A team of researchers at the University of Washington (UW) has won a second round of funding from NASA for their concept for a nuclear fusion-powered rocket to take men to Mars. Given the very grave problems we face as a nation and as a species, not to mention the long and dismal history of fusion reactor design, the folly of this is astounding.
“We are hoping to give us a much more powerful source of energy in space,” John Slough, the UW research associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics who heads the project, said in a UW website feature, “that could eventually lead to making interplanetary travel commonplace.”
I call this kind of thing “future porn”: the starry-eyed reporting of R&D that aims to accomplish outlandish goals that, even if attainable, will almost certainly prove too expensive, complicated, or non-lucrative to ever become reality. Future porn stories always contain lots of conditionals and very long timeframes. The terms “could,” “would,” and “eventually” tend to appear frequently. “Now, astronauts could be a step closer to our nearest planetary neighbor through a unique manipulation of nuclear fusion,” the UW site reports.
Slough’s team “was one of a handful of projects awarded a second round of funding last fall after already receiving phase-one money in a field of 15 projects chosen from more than 700 proposals.”
I can think of a half-dozen things that NASA should be working on that would be more applicable to our current predicament and beneficial to humanity than harebrained schemes for Mars exploration; warding off annihilating asteroids and dealing with climate change would be top of the list.
The fusion-rocket news out of Seattle coincides with a discouraging report in Science News on the National Ignition Facility’s long, quixotic, and so-far failed attempts to produce controlled fusion by compressing a sphere of cryogenic hydrogen using 384 beams from the world’s most powerful laser, thereby releasing tremendous amounts of energy. NIF scientists 4 years ago confidently predicted “that by September 30, 2012, they would demonstrate a fusion reaction producing net energy, a milestone known as ignition.” Needless to say, that hasn’t happened.
The NIF account makes for a fascinating case study in the peril of relying on computer simulations. Essentially, the researchers were convinced by their computer models that the hydrogen would compress symmetrically, i.e., into a near-perfect sphere. Instead, the material deformed and warped, defying the attempts to unleash more energy than the powerful lasers put in. “Nature just wants to break you,” said John Edwards, NIF’s associate director of fusion – a remark that echoes the head-shaking sighs of just about everyone who’s ever tried to achieve a sustainable, controlled fusion reaction.
Instead of lasers, the fusion rocket out of UW would use large metal rings, made of lithium, caused by a powerful magnetic field to implode and compress a type of plasma, leading to continuous bursts of fusion that would power the rocket. To master the intricacies of this ingenious scheme, the scientists have relied upon, you guessed it, “detailed computer modeling.”
Tags: Climate Change, Nuclear Fusion, Nuclear Power, Policy & Regulation, Smart Energy Practice
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