The SPAWAR Experiments and the Recurring Resurrections of “Cold Fusion”

Tabletop Cold Fusion Experiment (hat tip Indymedia)
Tabletop Cold Fusion Experiment (hat tip Indymedia)
Cold fusion is the scientific heresy that just won’t go away.  In fact, it made quite a splash recently on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”  The experiments in question were carried out by Frank Gordon and his colleagues at SPAWAR.  I have heard both Frank and his colleague, Larry Forsley describe their experiments.  Neither fits my mental picture of, say, a UFO conspiracy theorist or a raving phrenologist.  They both seem to be very down to earth guys who are convinced they are seeing something unusual in their experiments.  Neither of them claims to know for sure what is causing it, and neither seems to have any obvious reason for deliberately trying to deceive the scientific community.  I tend to be taken aback by the visceral response of some scientists at the mention of cold fusion.  To listen to them, one would think the infidels were at the gates, ready to defile some scientific Holy of Holies, and plunge us back into the Dark Ages.  I must confess, I really don’t understand why these people feel so threatened. 

There are many government agencies, including the Military that would seem to have at least some interest in promoting research in this area, with DOE in the forefront.  Unfortunately, the appointment of Steve Koonin as the new Under Secretary for Science does not bode well for the new technology.  Steve is a brilliant, conscientious scientist, and would seem to be the ideal man for the job.  However, he was also a prime mover in the scientific community’s initial rejection of cold fusion following its ill-conceived debut back in 1989.  He is unlikely to be enthusiastic about eating crow, as it were, 20 years later.  Be that as it may, DOE just stood up ARPA-E, and handed them $400M to fund just such high risk, high payoff work as this.  It seems eminently reasonable to me that, given the organization’s stated mission, some fraction of this largesse should be devoted to cold fusion research.  In terms of the nation’s overall research budget, we’re talking chump change here.  What do we have to lose?  Is it really worth unleashing a scientific Jihad to stop it? 

For anyone interested in learning more, here are some links to recent publications in the Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) community, some graphics and descriptions of experiments, and a paper disputing the SPAWAR results.

Let reason prevail and the research go forward.

Plutonium and the Return to Nuclear Power

I’m on board when it comes to restarting the nuclear industry – with reservations. What’s not to like? No carbon footprint. Less release of dangerous radionuclides into the atmosphere than coal plants. No need to pave thousands of square miles of environmentally fragile desert with solar collectors, windmills, and similar “environmentally friendly” and “sustainable” energy sources.

There is one big potential problem, though. When you burn uranium in a conventional nuclear reactor, you breed plutonium. The spent fuel rods currently stored on site at every nuclear plant in the country are laced with the stuff. You don’t need fancy centrifuges or gas diffusion plants to separate the plutonium. Any reasonably skilled chemist could do it. Once you’ve separated the plutonium, you have the one key ingredient you need to make a nuclear weapon. Oh, I know, it won’t be weapons grade plutonium, but no matter. The United States conducted a successful nuclear test with reactor grade plutonium.

Why, you ask, haven’t terrorists already stolen a batch of fuel rods if it’s so simple. Well, at the moment, the problem is that they’re so highly radioactive that bad actors would probably fry themselves before they could do any damage. They won’t stay that way, though. The radionuclides that make fuel rods so “hot” when it comes to emitting radiation have a certain half life. They decay, and become less radioactive at an exponential rate. At some point, they will become safe enough to handle, even without specialized equipment. The exact time will depend on the material configuration of the fuel rods when they were produced, and the degree of risk the person handling them is willing to take. True, we’re probably talking hundreds or thousands of years in the future, but beyond what date can we ignore the welfare of future generations? When does it become OK to subject them to the risk of nuclear annihilation?

Fortunately, there are solutions to the problem. One is fuel recycling, in which the plutonium from spent rods would be extracted and recycled into new fuel rods. An even better one is building breeder reactors to go along with the recycling. The problem with conventional reactors is that they use up the U235 in natural uranium as fuel. Unfortunately, only seven tenths of one percent of natural uranium is isotope 235, and the rest is 238. Depleted uranium is mostly U238, being what’s left over when the U235 is separated.

With breeder reactors, the U238 can be gradually converted into plutonium 239, a reactor fuel. In that way, a much greater percentage of the natural uranium could be converted to energy, greatly extending the time available to us for figuring out what to do when that fuel supply runs out. Alternatively, thorium, which can be converted into U233, another fissile material, could be used in the breeders. U233 has the very significant advantage of not being chemically separable from other uranium isotopes, and would, therefore be much more difficult to weaponize than plutonium.

Plutonium-based energy production is not benign. It would require tight security standards at every step along the fuel chain. But, then again, no known method of producing energy is benign, including the “environmentally friendly” ones noted above. If the choice were mine to make, I think I would agree with the guys over at Atomic Insights.

Meanwhile, it strikes me as a little crazy that we are gratuitously pumping potentially energy rich depleted uranium slugs out of the barrels of gatling guns. If we really start running out of energy, others might notice there are better uses for the stuff as well.


“Fusion Energy” and the National Ignition Facility (NIF)

Oh-oh! Here’s something that’s bound to give the fission guys over at Atomic Insights heartburn. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) is in the news again, and even made the lead story on the Foxnews website this morning! It seems the dark side at DOE is finally, belatedly, getting some respect from Secretary Chu, not to mention the Governator and a host of other worthies. Odd, isn’t it, that, in these days of rampant global warming, the Secretary of Energy should have taken so little interest in this potential source of unlimited, pollution free energy? What, say you? Well, yes, perhaps I do exaggerate.

In fact, the NIF is, and always has been, intended as an above ground facility for nuclear weapons experiments. As such, it is probably justified, as it will give us access to extreme physical conditions relevant to nuclear weapons that, at least until the French Megajoule laser (LMJ) comes on line, cannot be reproduced at any other facility. It is important that we have such facilities because, among other things, they constitute one more argument against the resumption of nuclear testing, a step that we would be very ill-advised to take.

Why, then, one might ask, do NIF Director Ed Moses’ comments to Fox about the new facility relate almost exclusively to potential energy applications? Well, among other things, because clean energy is a rather more fashionable cause than nuclear weapons technology these days. I’m loathe to criticize Ed, who, in spite of what some might term objectionable personal quirks, did a brilliant job of pulling the NIF Project back from the brink of disaster and completing it within the budget and time constraints he was given when he took it over. However, he may be overselling the energy angle.

Inertial confinement fusion (ICF) has always been a “dual use” technology, and there are many highly capable scientists throughout the world who still believe that it is the ultimate answer to our future energy needs. I am dubious, but still have a great deal of respect for the old knights, now growing increasingly long in the tooth, who continue riding towards that El Dorado. May they one day make me eat crow!

But all that is beside the point. The Federal Advisory Committees that recommended proceeding with the NIF, and the federal officials who secured funding for the project, never considered justifying it as other than a weapons project. From the beginning it was projected that about 15% of the available time on the facility would be devoted to non-weapons related experiments, not only devoted to energy applications, but to laboratory astrophysics, high energy density plasma physics, etc. Other than that, the NIF will be used entirely for weapon physics and weapon effect experiments. In other words, when Ed tells us that, “”It would change how we look at global warming. It would change pollution. It would change all of those things. This is a small investment for that great payback,” he is indulging in a bit of hyperbole.

In the first place, I will be surprised if the NIF ever achieves ignition, at least using the currently envisioned indirect drive approach. It will be necessary to compress the fuel material to extremely high density, keeping it as “cold” as possible in the process, and then ignite it by coaxing a series of spherical shock waves to heat up a small spot in the center by getting them all to converge on that spot at exactly the same time. Again, if they can do it, I will cheerfully eat crow. If they do, though, getting useful energy out will hardly be just around the corner. It will first be necessary to overcome a host of daunting engineering challenges, such as breeding enough tritium, one of the necessary fuel materials, to keep the reactor going.

Well, be that as it may, the NIF has been a long time coming – much longer than anyone expected in the beginning. Now that the facility is finally on line, the least we can do is wish the NIF staff at Livermore success in finally reaching the ignition goal that has eluded our grasp for so long.