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Posted: Thu Mar 24, 2011 8:16 am
by Ivy Matt
Today is the 60th anniversary of Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón's announcement:
El 16 de febrero de 1951 en la Planta Piloto de energía atómica en la isla Huemul, en San Carlos de Bariloche, se llevaron a cabo reacciones termonucleares bajo condiciones de control a escala técnica.
That is, "On February 16, 1951, in the atomic energy Pilot Plant on Huemul Island, in San Carlos de Bariloche, thermonuclear reactions were achieved under controlled conditions on a technical scale."

Of course, like all other similar announcements so far, Perón's failed to hold up to scrutiny. After an investigation the Huemul Project was terminated and Ronald Richter, the Austrian scientist who had conducted it, was disgraced. It seems there has always been an element of humbuggery in fusion research. Nevertheless, despite the ignominious failure of the Huemul Project, it had an effect on US fusion research similar to that of Sputnik 1 on US aerospace research, and the shock of the Argentine project's alleged success successfully jump-started the US fusion research program, leading directly to Lyman Spitzer's stellarator, followed by (US) Z-pinch devices, magnetic mirrors, and a veritable menagerie of fusion reactor concepts.

Not that the Huemul Project was the first anyone had heard about fusion power. For twenty years since the discovery of nuclear fusion, the idea of harnessing it to produce useful energy had been percolating. Members of the Manhattan Project had speculated on how to develop a fusion reactor, but the first to actually try it out were a small group of British scientists who quietly began developing a Z-pinch device in the late '40s.

Once the Huemul Project made headlines worldwide, however, the cat was out of the bag, and fusion research became an international sport. In the 1950s it was spurred on by international rivalry (primarily between the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union) and the belief that success was just around the corner. By the late '50s it had become clear that success was a bit further off than fusion researchers had supposed. International rivalry, on the other hand, remained alive and well until it was pretty much killed off by Reagan and Gorbachev's agreement to cooperate on fusion research at the 1985 Geneva Conference.

Now, sixty years after Perón's premature announcement of success, break-even fusion power still seems to be somewhere over the horizon—how far is a matter of speculation and debate. One might argue that we're no closer now than we were back then. I would argue that it doesn't follow that you aren't any closer to your goal just because you haven't achieved it. If we use the fusion triple product as a measure of success, I'd say we're a lot closer to scientific break-even than we were in 1951. (Then there's the argument that Japan's JT-60 tokamak achieved a Q of 1.25 in 1998—or at least, it would have if it had been using D-T fuel instead of D-D.) On the other hand, one could argue that, just because we keep getting closer doesn't mean we'll ever get there. Maybe bremsstrahlung losses will prevent break-even fusion from ever being achieved.

I'm of the opinion, however, that this time (:P) we're just on the cusp of achieving scientific break-even, not just in one device, but in several. I certainly don't think that will be the end of the journey, not by a long shot. Instead, I think we will see a change in which fusion researchers (and engineers) will turn much of their attention to things like reactor materials, cooling systems, radiation shielding, energy conversion efficiency, better electromagnets, superconducting magnets, capacitors, switches (depending on the particular confinement concept), etc. All that is the other half of the fusion problem. I don't know how long that phase will take, but I look forward to seeing it tackled.

Posted: Wed Apr 20, 2011 6:35 pm
by chrismb
Actually, the first attempt was Olliphant who [whilst Rutherford was away on a trip, because he thought nuclear energy was nonsense and wuldn't countenance such experiments] shot a beam of deuterium through deuterium gas. Fortunately for him, it didn't work. Can you imagine if it has started a spontaneous exothermic fusion ignition? But no-one really knew what would have happened back then, in 1934.

As mentioned, the first magnetic [albeit, self-inductive] scheme was a UK toroidal z-pinch scheme, in 1947. ... 1255468871

Spitzer? A late player to the game given the credit? It's the old UK-US inventorship deal... yet again!!! :wink:

Ghost of Huemul

Posted: Thu Apr 21, 2011 6:57 pm
by chrismb
Ghost of Huemul; Just noticed this patent application in the same week as the 60th anniversary pointed out above: ... %0A&d=PG01

This is 'interesting' in that it is both from Argentinian inventors, but also that it discusses fusion during the combusion of deuterium. Richter's approach [or 'scam', as it was decided at the time] also revolved around nuclear fusion during some sort of chemical combusting of deuterium.

Some fusion ideas just won't die gracefully... .. er, I guess none of them do....

Posted: Thu Apr 21, 2011 8:24 pm
by Ivy Matt
I knew about Oliphant, but it hadn't occurred to me to put him in the same group as those consciously trying to develop working fusion reactors. I thought he was just trying to find out what made atomic nuclei tick.

Yeah, I know I've learned a rather US-centric (or maybe Argentine-centric) view of fusion history. I'm especially hazy on the beginnings of Soviet fusion research. Not to mention smaller programs worked on by other countries—Germany, France, Sweden, Japan, etc.—in the early days. I don't think the history of plasma physics & nuclear fusion research is a very happening field...yet.

Italian job...

Posted: Mon Mar 12, 2012 6:04 pm
by Nik
IIRC, there was a shoe-string Italian effort which connected a pinch chamber in-line with their building's lightning conductor...