Saturday, 27 August 2016

What's the deal with fusion power?

"Fusion is the energy of the future...and always will be."
I recently attended a seminar at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center from a director of the ITER project about the prospects of a commercial fusion reactor. I decided to write a post about why fusion always seems to be 50 years away and what needs to happen to make it a reality. What it comes down to, is that it requires a huge initial investment that nobody wants to pay for.

The SimCity 2000 transit advisor understands the challenges facing the fusion plants in his city.

The most-studied system for fusion is the tokamak (from the Russian for toroidal chamber with magnetic coils), which is a big donut-shaped chamber with a plasma inside, with a strong applied magnetic field that keeps the plasma confined in thin ring-shaped region in the middle of the torus. The plasma is heated up by driving it with electric fields and inducing Joule heating. If the plasma gets  hot enough, it can begin  to fuse hydrogen into helium, which produces a lot of excess energy in the form of neutrons, gamma rays, and overall heat. The heat is used to boil water to run a turbine. While the sun typically fuses four protons into helium (the p-p chain), the most accessible reaction is deuterium-tritium fusion, which has a lower energy barrier. Tritium is extremely rare naturally, but it can be produced by surrounding a nuclear reactor or the tokamak itself with lithium, which becomes activated by the neutron flux and then decays into tritium.

The inside of the Joint European Torus tokamak, with a view of the plasma.
Fusion research began after the Second World War, not only towards the development of hydrogen bombs but also for power generation, with plasma systems getting bigger and hotter over the next few decades. Due to the Cold War, a lot of this research was classified.

The sad graph

In 1976, fusion researchers in the US wrote a report about future prospects for fusion power, suggesting that with appropriate funding fusion power would be realized within 15 to 30 years. They also predicted that with current levels of funding, they would not be able to achieve their goals in the foreseeable future. The actual funding reality since 1976 has been even bleaker than that. So it's not just scientists always saying that it's 20 years away and not making any progress, it's the lack of investment that prevented those 20 years from counting down. Their prediction was correct.

Prediction of fusion progress from 1978 based on funding, compared to the actual historic funding for fusion in the US. Even though this graph looks like it was drawn in Microsoft Paint, I have looked up the source material and this graph represents it accurately.
The reality is that the science and technology required for fusion power is ready to go, there are just a number of engineering and economic challenges that need to be overcome. Not engineering challenges like "how do you make a magnet that big" but more like "we need a gigantic building with complicated plumbing that won't expose its workers to radiation." We know how to build a giant magnet donut and fill it with plasma, it just needs to be made big enough to generate power, and big is expensive.

The Future

The next step in this direction is ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), a giant tokamak being built in France. Its main goal, from what I've read, is to generate ten times more power than it requires to operate (although this still won't make it viable as a power plant). It has gone massively overbudget and is now expected to run a tab of 20 gigaeuros. I think, moreso than any plasma science objectives, this will shed a lot of light on what is required to engineer a facility of this magnitude.

ITER, dream and reality.

At the fusion seminar I attended, a director of ITER was talking about his ideas for a commercially viable fusion reactor, which would have to be much bigger than ITER. One of the reasons tokamaks are so expensive is that they have to be really big. The fusion reactor would require about 500 megawatts just to maintain the fusion reaction: beyond that, power can be sold to the grid. However, if it's just selling an extra 50 megawatts after that 500, the electricity would have to be extremely expensive to cover the costs of the plant. It is estimated that a fusion plant would have to generate at least 2.5 gigawatts of electricity (slightly more than Hoover Dam) in order to sell the electricity at a cost comparable to current power sources. Thus, the minimum sensible infrastructure investment is that which is needed to make a plant that big. Not all of this goes into the generator itself, a lot of it goes into the building that houses it, as well as the plumbing necessary to extract tritium such that the reactor can keep making its own fuel.

The price tag that he quoted was 30 billion dollars, plus maintenance costs and morgtage payments over the next sixty years totalling over 100 billion, but it would produce enough power that that electricity could be sold at grid prices. A debate arose in the seminar about the economics of choosing the ideal initial size, about which costs scaled super-linearly with size and which scaled sub-linearly. It was pointed out that the first fission reactor was not sufficiently large to produce electricity that could be sold at a reasonable price, but the fact that it demonstrated that the technology was viable lead to investments in bigger nuclear plants. After the first viable fusion reactor is built, it won't be as difficult to build the next one.

The speaker claimed that what was required for this to actually exist was a rapid increase in fossil-fuel prices that would be driven by scarcity and increased energy usage in China and India. He cited $200/barrel as roughly the price at which a 30 billion dollar fusion plant would seem like a not-crazy investment. However, I've heard this story before; the rise in prices in the last decade made it viable to extract oil from fracking and from the Canadian tar sands and didn't give us a renewable energy revolution. Someone in the audience mentioned that General Electric was now developing its coal power technology, even dirtier than oil, to placate the rising energy demand in China.

The National Ignition Facility

I'm mainly discussed magnetic confinement fusion, but I'll also mention the National Ignition Facility (NIF) that was built for fusion research and then hastily re-purposed. The idea was to fire an extremely powerful laser at a small deuterium-tritium pellet such that it rapidly compressed and heated up until it was so hot and dense that fusion ignited. To this end, they built the world's most powerful laser array that was basically in inverted Death Star, with all the lasers focused on a little target at the center. They gradually ramped up the power, occasionally publishing papers about the behaviour of shock waves and the radiation emitted from these tests, and just as they were on the verge of getting powerful enough for fusion, that aspect of the project was halted and the facility was turned into a materials characterization facility and a way to test whether the fuel in nuclear bombs still works, without detonating the bombs themselves. I really wish they'd keep trying for fusion.

NIF from the outside and inside.
ITER and NIF aren't the only extant fusion projects, there is also a really cool looking one in Germany called the Wendelstein 7-x and the American Z-Machine as well as smaller facilities around the world, and I hope the future of fusion is brighter than what was laid out at that seminar.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

The duplication of BioMed Central.

This post is about something strange that happened in 2014 and my attempts to deal with it.

Towards the end of my master's, I wasn't sure what to do next, so I picked up a part time consulting job, basically looking into public health statistics and compiling the trends and developing models to forecast them. I ended up doing a Ph.D. after my master's but I kept doing this job on the side. The first project I worked on involved the epidemiology of tuberculosis in Quebec, which is a fairly serious problem up North. It lead to two papers, one looking at the statistics and one forecasting them into the future. Working on these papers was a good learning experience but I would say that they are not as good as my physics papers, which I am more proud of.

The second paper was published in BioMed Central (BMC) Public Health. BMC is a massive journal network owned by a massive publishing company, Springer, and there are over 100 BMC journals, which I believe are all pay-to-publish open access. Pay-to-publish always seems kind of sketchy but there was definitely a peer-review process.

One day, I was compulsively checking my citations on Google Scholar and noticed that there was a new citation to my first TB paper, bringing the total up to two. I clicked to see who cited me, and found that the two citations were 1. my second TB paper on BMC Public Health, and 2. also my second TB paper, on the domain (don't bother going there, it's just an ad site now). My paper was randomly hosted on this Russian website with no explanation, so I decided to look into it. I found that the entire BMC database, consisting of hundreds of journals and tens of thousands of papers, was completely duplicated on this Russian server, with no explanation. I don't understand why someone would do this, and the BMC papers are free to read anyway. In addition to duplicating my paper, they also had links to rough pre-publication versions of the paper, including MS Word track-changes notes, that were still hosted on the BMC server.

I decided to contact the editor-in-chief of BMC, who was nominally in the UK but actually in Cyprus. I mentioned the serious issue that their whole website was duplicated on a Russian website, and the less serious issue that my rough drafts were still being linked to. The editor responded to me saying:

Please note that authors of articles published in BMC Public Health are the copyright holders of their articles and have granted to any third party, in advance and in perpetuity, the right to use, reproduce or disseminate the article, in its entirety or in part, in any format or medium, provided that no substantive errors are introduced in the process, proper attribution of authorship and correct citation details are given, and that the bibliographic details are not changed. If the article is reproduced or disseminated in part, this must be clearly and unequivocally indicated. Please see the BioMed Central copyright and license agreement for further details.

Furthermore, as stated in our ‘About this journal’ page ( the pre-publication history including all submitted versions, reviewers' reports and authors' responses are linked to from the published article. We are unable to remove the pre-publication history of the manuscript following its publication in the journal.
 In other words, she completely ignored the fact that I was trying to tell her about HER ENTIRE JOURNAL NETWORK being pirated, and instead decided to focus on a minor editorial policy. That was honestly a bit disturbing, how little she cared. I sent another email telling her that she ignored the important part of my email and asking if it bothered her that her entire journal database was copied on another website.

Meanwhile, I looked for a better way to get into contact with somebody in charge, because the editor of the journal didn't seem to care. I managed to find the secure whistleblower ombuds page for Springer, which is basically for people who want to report scientific fraud and related misconduct. I left a message explaining the situation, and my concern as to how casually the editor seemed to be taking it. A few days later I got two messages, an email from the editor apologizing for the misunderstand, and a secure message in the ombuds inbox from the legal team:

we have looked into this and the Legal Department will approach the contact that it given on the (fake) site. Please rest assured that Springer takes piracy very serious. In order to protect our authors´ rights and interests, Springer proactively screens websites for illegal download links of Springer eBooks and subsequently requires hosts of such download sites to remove and delete the files or links in question. This necessary action has become increasingly important with the growing number of eBooks within the Springer eBook collection.
Eventually, the fake version of BMC on disappeared and my citation count went back down to 1, and the issue appeared to be resolved. I am still left wondering, however, why someone would bother duplicating a massive network of free papers to their own server, and the whole incident with the editor left me a little wary of BMC.