Large scale implications of p-boron fusion power

If polywell fusion is developed, in what ways will the world change for better or worse? Discuss.

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disfrontman
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Large scale implications of p-boron fusion power

Postby disfrontman » Fri Feb 11, 2011 6:54 am

The way I see it, successful p-boron fusion would have profound global implications, due to two important characteristics of the technology: scalability and safety.

Scalability is a huge benefit. Sure, the earliest commercial units will be big, but I would predict that as experiments continue and refinements to the containment methodologies improve, making smaller scale yet robust reactors would follow.

The inherent safety of the technology will make it more enticing for smaller applications, and its resistance to easy weaponization would make it safe to possess without posing a security threat for its operators, from either industrial accidents or sabotage.

Assuming those characteristics, here are what my predictions would be:

P-boron fusion would lead to a rapid decentralization of electricity as an industry in developed countries. In time, each small city would have its own power facility, and it would become a city utility similar to other services the city provides for its population. The "grid" would become a mere exchange for excess power or a backup failsafe in the event of reactor failure. Industry would invest in the technology so that medium and large scale factories would have their own reactors. The overall price of power per kw hour would plummet, and at least some of that savings would be passed on to consumers. An additional benefit is that decentralized power means there are fewer enticing "big" targets for would-be terrorists. If p-boron reactors became ubiquitous, large scale interruptions of power on a national or regional basis would be impossible.

P-boron fusion would lead to a rapid expansion of economic growth in developing countries. Similar to how cell phone technology has leap-frogged poorer nations into the high-tech world by essentially bypassing the expensive infrastructure of hard-wired telecommunications, p-boron power will bring energy to regions in a more organic and efficient way, bypassing the establishment of a big, unwieldy power grid for the immediacy of smaller scale power production to areas that need it the most. This could lead to the potential for more industrial productivity from developing nations. P-boron fusion also makes large-scale desalinization plants economically viable, which would have global implications. Fresh water for human consumption and for agriculture is in short supply in many parts of the world. A pipeline to an ocean and a power-hungry desalinization plant fed by p-boron fusion would be all that would be needed to address those needs. All these applications would lead to better quality of life and greater economic expansion for the developing world, opening new markets and opportunities for the developed world to benefit from via trade and commerce.

P-boron fusion would transform petroleum's role from that of an energy source to almost exclusively a raw material for industrial production. The price of crude oil would plummet and remain low, which would drop the raw material costs for petroleum-based products like plastics. "Peak" oil would no longer be much of a concern if petroleum were no longer used as an energy source.

P-boron fusion would have a profound and positive ecologic impact on the planet. The retirement of fossil fuels as an energy source would be of great benefit to the planet, along with the accompanying environmental damage that can result in extracting it (drilling/mining, etc). Hydroelectric power could also be discontinued and dams eventually decommissioned, as well as raptor-chewing wind turbines, fission nuclear plants, and the like.


Those would be my initial thoughts. Having a potent and inexpensive source of electric power would make wildly impractical projects more feasible. Here is a far-fetched example: a transatlantic bridge from Scotland-->Iceland-->Greenland-->Newfoundland could be constructed using a string of p-boron fusion reactors placed on the equivalent of oil refinery platforms, each using electricity to calcify its metal platform into what would become a bridge pylon. Construct a bridge over those pylons that can transport several lines of heavy rail as well as cars/trucks, and the flow of commerce between the continents would rapidly increase. None of that would make sense to do at current energy prices, as making a boat and sailing is much less expensive, but with an inexpensive new power source such projects could at least be entertained.
Last edited by disfrontman on Fri Feb 11, 2011 11:52 pm, edited 3 times in total.

rjaypeters
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Re: Large scale implications of p-boron fusion power

Postby rjaypeters » Fri Feb 11, 2011 7:18 pm

disfrontman wrote:Those would be my initial thoughts. Having a potent and inexpensive source of electric power would make wildly impractical projects more feasible. Here is a far-fetched example: a transatlantic bridge, for example, from Scotland-->Iceland-->Greenland-->Newfoundland could be constructed using a string of p-boron fusion reactors placed on the equivalent of oil refinery platforms, each using electricity to calcify its metal platform into what would become a bridge pylon.


I have long admired, from afar, the Millenium Project advocated by Marshal T. Savage. One of the non-spaceflight parts of the project was/is floating islands powered by OTEC usde to create calcium carbonate(?) structure. Polywells would probably be a better power source e.g. not so dependant on being over deep ocean for access to cold water, though it wouldn't hurt.

Though I imagine taking so many minerals out of the ocean water might have an affect on the chemistry. I understand the ocean is already acidifying...
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CharlesKramer
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Re: Large scale implications of p-boron fusion power

Postby CharlesKramer » Fri Feb 11, 2011 7:58 pm

disfrontman wrote:Assuming those characteristics, here are what my predictions would be:

Bravo!

Well done, and much food for further thought.

I agree that cheap and decentralized electricity will affect the balance of world power. In the USSR, Lenin said in 1920 that "Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country." And the USA similarly electrified during FDR's time (the TVA and the Rural Electrification Act and building Hoover Dam). And China today knows it -- it is opening (something like) two electric generating plants EVERY WEEK -- with a lot of that power going to manufacturing.

Making electricity cheap and universal creates prosperity, and reduces the disparity of wealth between classes.

But what would decentralization of industrialization mean for the relative power of the current industrialized nations? This might force countries to compete on other natural resources (the way China is trying to leverage its near monopoly on rare earth metals). Critical resource disparities will remain (the sames ones that lead to China importing iron ore from the USA) unless the electricity allows local production (the choice: transport ore which adds the cost of transport, or use lower quality ores at home with cheap electricity to process them).

In the USA a huge percentage of its petroleum usage (more than 70%) goes to transportation --mostly trucks and cars and (to a lesser extent) railroads. But even cheap electricity might not change that, unless it can cheaply and sustainably become portable with flywheels, or batteries or local hydrogen re-fueling stations (with hydrogen cracked out of sea water).

In short, I think some of your optimistic predictions, while justified, only set the stage for more fantastic speculations about secondary consequences that are less clearly favorable.

HOWEVER the one thing that is most optimistic about fusion power -- one which I entirely agree -- is even if the only result of fusion is coal is no longer burned, the ecological benefits would be enormous. Global warming (or at least the debate about it) would cease. There'd be less disease (coal fired electricity generation is a source of toxic metals and the biggest source of man-introduced radioactivity). Less acid rain (now caused by the sulfur from coal) would benefit forests and the ocean.
Last edited by CharlesKramer on Sun Feb 20, 2011 12:55 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Large scale implications of p-boron fusion power

Postby CharlesKramer » Fri Feb 11, 2011 8:31 pm

rjaypeters wrote:Though I imagine taking so many minerals out of the ocean water might have an affect on the chemistry. I understand the ocean is already acidifying...

Yes!

Even wind turbines to generate electricity will slow down the wind, and that will affect weather. It may not affect the weather in a bad way, or even in a measurable way, but the key lesson of the fossil era isn't "fossil fuels are bad" but "what man does affects the planet."

Ditto for using the ocean to extract chemicals.

The more a technology is a substitute for activities which have affected the planet, the more reason to believe the substitute will also have an effect.
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Nik
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'Seacrete'

Postby Nik » Sat Feb 12, 2011 12:21 am

Uh, IIRC, the original workers slipped up by extrapolating the rate of deposition. Unfortunately, the accretion rate declines rapidly as the coating thickens. You must also trade density for speed.

However, IIRC, there may be potential for improvement by varying the current electronically, similar to the way a pulsed charger can rejuvenate a tired lead-acid battery by zapping dendrites.

IIRC, electro-deposition has found a worthy niche in the restoration of coral reefs: A layer of Seacrete on a framework significantly accelerates colonisation...

I must wonder if a similar lo-tech approach could stabilise sand-bars and the seaward fringes of salt-marsh and mangrove swamps...

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Re: Large scale implications of p-boron fusion power

Postby TecnoImpacto » Sat Feb 19, 2011 11:37 pm

CharlesKramer wrote:
rjaypeters wrote:The more a technology is a substitute for activities which have affected the planet, the more reason to believe the substitute will also have an effect.


It is true!. And a more powerful source of energy will affect the planet more.

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Postby KitemanSA » Sun Feb 20, 2011 1:35 am

The history of technology is to do more and more work with less and less environmental impact per unit work done. I hope it continues for a REAL long time.

CharlesKramer
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Postby CharlesKramer » Sun Feb 20, 2011 3:28 am

KitemanSA wrote:The history of technology is to do more and more work with less and less environmental impact per unit work done. I hope it continues for a REAL long time.

I don't think you can back that up.

For one thing, you don't really mean the "history of technology." You mean the "history of energy" which is not the same thing.

For another the transitions have been incomplete. In general, modern industry moved from wood to coal to a mix of petroleum/natural gas and uranium but those are only partly inter-changeable. The reality is the industrial world uses as much coal, oil and natural gas as it can get -- whatever is cheapest in a particular decade.

For a third point, there is a trend to using more energy, so even if natural gas is cleaner than coal (less particulate pollution) we use more of it.

Traditional sources of energy are peaking. Petroleum probably has peaked, although opening up new areas (the poles, and deep sea) may temporarily hide that. On a BTU basis (compared with tons) coal may peak in 40 years (most of the highest energy Anthracite coal is already gone). And so on.

"Alternative energy" is a myth -- there are no "alternatives" that will allow us to continue to live the way we're living now and no combination of alternatives. The result is life will need to change.

It will also force us to use whatever energy we can get -- often filthy coal -- because that's what's left. As energy becomes more scarce, building machines to allow the experiment of industrial civilization to continue becomes far more difficult -- in a year when people are forced to drive 20% less (because there's 20% less petroleum that year) there will not be the energy needed to also build wind turbines or solar panels.

The dark reality is two possibilities: dramatic poverty from dramatically less energy per capita, or a dramatic reduction in world population. If the world suddenly has half as many people, the people that remain are suddenly 2x as energy rich.

The ONLY possible alternative to such dire scenarios is a dramatic scientific breakthrough that can be implemented in a record short amount of time because the capital investment is low. Fusion is the only technology I know that MIGHT fit into that category, and it is a long shot.

Am I along in believing that's what's at stake here?

Not just with Polywell, but with aneutronic fusion in general?
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ltgbrown
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Postby ltgbrown » Tue Feb 22, 2011 9:49 pm

Charles, I think you missed the key point in Kiteman's statement:

per unit work done


The reason we use more energy is because we are doing much more work. There is much more work with flying from England to Australia than there is in sailing (let's say using a coal fired steam ship) from England to Australia. But, if you were to try to get from England to Australia using coal fired steam power in the same amount of time as one could fly, you would create a bazillion times more pollution. (Never minding if it was even possible). So, per unit work done, technology has drastically decreased pollution. The "problem" is, we are doing a gazillion (which is approximately "a lot" more than bazillion) times more work, so we are using a lot more energy and therefore having a greater impact on the environment.
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Postby CharlesKramer » Wed Feb 23, 2011 12:31 am

ltgbrown wrote:The reason we use more energy is because we are doing much more work.

For one thing, as I tried to point out, Kiteman's notion that we've made a series of transitions to increasingly dense energy is wrong.

We didn't really move from wood to coal to oil to uranium. We still exploit each one beyond sustainability -- we exploit each as much as we can.

ltgbrown wrote:Charles, I think you missed the key point in Kiteman's statement:

per unit work done

The reason we use more energy is because we are doing much more work. There is much more work with flying from England to Australia than there is in sailing (let's say using a coal fired steam ship) from England to Australia. But, if you were to try to get from England to Australia using coal fired steam power in the same amount of time as one could fly, you would create a bazillion times more pollution. (Never minding if it was even possible). So, per unit work done, technology has drastically decreased pollution. The "problem" is, we are doing a gazillion (which is approximately "a lot" more than bazillion) times more work, so we are using a lot more energy and therefore having a greater impact on the environment.

Thanks, ltgbrown! But this still makes no sense to me.

My impression is that Sir Kiteman was expressing the idea that the world is getting better -- he sees improvement as the big picture, and he hopes it will continue. But I see a story of imminent disaster, NOT improvement.

What we're really talking about is energy density. The history of the world, at least in energy terms (which affects everything else) can be seen as the story of transition from wood fires, to coal, to petroleum, to uranium. And the energy you get from those things rises with each jump. Railroad locomotives have taken each step, arguably even including the last one (nuclear electricity for electric trains).

And lo! Here's the ultimate chart of energy density:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_density

So fusion would be a logical next leap.

And anti-matter after that.

And hey hey I may have just had an insight!

IF aneutronic electricity is as cheap as promised, and as easy to build locally as promised, it may cause coal production to stop and (as an unfortunate side effect) might injure the railroad industry (trains carry coal). I don't believe that's ever happened before. New energy sources, no matter how wonderful, have previously supplemented, not replaced. For example, except perhaps in France, nuclear fission electricity didn't replace electricity from coal and natural gas.

Fusion would also replace natural gas for electricity generation, but I imagine the industry would still grow for use as an industrial feedstock especially for processes in which it can substitute for petroleum.
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Postby rjaypeters » Wed Feb 23, 2011 8:36 am

CharlesKramer wrote:...The history of the world, at least in energy terms (which affects everything else) can be seen as the story of transition from wood fires, to coal, to petroleum, to uranium....

Warning! Pedantic editing about to occur! Warning!

I remember from early classes the energy available to humans started with human muscle power, then that of animals, then wood, etc.

WRT to other energy sources being supplanted, I would love to see the destruction of the terrain of West Virginia stop or at least slow down to a crawl. All for the mining of coal...
"Aqaba! By Land!" T. E. Lawrence

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KitemanSA
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Postby KitemanSA » Wed Feb 23, 2011 12:50 pm

CharlesKramer wrote:
ltgbrown wrote:The reason we use more energy is because we are doing much more work.
For one thing, as I tried to point out, Kiteman's notion that we've made a series of transitions to increasingly dense energy is wrong.
We didn't really move from wood to coal to oil to uranium. We still exploit each one beyond sustainability -- we exploit each as much as we can.
Which is why I said "technology" and not "energy". We used to use wood and slaves, then wood and animals, then wood and machines, then coal and... We still use coal and machines. We SHOULD be using much less coal and more MSR Nukes, but that is political. That is one thing that will STOP the continuation I mentioned at the beginning of this lint.

As for still using "wood" in our energy mix, that stopped in any significant manner in technically advanced areas a while back. Indeed, forests in America are spreading faster than cities.

(Sir Kiteman??? Wow, thanks!)

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Postby KitemanSA » Wed Feb 23, 2011 1:10 pm

CharlesKramer wrote: Thanks, ltgbrown! But this still makes no sense to me.

My impression is that Sir Kiteman was expressing the idea that the world is getting better -- he sees improvement as the big picture, and he hopes it will continue. But I see a story of imminent disaster, NOT improvement.
Then I guess my writing skills are not TOTALLY inept.

Having seen the "world" in all its glory, from the slums of Bankok and Calcutta and Washington to the back "woods" of Saudi and India etc., I know that technology applied freely makes things MUCH better. Only idiots who are raised in the womb of western civilization and see only the bad side (willingly ignoring their comforts) and those who act as useful idiots to said idiots, think technology is bad.

The history of technology is that we use it to better and clean up OUR nest. And high tech allows us to see that OUR nest is the entire planet. Thus we need to figure out how to clean up OUR planet, not go back to the condition when OUR nest was a cave.

I am hoping to reach the condition where OUR nest is the universe.

Join me?

CharlesKramer
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Postby CharlesKramer » Wed Feb 23, 2011 6:46 pm

KitemanSA wrote:Having seen the "world" in all its glory, from the slums of Bankok and Calcutta and Washington to the back "woods" of Saudi and India etc., I know that technology applied freely makes things MUCH better.

Technology makes things better -- on the whole, sure.

Having become an energy fanatic (seeing the world through energy colored glasses) has only made me more appreciative of the miracles of living in this time of technological marvels.

I am not particularly prosperous, and yet I can have hot water -- as much as I want for cooking or bathing -- any hour of the day or night. I can also buy a pineapple every day. Those were pleasures not available even to most Kings.

Barely 100 years ago a recording was a single-sided 78rpm lo-fi disc that was almost literally a clay tablet; now I can walk around with a 160GB mp3 player, or a 1TB drive that contains many hundreds of films and many thousands of musical recordings. There was a 2-way wrist-watch video-telephone in the 1960s -- but only Dick Tracy (who wore it in the weekly Sunday comics supplement) could afford one. And of course we should all be grateful for the invention of the push-up brassier.

But technology did not happen because humanity suddenly got more smart -- it is a function of cheap energy, and now cheap energy is running out. Sure, there's lots of oil left, but we need to go increasingly far offshore to get it, which means we get a lot less oil in return. Ditto coal -- there's more, but the energy content of what's left is decreasing. And while supplies of copper and other metals may have risen, the ore quality is lower (less metal per ton of rock) so it takes more energy to extract and eventually extraction will become uneconomical.

As a result there is less energy per capita -- and the result of rising population and decreasing energy is more of those fearsome slums you describe.

I respectfully suggest that you are a victim of the "progressivist myth" which is the fantasy that the human story is the story of continuous progress -- an occasional dark age here or there, but on the whole we get richer, smarter, more prosperous, moving towards becoming Star Trek.

But the accurate way to describe the industrial experiment is a pulse: 150 years up, and now the next 150 years down -- constituting a one time pulse -- in which we found fossil fuels, turned them into iPods and cruise missiles and automobiles, and when the fuels were gone we went back to the farm much poorer (because all of the easy to mine metal ores were used up, and our water and air are poisoned, and fewer species of animals and plants are left).

The reason I'm here is the near-term development of aneutronic fusion has the potential -- maybe -- for changing how the story ends. The question remains to what extent cheap electricity from fusion may compensate for disappearing fossil fuels, and enable the industrial story to continue.

But those are the stakes.

- Charles

For more about this:

PROGRESSIVIST MYTH

http://www.energybulletin.net/node/4624

The first is called the progressivist myth. According to this story, all of human history is a drama of progress. From primitive ignorance and savagery, according to the progressivist myth, people climbed step by step up the ladder of civilization. Knowledge gathered over generations made it possible for each culture to go further than the ones before it. With modern times, progress went into overdrive, and it's still in overdrive today. The purpose of human existence is to make this upward climb possible so that our descendants can someday reach the stars.

Transient-pulse Theory of Industrial Civilization

http://dieoff.org/page125.htm

Industrial Civilization doesn't evolve. Rather, it rapidly consumes "the necessary physical prerequisites" for its own existence. It's short-term, unsustainable. "This is a one shot affair.... there will be one chance, and one chance only."
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ltgbrown
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Postby ltgbrown » Wed Feb 23, 2011 7:15 pm

I guess I am a victim of the "progressivist myth", also. I also think that necessity can breed invention, i.e. if the need is great enough ("cheap" oil and coal run out and minaeable metal dwindles to near zero) things like solar, wind, tide, wave, fission, etc will pick up the slack. The ability to mine asteroids, moons, and planets will pick up the slack.

The critical point that we are at is not whether cheap electricity from fusion may compensate for disappearing fossil fuels, but whether humanity will learn to understand its true impact on others as it produces and consumes all that energy.
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