind and solar. But its a nice short-term supplement, we can construct them today.

Having working fusion would be an amazing thing. The raw materials (lithium and deuterium) are plentiful enough that they will basically never run out, it would provide energy forever.

Not really. What's nice about fusion is the ridiculous amount of energy that would be available as fuel. Geothermal would do very little.


Hindsight and all. I think the promises of fusion energy turned out to be overhyped during the latter 20th century.

Is it harder to build smaller tokamak? And if so, why?

No, it's not. A huge tokamak is far more likely to reach break even. Smaller designs would be an important part of a healthy research program, but unfortunately, the US has been gutting the smaller projects.

"Big machines either work as they’re supposed to or they don’t."

Anyone else struck by the wildly reductionist sentiment in that statement?

a cryogenics plant, which will produce liquid helium

Wait, they are manufacturing helium? Thought that wasn't possible?

Or just converting gas to liquid?

Helium exists in 2 parts of this plant. In the plasma toroid (the hot part) hydrogen will be converted into helium but in incredibly small quantities (X grams/hour).

In the electromagnets, there will be liquid helium. This is to keep the wires in the electromagnets cold enough to be superconducting. This liquid helium is mined from the earth and then cooled to a liquid in the cryogenics plant.

So overall, they are "manufacturing" cryogenically-cooled-helium by taking helium from the ground and cooling it. They are also "manufacturing" helium atoms at a very small quantities by fusing hydrogen atoms together.

Then isn't the process limited by the amount of helium on Earth (which is pretty low)? Once all liquid helium evaporates the reactor wouldn't be able to produce enough helium to replace it.

> Or just converting gas to liquid?


Liquid helium is extremely cold, and hence not the easiest thing to transport. If you need liquid He, you need to make your own, from regular He gas.

It converts gas to liquid. The gas comes from radioactive decay of elements in the earth's crust. It's a non-renewable resource. When helium escapes into the atmosphere, it's so light that it eventually escapes out into space and is gone for good.

A fusion reactor such as this will make helium from hydrogen, and would be the only way we have to do so. It probably won't do it in industrially interesting quantities though.

Yes, it is a fusion plant. Helium is a product of hydrogen fusion.

edit: but they appear to be talking about support infrastructure, not a product of the fusion.

Transmutation from one or more elements to one or more new elements is indeed possible, if difficult.

the technology could solve the world’s energy problems for the next thirty million years

oh, ok

What's wrong with the claim? It's only dependent on getting the D-D fusion reaction burning (which we're still a long way off).

Second only to matter/antimatter annihilation, nuclear fusion is the most energy-dense process in the universe. And the fuel consists of about 0.03% of the world's oceans.

i wasn't aware that we had any accurate projections of the world's energy needs 30 million years from now

Of course we don't. A more accurate statement is that it would supply the world's present energy needs for 30 millions years.

> No natural phenomenon on Earth will be hotter.

I am not sure about this one comment in the article submitted by OP. As far as I understand the temperature at the center of the earth should be as high as that of the Sun. The core is known to be the heaviest and hottest part of our planet.

> > No natural phenomenon on Earth will be hotter.

> I am not sure about this one comment in the article submitted by OP. As far as I understand the temperature at the center of the earth should be as high as that of the Sun.

I think the most recent estimates have the core temperature of the Earth at about the surface temperature of the Sun, plus or minus a few hundred kelvin. (In the neighborhood of 6000K)

The core temperature of the sun, and the temperatures expected in the reactor described, are several orders of magnitude hotter, on the order of 10^7 K.

The temperature of the Earth's core is about the same as the temperature of the Sun's surface: a mere few thousand Kelvin. Not much hotter than the tungsten filament in an incandescent light bulb. The Sun's core is some 30000 times hotter, and the plasma in a Tokamak type fusion reactor about ten times hotter still.

Decades from now? Well I hope they build the prototype in space then, and far far away. I don't want that heat escaping...

Heat radiation is hard to trap. In fact, we use it in nuclear reactors to boil water, which should in theory let even more heat escape due to the second law of thermodynamics.

Yes, a vacuum may stop convection but heat can escape through radiation. What then? That's why I would want this thing so far away that the angular projection of the Earth onto it is small.

And zombies will come out of it and we will all die... or they will switch it on and we will instantly turn into a star. :)

LHC didn't make me nervous and I laughed somewhat at the people who sued to keep it off for fear it might end the world.

This one however, I dunno. Sounds like things could go wrong with that much energy. When they made the first atomic bomb, they had theories about what might happen but not 100% sure and there were some surprises.

But I'll take death from this over death from fracking.

It's actually a lot less energy than it sounds like. The temperatures will hit 10-100 times the temperature of the sun, but the density inside will be very very low. This thing couldn't vaporize a car.

Remember, this is only a 500 megawatt device, and the reaction is so unstable that if it somehow escapes the containment of the device it dies instantly. It can't "run away" like some fission reactions can.

edit: Not actually sure how much energy it takes to "vaporize a car in seconds." In terms of energy this thing is roughly equivalent to any other fairly large power plant.

Exactly right. Fusion is not at all like nuclear fission. It's so incredibly hard to maintain the reaction that any catastrophic failure stops everything.

There's no unrequested fission surplus situation possible here...

> but the density inside will be very very low

The density is not that low, but the total amount of ultra-hot matter is pretty small. If magnetic confinement is lost, the plasma will expand and cool; there is no sustained fusion without the confinement. The core would probably be wrecked, but that's about it.

"The density is not that low, but the total amount of ultra-hot matter is pretty small."

I'm sorry but I don't understand the distinction.

> I'm sorry but I don't understand the distinction.

While its contained, the density is not that low; if it loses containment, the density will become low as it expands. At least, that's my understanding of the distinction here.

It's more about containing it within the walls of the container than within a very small subsection of the container. The whole thing will be at a pretty serious vacuum throughout operation.

I should probably disclaim: I worked on a Tokamak in undergrad.

Loss of containment is expected, and is more or less trivial. The result is that the fusion plasma simply expands or runs into the side of the reactor wall. This may sound dramatic but it's not. We're talking about at most a few grams of hot gas/plasma. In reality it's not any more significant than running a welding torch or a plasma cutter. As for the fusion reactions, they require the high pressure and high temperature conditions of containment in order to operate. Once containment breaks down the fusion reactions stop.

Don't let ignorance fuel fear of technological advancement.

There's much less scope for catastrophic failure, because the 'bottle' is falling apart and being reconstructed repeatedly by design: There's not a lot of evidence it can be made completely stable but it only needs to be stable for long enough to be energy positive.

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