Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

Energy from “laser fusion” – the perpetual motion machine of the 21st century.

Thomas Friedman writes on the New York Times Op-Ed page about an intriguing possibility: using precisely tuned laser energy to initiate a fusion reaction. The process potentially could be used to generate electricity, as Friedman puts it, with “the reliability of coal, without the carbon dioxide, all the cleanliness of wind and solar, without having to worry about the sun not shining or the wind not blowing, and all the scale of nuclear, without all the waste.”

Op-Ed Columnist – The Next Really Cool Thing – NYTimes.com.

I began my tour there [at the National Ignition Facility] with the N.I.F. director, Edward Moses. He was holding up a tiny gold can the size of a Tylenol tablet, and inside it was plastic pellet, the size of a single peppercorn, that would be filled with frozen hydrogen.

The way the N.I.F. works is that all 192 lasers pour their energy into a target chamber, which looks like a giant, spherical, steel bathysphere that you would normally use for deep-sea exploration. At the center of this target chamber is that gold can with its frozen hydrogen pellet. Once one of those pellets is heated and compressed by the lasers, it reaches temperatures over 800 million degrees Fahrenheit, “far greater than exists at the center of our sun,” said Moses.

More importantly, each crushed pellet gives off a burst of energy that can then be harnessed to heat up liquid salt and produce massive amounts of steam to drive a turbine and create electricity for your home — just like coal does today. Only this energy would be carbon-free, globally available, safe and secure and could be integrated seamlessly into our current electric grid.

Wow! Sounds great. Really. My inner geek is in Nirvana.

I have just one question: where does the energy to create the frozen hydrogen pellets come from? The freezing point of hydrogen is roughly -258°C, or just 14° above absolute zero.

Oh, and finding the energy to fire 192 high-power lasers isn’t trivial, either.

Great idea. But practical?

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The Times, they are a-changin’

More revelations this week about belt-tightening at the New York Timesholding salaries steady (at the same levels since 2006, btw), selling off 750,000 sq. ft. of its headquarters (which it will then rent back for $25 million per year!), and dumping its corporate jet.

I can’t find the link to the story where I read that last item, but a glance through teh Google gives one a pretty good indication about the glee in the blogosphere – left and right – about this change in fortune for the Old Gray Lady. Commenters from both ends of the political spectrum that have bemoaned its perceived shortcomings will no doubt see this as the inevitable result of the increasing irrelevance and/or well-deserved comeuppance for the (pick your favorite epithet here) traditional/drive-by/liberal/mainstream/dead tree/conservative/ media.

But there are consequences to this paradigm shift. Clay Shirky writes:

Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

Provocative stuff, and worth the read.