Tuesday, February 26

USA to Saudi Arabia: “Drink Oil and Eat Sand”

I know, I know … in our dreams. However, a group of very special and highly successful dreamers are putting their reputation on the line. These folks are responsible for some other engineering miracles, such as:

The P-38 Lightning : Called the “der gabelschwanz tuefel ” (fork-tailed devil) by Germans and “one man, two planes” by the Japanese, it is the only aircraft that served in all theaters of WWII—from Alaska to Africa—and remained in production from Pearl Harbor to VJ Day. Probably the most versatile plane of its time, P-38s served as fighters, interceptors, reconnaissance platforms and attack aircraft, including nighttime roles.

The U2 spy plane : Basically an F-104 Starfighter with glider wings, this jet plane flies at 70,000 feet near the atmosphere’s upper edge. It has what is probably the narrowest flight envelope of any aircraft ever built. When cruising at altitude, the difference between stall speed, where it falls out of the sky, and its “critical Mach number”, where the wings shear off, amounts to 10 knots (12 mph; 19 km/h).

The SR-71 Blackbird: Designed with slide rules and still the world’s fastest piloted production aircraft, this jet is the stuff of legends. Efforts to retire it continually run up against the fact that—flying at Mach 3.2 and 100,000 feet—this platform is, in effect, an easily launched spy satellite that can be overhead anywhere in the world on just a few hours notice.

The F-117 Stealth Fighter: Despite an “F” prefix, this jet plane is a ground-attack aircraft and not a fighter. With 75% of its intake air being used to cool engine exhaust, this elusive jet is reputed to have the infrared exhaust signature of a single engine Cessna airplane. While conventional fighter jets register on radar with some 2 – 4 square meters of reflective surface, the Nighthawk has an infinitesimal radar return cross-section of 0.025 m2 (0.269 sq ft), about the size of a small bird.

It is this group of engineering professionals that now have dedicated themselves to a task of far more importance than that of America’s military defense. A new project of theirs may soon see a major shift in our nation’s dependency upon foreign oil:

Lockheed’s Skunk Works promises fusion power in four years

America’s dependence upon foreign oil, especially stocks originating in the MME (Muslim Middle East) has become increasingly problematic. Of the $13 million per hour that we spend on foreign oil, more than $25 billion a year goes for Persian Gulf imports alone. Far too much of that money is finding its way into terrorist hands. Another portion of those same funds goes towards constructing a worldwide network of mosques where indoctrination proceeds with the violent brand of Wahhabist Sunni Islam that is native to Saudi Arabia. All of this is totally unacceptable and represents a profound vulnerability with respect to national and global security. Only a crash development program that targets America’s unhealthy oil dependence can resolve this crisis.

This is where the Lockheed Skunk Works comes in. Much like watching the Berlin Wall come down, attaining cost efficient fusion power generation was another milestone that this author had no realistic expectations of seeing in my lifetime. Sure, this world’s scientific community will eventually tease out the stellar energy process but most existing technology just hasn’t been able to withstand the devastating extremes that fusion reactions impose upon reactor vessel hardware. Exposure to simple hydrogen gas alone poses problems for metallic components all by itself even without the harsh electromagnetic environment of ongoing fusion reactions.

Aside from the intense temperature gradients and high magnetic field densities, there’s that pesky little neutron being emitted during every fusing of tritium and deuterium atoms.

As noted in, “Structural Materials for Fusion Reactors” (PDF):

The first wall, divertor, limiters and breeding blanket components are subjected not only to the high energy neutron environment resulting from the fusion reactions, but also to strong mechanical, heat and electromagnetic loadings.

Eighty percent of the energy released by the D-T fusion reaction are transferred by 14 MeV neutrons to the first wall and breeding blanket. The remaining 20% are carried by a-particles issued from the same reaction, that together with other low energy neutral and charged particles will induce sputtering, erosion and blistering in the plasma facing materials.

Although quite small, neutrons are the heaviest among a group of subatomic particles known as hadrons. During fusion reactions they are produced, not only in abundance, but imparted with very high energies as well. Temperatures of 90 to 180 million ° F and magnetic fields of 10,000 Gauss—the earth’s own magnetic field averages 0.45 Gauss at its surface and 25 Gauss at its core—all cause the fusion reactor’s interior to be a very hostile environment.

This powerful energy flux makes for strong particle collisions with chamber walls and other reactor surfaces. Like wood, metals have a grain structure as well and it is at these grain boundaries where voids or even hydrogen bubbles—referred to as “blistering”—can form after prolonged exposure to the fusion process. Known as hydrogen embrittlement, this manifests as a gradual weakening of commonly used stainless steel alloys to the point where they can be crushed by a human hand like an over-used, dried out pad of steel wool.

As a method of electrical power generation, nuclear fusion has many important advantages over the current method of fission-based reactions. Fission reactors use uranium isotopes that have a half-life—this term refers to how long it takes for half of the radioactive material to turn into lead—of tens of thousands of years. By comparison, tritium, the heavy hydrogen isotope used in fusion reactions has a half-life of some 12.32 years and, unlike uranium, much of it is consumed during the reaction process.

Additionally, because it can be extracted from seawater, there are essentially endless supplies of deuterium. Unlike uranium purification and enrichment—which is both energy intensive and utilizes exceptionally toxic chemical precursors—extracting this isotope of hydrogen and enriching it is a relatively benign process. Finally, unlike fission reactors, fusion sites would have much less appeal as a terrorist target, nor do they generate any byproducts that can be used to fabricate nuclear weapons.

Below is a superb chart that provides a snapshot of America’s energy usage and which resources contribute to what extent: (Click on image to expand.)

Clearly, petroleum is the proverbial “elephant in the henhouse”. In political terms, it is also the “elephant in the parlor” that everyone ignores and no one wants to talk about. Consider this; if the overall costs of America’s gasoline supply—such as, pollution-related health issues like emphysema or asthma, the astronomical expense of our stabilizing military presence in the MME, along with environmental clean up, etc.—were accurately calculated into the real price of gas, its price would likely hover in the $5.00 to $10.00 range, if not well above that.

For the moment, let’s attempt the impossible and put aside issues related to how special interests—be they military or industrial—benefit from perpetuation of existing technologies or entrenched policies that reinforce America’s detrimental dependence upon foreign oil. Automakers, oil refiners, parts manufacturers and a host of other ancillary support industries all have a vested interest in maintaining the current status quo. And remember, all of these relatively wealthy enterprises donate heavily to various political reelection campaigns, regardless of their partisan affiliation.

Having, for the nonce, gotten that out of the way, there still exists a significant degree of cultural inertia. After all—if fusion reactors were the norm—how many people would immediately vote for the imposition of non-oil-powered vehicles? Autoworkers for Detroit’s Big Three could hardly be expected to vote their own jobs out of existence.

What confronts us is a paradigm similar to that of Homeland Security. Rather than engage in politically unattractive or heavy-handed diplomacy, America’s federal government has decided it is preferable to have more people die in terrorist attacks than instigate measures that could genuinely alter Islam’s continuing ability to wage jihad. A campaign of targeted assassinations costing no more than a few billion dollars could bring Islamic jihad to its knees in less than a year. Barring that, if America, Australia and Canada were to simply halt all further exports of wheat to the MME, mass starvation would begin in just a few short weeks.

Clearly, there are readily available alternatives to enduring more terrorist atrocities. Just as clear is how those who hold power exhibit an irrational resistance to implementing these readily available measures. Fortunately, Political Correctness contains the seeds of its own destruction. In the name of environmental responsibility, there is no way that advocates of sustainable energy policies can possibly shrug off the advent of viable fusion power generation.

As it is, even Greenpeace co-founder, Patrick Moore has finally had to admit that fission-based nuclear power generation is the cleanest existing alternative. Few people are aware that—due to naturally occurring traces of uranium and thorium in coal deposits—coal-burning power plants release more radioactive emissions than any nuclear reactor does during normal operation. None of which prevented Moore from spending decades intentionally conflating nuclear power generation with nuclear weapons in the public’s mind. The monumental deceit of this disingenuous schmuck contributed to our continued dependence upon foreign oil a massive outflow of wealth from America to the MME and a concomitant increase in financial support for Islamic terrorism. Nevertheless, don’t count on Moore issuing an apology to relatives of the nearly 3,000 dead in the 9-11 Atrocity anytime soon.

It is also important to keep in mind that Lockheed’s fusion program is not the only one that shows promise. There is also the NIF (National Ignition Facility), located in California and it is investigating a technique known as "inertial confinement" that uses high power lasers to confine and fuse hydrogen. Also, as his lifetime’s last project, ramjet inventor, physicist Robert W. Bussard, delivered plans for a boron–hydrogen-based fusion reactor that is being funded and studied at this moment. Called the Polywell Nuclear Reactor, it is an approach that differs significantly from current tritium–deuterium-based chemistry. It is well worth visiting the Polywell site, if only to read through their energy calculations page. The straightforward mathematical analysis there shows why the bulk of “renewable energy” is a dangerous myth and how those technologies are absurdly expensive when compared to fusion power generation.

Most ordinary people are unaware of the severe limitations that constrain “clean energy” sources. Terrestrially based solar power only works during the daytime and even then weather conditions (e.g., clouds or rain), can severely limit the output of ordinary photovoltaic solar panels. Beyond that, nighttime electrical usage constitutes a major portion of grid demand and, at present, the ability to store energy generated during the daytime for later use is almost totally limited to staggeringly expensive battery arrays that can provide only very short periods of mains power.

Wind turbines suffer from many of the same limitations and recent studies are indicating that the actual operating lifetime of these costly generators may be much shorter than was previously expected. The Polywell site does an excellent job of deconstructing many of the misconceptions that surround “clean energy”. Bearing that in mind, there still remains the fact that much of our world depends more upon electricity than petroleum. It is the prevalent use of petroleum—in the form of oil or natural gas—to generate electricity that continues to be problematic.

In this respect, hydrogen and electricity are much alike. They do not exist separately, apart from other elements and, instead, must be viewed as energy carriers, much like a common battery. While most people have a rudimentary understanding of electricity, hydrogen is another matter entirely.

If water—with its ability to erode or corrode stone and metal alike—is the universal solvent, then hydrogen is the universal element. As the creationist joke goes; “Hydrogen is a colorless, tasteless, odorless gas that, given enough time, turns into people.” With a single electron orbiting a sole proton nucleus (unlike any other element, there are no neutrons involved), it is the simplest, lightest and—at 75% of normal matter by mass along with an abundance of 99.98%—is the most predominate element in the entire universe. Even in the deepest intergalactic voids there are a few hydrogen atoms per cubic meter of space.

With these interesting properties also come some serious issues. Being the most simple element and smallest, stable atomic form, hydrogen gas is very “slippery” in that it will find its way through the tiniest of leak paths. It also burns with an almost invisible flame—hydrogen-oxygen flames emit ultraviolet light—and the discovery of a hydrogen leak can often require a flame detector. In its gaseous form it burns at concentrations between 4% and 75% by volume. Hydrogen has many industrial uses, such as in the manufacturing of ammonia—a major ingredient in fertilizers—and also, ironically, in the “upgrading” of petroleum distillates to create gasoline and other lighter fractions of crude oil.

Hydrogen gas also shows great promise as a replacement for gasoline. Many automobile engines can burn hydrogen gas as a fuel. The central issue is not one of engine compatibility but storage. Containing a volume of high-pressure hydrogen requires substantial tank wall strength. The ideal form factor for such a tank is a sphere, a shape totally at odds with automotive designs. Recent approaches have centered on “sequestering” hydrogen gas in metallic “sponges” or foam-like structures. These have their own problems in that liberating the hydrogen gas from those high surface-area structures requires temperatures in the hundreds of degrees, something that is undesirable in a moving vehicle and also not the best thing to have around hydrogen itself.

Recent advances in valve technology are making it possible for consumer operated filling of hydrogen tanks, much like at your present day service station. Additionally, existing natural gas distribution systems might be usable in delivering hydrogen to points of use. All of this is pertinent because of what is implied by a conversion over to fusion-generated power.

With lots of fusion reactors providing huge amounts of inexpensive electrical power, the energy intensive process of electrolysis—a reaction that breaks down water into hydrogen and oxygen—becomes feasible. This represents one way of “bridging” between our existing petroleum-fueled automotive culture and, eventually, migrating over to an electrically based transportation system.

The central problem in all of this is that gasoline is relatively inexpensive to extract and refine. It also liberates an astonishing amount of energy per volume. These two basic characteristics conspire to keep the planet firmly addicted to petroleum. Another aspect of transportation infrastructure also operates in favor of gasoline. As an example, in order to begin operation, railroads had to construct—not just engines, rolling stock and fueling facilities—but the rail beds themselves.

The automotive industry faced no such obstacles. Fuel taxes and other government subsidies paid to construct the interstate highway system while commercial enterprise rose to meet the demand for gasoline and other automotive lubricants. This lowered the market-entry barriers for automobile manufacturers in ways that almost no other industry could ever hope for. It is also a mechanism that keeps the automobile firmly fixed in its almost indispensable role today.

Changing this will eventually require a shift over to electric vehicles. However, a close examination of the limitations and complications of electric transportation reveal a host of significant problems.

One issue that continues to dog electric cars is their limited range. What makes that limited range an issue is the amount of time required to recharge a typical automotive battery pack. Electric car manufacturer, Tesla, is a good example of the problems involved. According to their own website, recharging from a 110 VAC 15A outlet, yields 31 miles of range per hour of charge. Using a 240 VAC 30A utility circuit doubles that to 62 miles of range per hour of charge. Additionally, Tesla is currently working on a supercharging technology that will allow 300 miles of range per hour of charge. This will be furnished at a chain of nation-wide charging stations.

The point still remains that your typical Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) powered vehicle can be refueled for a 300 mile drive in just a few minutes.

Now, imagine attempting to transfer the full 85 kWh of Tesla’s largest battery pack in just a few minutes. For the sake of argument, let’s stretch the entire “pumping” cycle to ten minutes. At the EPA mandated maximum of 10 gallons per minute for commercial public self-serve fuel dispensers, a full refill of a 20-gallon tank takes two short minutes.

Disregarding the damaging battery overheating issues related to high-speed recharging, transferring 85 kWh in two minutes equates to 42.5 kW per minute. That represents the energy needed to illuminate 425 100W light bulbs for one hour or almost 400 amps of current at 110 VAC running for an entire hour. Even extending that two minute refueling to ten minutes still implies a power management problem of serious dimensions. Arcing, conductor and contact degradation, even electrocution are all important concerns when attempting to transfer such a large amount of charge.

However discouraging these facts may seem, this is where America currently stands with respect to reducing its dependency upon foreign oil and carbon-based fuels in general. Between Lockheed, NIF and Polywell, there are definitely some bright spots on the horizon. Still, the proper utilization of such assets brings with it a number of serious technical issues but none of them are insurmountable.

One thing snaps all of this into focus. There is a limited supply of oil. Yes, vast new petroleum reserves are being discovered on an almost daily basis but none of that changes how, at some future time, civilization will be forced to migrate away from oil as its principal energy resource. Be it due to “climate change” or “peak oil”, that migration will happen. Probably the most daunting task of all will be changing the way we think and, more importantly, the way our politicians think. For all the money that changes hands within that tightly knit circle of military-industrial and political interests, this one paradigm shift alone promises to be traumatic, at the very least. America's financial elite game this system with an ease and facility that does not promise any convenient transition.

The one thing to remember is that humanity has the brains and skills to overcome these issues and build a better world; one that we can hand down to our children with pride.

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