Friday, October 11, 2013

Fusion Power, Terraforming, and Old Dutch Windmills

We're a step closer to building fusion power plants. That, and terraforming, was in this week's news:
  1. Fusion Power Plants: Another Step Closer
  2. "Shell Worlds"

Buck Rogers to Bigelow Aerospace

I've seen space travel change from stories about Buck Rogers and Captain Kirk to business news about Bigelow Aerospace and  Reaction Engines Ltd. Along the way, fashionable assumptions about science and technology changed from silly optimism to equally-silly fear and loathing.

We can use science and technology to help or hurt ourselves and other folks. That doesn't make them good or bad by themselves. What matters is how we decide to use them.

I like technology, and enjoy trying to keep up with what scientists are learning about this universe. My faith doesn't depend on using the Internet and understanding a little about what atoms are made of. On the other hand, it's not threatened by knowledge and information technology.

Human beings are made in the image of God, which is a scary thought. We have dominion over this world, and can decide to use or misuse it. But like the comic book said, "With great power there must also come - great responsibility!"

Free will and all that gets discussed less succinctly in Genesis 1:26-31; and Catechism of the Catholic Church, 299, 309-314355-361, 2293-2295, 2402, 2415-2418.

Space Colonization

Settling other worlds is still more fiction than fact, although we've had semi-permanent outposts like the Salyut series, Skylab and the International Space Station (ISS).

(From NASA, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Living on the ISS is a bit like what living on another planet would be like, at first. Settlers will almost certainly have less elbow room than folks living in places like Redondo Beach, California, with no attractions like the South Bay Galleria.

The first Martian settlers may live in habitats with the ambiance of NDSU's Agricultural Experiment Station Research Greenhouse Complex: nowhere near as posh as Redondo Beach, but few places are.

Habitats as big as Minnesota's Metrodome might come later. The Metrodome's pressurized roof is a brilliant piece of engineering. It is also a reminder of what happens when designers don't take their project's environment into account.

The Metrodome roof collapse was an embarrassing and expensive inconvenience. A ruptured habitat would be a major disaster.

Scott Shephard, Youtube (December 12, 2010)

Overcrowded: Like Amalfi, Italy

Catastrophic equipment failure notwithstanding, life in a Metrodome-size town could be quite pleasant for a remarkable number of folks.

A 1975 design study found that folks need roughly 1,738.3 cubic meters each for comfortable living. That includes a town's homes and shops, schools, public areas, service industries, farmland: everything.1

The Metrodome encloses 60,000,000 cubic feet, or 1,699,000,000 cubic meters. At 1 person for every 1,738.3 cubic meters, a habitat that size could hold in the neighborhood of 970,000 people. That's a lot of people.

A Metrodome-size habitat wouldn't be mostly empty air, like a sports stadium. Places to live, work, relax, and raise crops would fill the space. The habitat wouldn't have room left over for an American football field and bleachers, but it could be a nice place to live.

Mediterranean villages like Amalfi are "crowded" in the sense that they make very efficient use of limited space.

Places like Amalfi are so nice that luxury residences in Orange County, California, and West Hollywood were named "Mediterranean Village." Many or most human beings don't mind living near other human beings: it's badly-engineered cities that annoy us.

(From Sudodana2048, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
Piazza del Duomo, Amalfi, Italy.

Living in an area that wouldn't normally be habitable may seem "unnatural," but humans have done it before.

Terraforming and Windmills

(From the Central Intelligence Agency, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

The word "terraforming," changing the environment of another planet to suit terrestrial life, isn't more than a few decades old.

Folks changing an area to suit our needs is anything but new. For example, parts of the Netherlands started sinking a few centuries back. Either people living there took out too much peat, or something else happened.

Instead of leaving, they started building dikes and developing better water pumps. By now, quite a bit of the Netherlands is "terraformed." The northwest part of that country would look like this, if the Dutch decided to let nature take its course:

(From Jan Arkesteijn, via Wikimedia Commons and Wikipedia, used w/o permission.)

Those distinctive windmills in Holland? Quite a few of them powered the area's pumping system.

I think it's prudent to remember that "familiar" isn't necessarily "natural." We're accustomed to old technologies like fire, and artificial life forms like macaroni wheat. The realization's flipside is that what's new isn't necessarily bad.

Even during environmentalism's heyday, when getting "back to nature" was all the rage I don't remember anyone demanding that Amsterdam be returned to its "natural" state: and I'm drifting off-topic.

1. Fusion Power Plants: Another Step Closer

(Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"The achievement is the first of its kind anywhere in the world"
"Nuclear fusion milestone passed at US lab"
Paul Rincon, BBC News (October 7, 2013)

"Researchers at a US lab have passed a crucial milestone on the way to their ultimate goal of achieving self-sustaining nuclear fusion.

"Harnessing fusion - the process that powers the Sun - could provide an unlimited and cheap source of energy.

"But to be viable, fusion power plants would have to produce more energy than they consume, which has proven elusive.

"Now, a breakthrough by scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) could boost hopes of scaling up fusion.

"NIF, based at Livermore in California, uses 192 beams from the world's most powerful laser to heat and compress a small pellet of hydrogen fuel to the point where nuclear fusion reactions take place.

"The BBC understands that during an experiment in late September, the amount of energy released through the fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel - the first time this had been achieved at any fusion facility in the world...."
I'm too old, and have too good a memory, to be overly excited when I read of a "breakthrough" in science or technology.

Quite often, the development is important, useful, and promising: but hardly "a major achievement or success that permits further progress, as in technology." (

In this case, I think we may have a real "breakthrough."

Scientists have known that nuclei of hydrogen atoms fuse, releasing energy and leaving helium atoms plus subatomic debris, for decades. It's what makes fusion bombs so powerful: and keeps the sun shining.

Scientists have fused hydrogen nuclei on a smaller scale before, using more energy than the reaction released. As research, the process was interesting: but as a source of energy fusion reactors weren't practical.

Until last month.

Not Quite Self-Sustained Fusion

(Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"192 laser beams are focused through holes in a target container called a hohlraum...."
"...This is a step short of the lab's stated goal of 'ignition', where nuclear fusion generates as much energy as the lasers supply. This is because known 'inefficiencies' in different parts of the system mean not all the energy supplied through the laser is delivered to the fuel.

"But the latest achievement has been described as the single most meaningful step for fusion in recent years, and demonstrates NIF is well on its way towards the coveted target of ignition and self-sustaining fusion.

"For half a century, researchers have strived for controlled nuclear fusion and been disappointed. It was hoped that NIF would provide the breakthrough fusion research needed...."
(Paul Rincon)
Controlled fusion reactors were "about fifty years away" for several decades in the 20th century. As scientists and technicians learned why their current methods didn't quite work, they kept discovering new complications.

That's hardly surprising. They were trying to duplicate conditions normally found near the core of stars: and maintain that sort of pressure and heat for more than an instant.

(Fairly) Safe, (Relatively) Clean Energy

(From Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, used w/o permission.)

I gather that a short-term justification for fusion reactor research at  Lawrence Livermore's National Ignition Facility, NIF for short, is finding ways to test thermonuclear weapons without exploding them. That makes sense, particularly since some folks are high-strung about weapons: particularly big ones.

In the long run, I think our descendants will benefit from fusion reactor research. Fusing hydrogen into helium doesn't generate 'pure' energy. We'd get helium and neutrons as "ash" from that sort of reaction.

The good news is that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and more than half of Earth is covered in several miles of a hydrogen compound: water.

Granted, right now we've only learned how to fuse a particular sort of hydrogen: but even deuterium and tritium are fairly easy to extract from seawater and the lithium in dirt. My guess is that fusing 'normal' hydrogen in reactors isn't impossible: it's just something we haven't learned to do yet.

I think it's very likely that in another century or three, fusion reactors will be as common as coal 'reactors' are today. I'm also quite sure that fusion power plants will cause some problems.

Technology: Living and Learning

There simply is no "safe" technology. Rocks can crush fingers, sharp sticks can break skin, and fire is notoriously destructive. A million years after we started using fire, folks still had the occasional mishap. Some were spectacular:
I think it's noteworthy that after each disaster, folks didn't stop using fire. We cleaned up the mess, rebuilt the city, and often as not tried to avoid another disastrous fire.

During the last century, controlling and containing fires has gone from buckets of sand or water to carbon dioxide and foam extinguishers sprinkler systems. We're even getting better at dealing with wildfires. I'm quite confident that we'll cope with new technologies, too.


2. "Shell Worlds"

(Ken Roy/Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, via, used w/o permission)
"Full cities could hang from the top of the shell that holds in the newly terraformed world's atmosphere."
"Incredible Technology: How to Use 'Shells' to Terraform a Planet"
Miriam Kramer, (October 7, 2013)

"One day, humans could re-make a world in Earth's image.

"Engineering an inhospitable world into a livable one, a process known as terraforming, could be a successful way to colonize another world after a long, interstellar journey, said Ken Roy, an engineer and presenter at last week's Starship Congress in Dallas, Tex.

"Roy's terraforming vision hinges upon what he calls 'shell worlds.' Upon arrival at an ideal planet, humans would literally encase the alien world inside of a protective shell made from Kevlar, dirt and steel...."
I enjoyed the article, but with due respect to whoever decided on its title: technology needed to build a planet-size shell isn't particularly "incredible." Not now, anyway. The amount of Kevlar and steel needed for the project is another matter.

Kevlar is fairly new, but far from the latest thing in synthetic organic material. The word "organic" goes back about two millennia, by the way. Alchemists thought that living matter was basically different from non-living matter. Then Friedrich Wöhler made oxalic acid, an organic material, from cyanogen, inorganic stuff.

That was in the 1820s. Scientists were learning that matter's basic parts weren't earth, air, fire, and water: and that's another topic.

Stephanie Kwolek developed Kevlar for the DuPont Company about a half-century back.

Someone started making the iron-carbon alloy we call steel at least 4,000 years ago. Steel implements found at Kaman-Kalehöyük may not be the first of their kind, but they're the earliest that I've heard of, and that's another topic, too:

Flying Cities and the Rule of Cool

(From Air Wonder Stories, 1929, via Tales of Future Past, David S. Zondy, used w/o permission.)
The Rule of Cool
"The limit of the Willing Suspension of Disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to the element's awesomeness."
One of Ken Roy's suspended cities may exist: someday; a long time from now; maybe as a high-end luxury resort on Mars.

I have trouble imagining practical reasons for suspending inhabited structures like that: particularly when there's presumably solid ground underneath and a robust roof overhead.

Chandelier cities are, however, cool: so I suppose "the rule of cool" applies.

Suspended cities have been a science fiction staple for generations. Some of their appeal is probably the novelty, and implied ultra-advanced technology. I suspect there's some of Western civilization's deep-seated diffidence toward physical existence involved, too:

One Step at a Time

Getting back to Ken Roy's idea of roofing an entire planet, I think it could be done. A project on that scale may not be practical for a very long time, though.

Besides, we'll probably have most of Mars terraformed by then.

Places where people live get built incrementally, one step at a time. Today's New York City has been built on assorted swamps and hills, one piece at a time. The project has taken about four centuries, so far.

Dutch settlers in New Netherland started with a fur trading post. Construction began of a fort on Manhattan Island started in 1625. It wasn't until about two centuries later that the area we call Times Square became in important part of the city's carriage industry.

If or when we start settling Mars or another planet, I'm pretty sure folks won't wait until they can terraform the whole place at once.

My guess is that we'll work our way up from smaller habitats to pressurized towns. Those might be the size of the Seibu Dome or Minnesota's Metrodome. Eventually the local population and economy would probably make much larger structures possible: or necessary.

It would probably take centuries to cover Mars that way, but I think an incremental approach is more likely - and more practical - than trying to refit an entire planet as a single building project.

Later, a thousand or so years from now, tourists may take tours of Gusev City's quaint historic habitat shell. And that's yet another topic.

Related posts:

1 From Table 3-2 - Summary of Community Space and Area Allocations; "Space Settlements: A Design Study;" Richard D. Johnson, NASA Ames Research Center; Charles Holbrow, Colgate University; Scientific and Technical Information Service; NASA (1975)

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I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.