...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Day 2698: Oil Shock Shock: Highest Price Ever… Until Next Time!


You do realise that oil is just going to keep getting more expensive, don't you?

That's not necessarily to say that EVERY price change will be an increase, and at the moment the price is being driven up as much by a BUBBLE as demand: all those futures traders who think that buying oil is a one way bet… because they were SOOO right about mortgages being a one way bet, weren't they!

Bit with the emergence of CHINA and INDIA as nascent economic superpowers, there are more and more people wanting the stuff and only a FINITE supply. I mean there's a LOT of oil down there at the moment but it's going to be all used up EVENTUALLY.

Obviously it's not JUST the Chinese fault; it's not like we in the West haven't been guzzling the stuff like it's custard. And the rapid growth of low cost air travel has seen a huge demand for aviation fuel.

Of course, Great Britain gets hit harder by this because, apparently having learned all about oil shocks in the nineteen-seventies, we STILL rely on importing most of our food and energy. As crazy ideas go, this is pretty tops.

Watching the "Supersizers" on the telly the other night, we learned how during World War Part II, when all our supplies were getting sunk, we had nothing to eat but Woolton Pie, which is basically boiled potatoes baked in a potato crust garnished with potatoes. Civil War was only averted by the defeat of Mr Hitler.

But this is where we are heading once again if we don't get our thinking caps on and come up with a solution to the oil running out.

I'm sure you'll never get BORED of me telling you about WINDMILLS and HYDROGEN, but just for VARIETY I'll try a different tack: LASERS.

Fusion energy is either the great white hope of the world or a great white elephant. Either way, I LOVE IT!

Fusion is the way that the SUN makes energy out of Hydrogen by smashing atoms of H together until they turn into He, Helium. And because 2 H's are a little bit heavier than one He and E, as old Albert said, = mc2 then you get ENERGY as a bonus.

(Because "E" means "Energy" and "= mc2" means energy is proportional to heaviness. Or in other words you can turn a bit of weight into a bit – or quite a LOT – of energy.)

In olden days (the nineteen-eighties) people thought that you had to use a lot of magnets and a torus which is a sort of doughnut. You take all the jam out of the doughnut and put in the fuel then spin it round very, very fast and it gets so hot that it turns into a star-in-a-bottle.

Now there is a new and modern method.

You take a blob of fuel and fire a super-duper LASER at it to heat it up to the temperature of the Sun and start the fusion going that way.

Yes, that IS what Doctor Octopus does in "Spider-man 2"; why are you all backing slowly away?


Richard Gadsden said...

It's not two H's that make one He. Well, it can be if one is 2H and the other is 3H, but that's not what is normally meant by two H's.

In stellar fusion, there are a series of reactions that go something like this:

1H + 1H => 2He (fusion, endothermic)

2He => 2H + e- + V~e (beta decay)

2H + 2H => 3H + n0 + γ (fusion, exothermic)
2H + 2H => 3He + p+ + γ (fusion, exothermic)

3H + 2H => 4He + n0 + γ (fusion, exothermic)
3He + 2H => 4He + p+ + γ (fusion, exothermic)

The net reaction, across both paths is:
6.1H => 4He + 3.e- + 3.V~e + p+ + n0 + γ

We can confirm this by measuring the neutrinos. Once we allow for neutrino oscillation (discovered in 2002), we see exactly the right number of neutrinos that match how bright the sun is. Isn't nuclear physics ace?

On Earth, we mostly use the D-T reaction:
3H + 2H => 4He + n0 + γ
because it's the easiest to initiate, and requires the lowest temperatures. The only problem with that choice is the high-energy neutron flux you get, which has a tendency to make everything radioactive. D-He3:
3He + 2H => 4He + p+ + γ
is a much cleaner reaction, but does require a couple of tens of millions of degrees higher temperature, and also requires finding some helium-3 (the easy way is beta-decay of tritium; the sf novel way is mine the surface of the moon).

I do like inertial confinement, and it also shows up a nice use for the platonic solids (the lasers are usually arranged to point at the centres of the faces of a platonic solid, because non-platonic arrangements tend to leak) but I suspect that large-scale reactors for commercial energy production will be magnetic confinement. ITER is big and expensive, but it's effectively a 500MW power station (missing only the steam turbine). ICF isn't close enough to building a power station yet.

Millennium Dome said...

I luv science!