Paul G. Allen's first foray into rocketry, as he recalls it, was inauspicious.
"My cousin and I tried to build a rocket out of an aluminum armchair leg," he said. At just 12 years old, the future billionaire raided his chemistry set for zinc and sulfur, and packed the fuel mixture into the tube. He got the formula right, but had not looked up the melting point of aluminum.
"It made a great noise," he said, "and then melted into place."
His rockets have gotten better since then, and a lot bigger, too. Mr. Allen, who became a co-founder of Microsoft, is responsible for SpaceShipOne, the pint-size manned rocket that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition last year as the first privately financed craft to fly to the cusp of space - nearly 70 miles up.
Mr. Allen is not the designer; that is Burt Rutan, the legendary aeronautical engineer with the sideburns that look like sweeping air scoops. He is not one of the test pilots who made the competition-winning flights; they are Michael Melvill and Brian Binnie. Mr. Allen is, instead, the one who gets little glory but without whom nothing is possible - he is the guy who signs the checks. And he did what the rich do: he hired good people.
The SpaceShipOne flight made him the best-known member of a growing club of high-tech thrillionaires, including the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who find themselves with money enough to fulfill their childhood fascination with space. Rick N. Tumlinson, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, a group that promotes public access to space, said the effort had become a geeky status symbol. "It's not good enough to have a Gulfstream V," he said. "Now you've got to have a rocket."
Many self-professed "space geeks" say the possibility that entrepreneurs like Richard Branson of the Virgin Group may help regular people see the black sky - well, regular rich people, at least - has drawn away much of the excitement that government-financed human space efforts long enjoyed.
"It's completely shifted," said Charles Lurio, a space consultant with an interest in private efforts that goes way beyond ardent. "This is where the action is, not at NASA."
The new generation of deep-pockets space entrepreneurs includes Mr. Bezos, who founded Blue Origin, in Washington State, and quietly announced this year that he had bought 165,000 acres of land in West Texas as a base for his eventual launching operations.
Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, created the rocket company SpaceX, and John Carmack, the creator of computer games like Doom and Quake, has been testing rocket designs through his company, Armadillo Aerospace near Dallas.
The engine for Mr. Allen's craft was developed by SpaceDev, a company formed as a second act by another computer entrepreneur turned space man, Jim Benson. And Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, recently joined the board of the X Prize Foundation.
The rise of the space money men is a unique moment in history, said Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, a co-founder of the X Prize. "There is sufficient wealth controlled by individuals to start serious space efforts," he said.
What's more, they are frustrated, he went on, adding: "The dreams and expectations that Apollo launched for all these entrepreneurs have failed to materialize. And in fact, those who look into it realize that the cost of going into space has gone up and the reliability has, effectively, gone down."
For Mr. Allen, 52, SpaceShipOne was no set-it-and-forget-it bauble of a project. It was an expression of a lifelong passion, he said, a "love of science and technology, and what can be done with engineering."
He recalled the widespread excitement in the 1960's about the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, when "I really got enthralled, and probably more than most kids."
Science became his fascination, and with a librarian as a father, he soon learned that there was a book to answer each of his innumerable questions. Like many children, he would go down to the five-and-dime and buy plastic rockets that could be filled with water and pumped up with air, whose compression built up launching pressure. But he took it further, checking out books to find out "how the heck a turbopump worked" at the age of 11.
He devoured novels like "Rocketship Galileo," by Robert A. Heinlein, in which enterprising teenagers join forces with a scientist to build and fly a rocket to the Moon, and nonfiction books like "Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel," by Willy Ley. He recalled riding his bicycle to the local hobby shop and reaching for the top shelf, where there was a model of a space station along with Redstone and Atlas rockets.
As the Moon shots of the Apollo program came to an end, however, Mr. Allen saw his voracious interest in the sciences expanding to other fields: chemistry, and - by the age of 15, when he met a teenager named Bill Gates - to computing.
Even after starting Microsoft as a tiny software company in Albuquerque, he kept his interest in space alive. "At the back of my mind, there was always this desire, this inkling of desire, that someday I would try to do something with aerospace or rocketry," Mr. Allen said.
He recalled flying to Florida with Charles Simonyi, a space-obsessed co-worker, to see the first shuttle launching in 1981. "I'm not sure that Bill Gates was happy that we even took off a weekend to do that," he said, since the company was preparing software for the IBM PC at the time.
But the launching was worth any tension on the job. "The air basically vibrates," he recalled. "There are hundreds of thousands of people yelling, 'Go! Go! Go!' "
In 1982, he learned he had Hodgkin's disease, and he withdrew from day-to-day work with Microsoft the next year. (The cancer has been in remission since 1985.) Microsoft made him a billionaire 20 times over, with the ability to invest wisely, unwisely - even, on occasion, frivolously. It gave him the luxury of being able to take gambles and make mistakes. Some of his huge early investments in what he called the "wired world" of media, interactive technologies and cable were duds.
More recent investments in biotechnology, energy and real estate could prove more promising. He also owns two major-league sports teams, the Portland Trail Blazers in basketball and the Seattle Seahawks in football.
And he has begun to put some of his wealth into sharing his enthusiasms with the world: he has given away hundreds of millions of dollars through philanthropy, has founded the Allen Institute for Brain Science and has created museums in Seattle devoted to rock 'n' roll and to science fiction.
It is all of a piece, he said. Projects like the museums "try to plant those seeds of imagination" like the ones that carried him so far.
In the past, amateur rocketry had been essentially a weekend pursuit that brought guys together for fun and fire. Cheap and powerful computing has brought down the cost and the amount of trouble it takes to design rockets, said John Wickman, an aerospace engineer who has written a popular guide to rocket making; amateur groups commonly send rockets to 30,000 or 40,000 feet, he said, at a cost of several thousand dollars.
"You can get a couple of guys together, and if your wife won't kill you for spending money like that, you could probably pull it off," he said. But amateurs could take things only so far, and could not have hoped to create human-rated craft that could blast past the 328,000-foot line that the Ansari X Prize defined as the edge of space.
Mr. Tumlinson says the tech entrepreneurs are accustomed to putting powerful technologies into the hands of individuals against enormous odds - a good foundation for the space business. "The current American space program is a passive activity that has no connection with those watching it or their children," he said. The new space race is different: "It's about 'you can do it.' "
NASA officials past and present say it is not that easy. While they praise the achievements of the Rutan-Allen team, they point out that there is a vast difference between reaching the cusp of space, which NASA did in the 1960's, and building something that can withstand the punishing conditions of orbital space and re-entry.
Sean O'Keefe, a former administrator of the agency, called SpaceShipOne's success "a great achievement," but also "a modest first step."
The just-do-it adventurism of the SpaceShipOne project could never fly at NASA, he said, adding, "If I had authorized somebody to jump into a plastic airplane fueled by laughing gas in just a flight suit, there would have been a Congressional investigation the next day - whether it was successful or not."
Mr. Allen understands the challenges better than most. He speaks knowledgeably about the amount of energy that must be dissipated when a vehicle returns from orbit and the various methods of dealing with the risks.
"It's much harder to do orbital flight - much," he admitted. But his immediate goal is less grand: to lay the groundwork for businesses that will carry adventurers, briefly, into space.
That is a realistic goal, he said. There are plenty of people who would pay for the experience, and "you could actually get a return on your investment dollar."
He is licensing the innovations developed by Mr. Rutan, he went on, adding, "I am optimistic that I will have a good chance to get my money back."
He says he spent about $20 million on the project, which is about what he earns in interest while flossing.
In the meantime, he said, he has had a blast, having had a hand in "some of the aspirational part of what it means to be human." Standing in the control room for SpaceShipOne during the launchings, he said, his heart was in his throat and he felt deeply the risk that the pilots were taking.
But he is in no rush to touch the rim of space himself. "After it's proven to be incredibly safe, I might consider it," he said. "I have a lot of things I want to see to fruition."
Editor's Note: Attend the "Regional Space Development Conference" at the Marriott Hotel in Ogden, Utah July 22-23, 2005. Speakers: Robert Zubrin, Royce Jones, Mark Hopkins, and billionaire, Robert Bigelow (see "Space Hotel 2010" in Pop. Sci., March, 2005). Contact NSS Chapter President, J. David Baxter 801-359-0251 or firstname.lastname@example.org
3) It's Getting Cheaper to Tap the Sun
Annette Benedict gave a party to celebrate the installation of solar panels on the roof of her Bronx home over a year ago.
John Sunde bought three systems in three years for the two Long Island homes he owns - two for the Brentwood house he lived in and a third for a Hampton Bays home he lives in now.
Susan Ferraro and her husband, Nick, featured their new network in the sales ad for their summer home on Shelter Island, N.Y., earlier this year.
Excitement over residential solar energy may not be running this high everywhere, but providing homes with electricity and heat from the sun is getting more buzz than it has in decades.
In the 70's it seemed that buyers of solar systems were mostly isolated tree huggers who somehow had a small fortune to spend on panels, but now urban and suburban homeowners are looking to the sun hitting their roofs for relief from rising electricity and heating costs.
Higher utility bills, though, are just the stick. The carrot is the falling cost of solar systems that are lighter and more efficient and feature new designs, like solar panels that double as window awnings. Standardized installations and economies of scale for equipment production have helped drive costs lower.
In moving toward the energy mainstream, solar expenses have dropped to around $8 a watt, from roughly $100 three decades ago; the cost is even less if a system is installed as part of a new home's construction.
In either case, that puts the price of a system that can reduce electric bills significantly - like a three-kilowatt system - in the $20,000 range. That's still a lot of money, but buyers may be able to get a lot of it back immediately, through government incentives. And with energy prices rising, the payback period for the rest is getting steadily shorter.
State programs developed in the last few years are making it possible for homeowners to cut the cost of a system by more than half, to less than $4 a watt. These programs include rebates, tax refunds and access to utility grids, enabling homeowners to sell excess electricity back to power companies.
"Oil prices give people a reason to look, but then it's all about the incentives," says Gary Minick, president of Go Solar, in Riverhead, N.Y., who has been installing systems for 26 years. "I get eight calls a week now. I'm all booked."
While incentives can be found across the country, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut tend to give good deals. Forty states allow selling excess power back to utilities, according to the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy, and 19 offer rebates.
Typically, California led the charge when one of its utilities opened its grid to homeowners over a decade ago. Within a few years, New York was establishing itself as an East Coast solar beachhead. Now more than 700 New York homeowners have solar energy systems hooked up to utilities. New York has also licensed some 50 solar equipment installers.
"We've building for the long term," said Adele Ferranti, who works for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which regulates solar installations. "We haven't had one failure for anything installed by the people we certify."
On Long Island, Mr. Sunde's systems are working smoothly, and he expects them to keep doing so over their guaranteed 25-year life. A staunch environmentalist who had dreamed of owning solar panels since he was a boy, he now has more power than he needs.
He couldn't have done it without the incentives. With rebates and tax refunds, he chopped nearly 75 percent off the $115,000 bill, bringing the cost down to $30,000. With about 7.5 kilowatts for each house, he wound up paying about $2 a watt.
He did so well because Long Island kicked off New York's incentive programs with rebates of up to $6 a watt. Now it's in line with the rest of the state, offering $4, while the newer New Jersey program, is the most generous in the New York metropolitan area, with incentives of $5.50 a watt.
Exactly how much electricity a system provides and how long it takes for an installation to pay for itself, though, depends on many factors besides costs and incentives. Also important is the amount of shade at a house, the pitch of a roof (25 degrees is good, and typical for the Northeast except in areas that get heavy snow), and the direction the roof faces.
An additional factor is the amount of sunshine received, which depends on both latitude and average number of days with cloud cover. In Mr. Sunde's case, his new home has the edge over the old because its roof faces south. Over all, he calculates the payback period at a bit over 15 years.
"It's worth it," he said. "There's nothing to break. No moving parts. When I've saved as much as it cost me in the first place, I'll have free electricity."
Irene Pletka has two different solar energy systems at her Sag Harbor, N.Y., summer house. Copper tubing panels are used to heat her swimming pool, while silicon panels provide all the electricity for her home.
The copper panels for the pool's heating are alongside the roof deck, and the silicon modules providing electricity are attached like awnings above a bank of first-floor windows to keep out the summer sun. Copper trumps silicon for heating. For one thing, it warms water directly, where silicon panels must first convert solar energy to electricity. While there are no rebates or tax breaks for thermal heating systems in New York, her $2,500 pool system will still pay for itself in about two seasons.
"You're also not limited the way you are with oil," she said, "thinking about swimming too early or late in the season because of the fuel you may use up."
A big challenge for solar heating comes during the winter, for the simple reason that the sun is around the least when it is needed the most. It is also difficult to heat interior space; hot air cannot be stored the way water can.
Brian Flanagan, though, had special reasons for installing a solar heating system in the Brooklyn house he bought last year. The building had a boiler with only enough capacity to heat the commercial space he rented out on the ground floor; the upstairs was too big, with too many windows, to heat in the winter.
Buying a small boiler and installing a roof-top solar unit with vacuum tubes (which do not lose heat the way copper tubes do) - plus large hot water storage tanks to save heat for a cloudy day - would, he reasoned, be more economical in the long run. The package cost $33,000 compared with $20,000 for a separate large boiler for his living space. But with lower heating bills, he expects the system to pay for itself in eight years.
"I'm no longer a slave to oil prices," he said. "I pay a fifth of what my tenant pays."
It's still too early, though, to tell if the added expense of solar equipment makes a home more valuable. Based on Susan Ferraro's experience selling her vacation home, the answer just might be: not yet.
"We thought it very pioneering, and we put it in our ads, thinking people would think it was as exciting as we thought it was," she said of her year-old system. "But it never even came up, even with the people who bought the house."
Some things will never change, though, like what got everyone interested in solar energy in the first place.
"I read about it in a Sierra Club magazine," Annette Benedict said of her decision to install solar equipment. "It made sense. It was good for the environment."
And good for her: she bought a piano with her rebate.
15 - 18 Aug 2005
Hyatt Regency San Francisco at Embarcadero Center
San Francisco, California
|The 3rd International Energy Conversion Engineering
Conference (IECEC) will be held 15-18 August 2005 at the Hyatt Regency San
Francisco at Embarcadero Center. The IECEC provides a forum to present and
discuss engineering aspects of energy conversion technology, advanced
energy and power systems, and devices for energy systems and aerospace
applications. Papers on all engineering aspects and disciplines of power
generation and storage are welcome and encouraged.
The IECEC is hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and
Astronautics (AIAA), which is joined this year by three Participating
Organizations. These organizations are:
Also featured at this event will be the second AIAA-sponsored Student Stirling Device Demonstration session. This session gives university students the unique opportunity to display and (conditions permitting) demonstrate devices designed and built by the students to illustrate different applications of Stirling-cycle thermodynamics.
5) Scientists are reviving an old but wild idea to protect astronauts from space radiation.
NASA Science News for June 24, 2005
June 24, 2005: Opposite charges attract. Like charges repel. It's the first lesson of electromagnetism and, someday, it could save the lives of astronauts.
NASA's Vision for Space Exploration calls for a return to the Moon as preparation for even longer journeys to Mars and beyond. But there's a potential showstopper: radiation.
Space beyond low-Earth orbit is awash with intense radiation from the Sun and from deep galactic sources such as supernovas. Astronauts en route to the Moon and Mars are going to be exposed to this radiation, increasing their risk of getting cancer and other maladies. Finding a good shield is important.
Supernovas produce dangerous radiation. [More]
The most common way to deal with radiation is simply to physically block it, as the thick concrete around a nuclear reactor does. But making spaceships from concrete is not an option. (Interestingly, it might be possible to build a moonbase from a concrete mixture of moondust and water, if water can be found on the Moon, but that's another story.) NASA scientists are investigating many radiation-blocking materials such as aluminum, advanced plastics and liquid hydrogen. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Those are all physical solutions. There is another possibility, one with no physical substance but plenty of shielding power: a force field.
Most of the dangerous radiation in space consists of electrically charged particles: high-speed electrons and protons from the Sun, and massive, positively charged atomic nuclei from distant supernovas.
Like charges repel. So why not protect astronauts by surrounding them with a powerful electric field that has the same charge as the incoming radiation, thus deflecting the radiation away?
Many experts are skeptical that electric fields can be made to protect astronauts. But Charles Buhler and John Lane, both scientists with ASRC Aerospace Corporation at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, believe it can be done. They've received support from the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, whose job is to fund studies of far-out ideas, to investigate the possibility of electric shields for lunar bases.
Artist's concept of an electrostatic radiation shield, consisting of positively charged inner spheres and negatively charged outer spheres. The screen net is connected to ground. Image courtesy ASRC Aerospace.
"Using electric fields to repel radiation was one of the first ideas back in the 1950s, when scientists started to look at the problem of protecting astronauts from radiation," Buhler says. "They quickly dropped the idea, though, because it seemed like the high voltages needed and the awkward designs that they thought would be necessary (for example, putting the astronauts inside two concentric metal spheres) would make such an electric shield impractical."
Buhler and Lane's approach is different. In their concept, a lunar base would have a half dozen or so inflatable, conductive spheres about 5 meters across mounted above the base. The spheres would then be charged up to a very high static-electrical potential: 100 megavolts or more. This voltage is very large but because there would be very little current flowing (the charge would sit statically on the spheres), not much power would be needed to maintain the charge.
The spheres would be made of a thin, strong fabric (such as Vectran, which was used for the landing balloons that cushioned the impact for the Mars Exploration Rovers) and coated with a very thin layer of a conductor such as gold. The fabric spheres could be folded up for transport and then inflated by simply loading them with an electric charge; the like charges of the electrons in the gold layer repel each other and force the sphere to expand outward.
How the voltage would vary above a lunar base for the sphere configuration shown above. You can learn more about this and other configurations in the report Analysis of a Lunar Base Electrostatic Radiation Shield Concept. http://www.niac.usra.edu/files/studies/final_report/921Buhler.pdf
Placing the spheres far overhead would reduce the danger of astronauts touching them. By carefully choosing the arrangement of the spheres, scientists can maximize their effectiveness at repelling radiation while minimizing their impact on astronauts and equipment at the ground. In some designs, in fact, the net electric field at ground level is zero, thus alleviating any potential health risks from these strong electric fields.
Buhler and Lane are still searching for the best arrangement: Part of the challenge is that radiation comes as both positively and negatively charged particles. The spheres must be arranged so that the electric field is, say, negative far above the base (to repel negative particles) and positive closer to the ground (to repel the positive particles). "We've already simulated three geometries that might work," says Buhler.
Right: One scenario for how an electrostatic radiation shield could be deployed for mobile lunar exploration vehicles. Inverted green cones denote regions of partial radiation protection. Image courtesy ASRC Aerospace.
It sounds wonderful, but there are many scientific and engineering problems yet to be solved. For example, skeptics note that an electrostatic shield on the Moon is susceptible to being short circuited by floating moondust, which is itself charged by solar ultraviolet radiation. Solar wind blowing across the shield can cause problems, too. Electrons and protons in the wind could become trapped by the maze of forces that make up the shield, leading to strong and unintended electrical currents right above the heads of the astronauts.
The research is still preliminary, Buhler stresses. Moondust, solar wind and other problems are still being investigated. It may be that a different kind of shield would work better, for instance, a superconducting magnetic field. These wild ideas have yet to sort themselves out.
But, who knows, perhaps one day astronauts on the Moon and Mars will work safely, protected by a simple principle of electromagnetism even a child can understand.
For More Information
NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts -- an independent entity funded by NASA
Active Radiation Shielding for Human Space Exploration Workshop -- experts gathered at the University of Michigan in 2004 to discuss radiation-deflecting force fields.
A New Kind of Solar Storm -- (Science@NASA) Going to the Moon? Watch out. A new kind of solar storm might take you by surprise.
Sickening Solar Flares -- (Science@NASA) NASA researchers discuss what a big proton storm might do to someone on the Moon.
Mysterious Cancer -- (Science@NASA) Researchers agree that space radiation can cause cancer. They're just not sure how.
Blinding Flashes -- (Science@NASA) Years after exposure to space radiation, many astronauts' vision becomes clouded by cataracts.
Have Blood, Will Travel -- (Science@NASA) The radiation astronauts encounter in deep space could put vital blood-making cells in jeopardy.
"It is a great success for France, for Europe and for all the partners" in the reactor project, President Jacques Chirac of France said in a statement after an international consortium chose the country as the site for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).
Japan, which had lobbied hard for the project, just dropped out of the bidding. The six-member consortium, which includes the United States, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and the European Union, agreed in Moscow to build the reactor in the southern French city of Cadarache.
Nuclear fusion is the process by which the atomic nuclei are forced together, releasing huge amounts of energy, as with the sun and stars or, in manmade form, the hydrogen bomb. The process has long been studied as a potential energy source that would be far cleaner than burning fossil fuels or even nuclear fission, which is used in nuclear reactors today but produces dangerous radioactive waste.
While the physics of nuclear fusion have long been understood, the engineering required to control the process remains difficult and the logistics of coordinating construction among a six-member consortium presents an even bigger challenge.
The reactor project was started in 1988 but quickly bogged down in bickering over where the reactor's design team would be based. A compromise split the team between Japan, Germany and the United States, but the inability to decide on a single site foreshadowed the consortium's struggle over agreeing where the reactor would be built.
Canada, Spain, France and Japan were originally in contention to host the reactor, but a December 2003 meeting to pick a winner ended in a deadlock, with the United States, Japan and South Korea backing the Japanese site and the other three consortium members pushing for the site in France.
Japan finally agreed to relinquish its bid in return for the consortium's commitment to build a $1 billion materials testing facility in that country.
The consortium also promised Japan that any subsequent fusion reactor would be built there, a significant concession as the first reactor is a development project meant to solve the various technical problems involved and prove that fusion can be harnessed as an economically viable energy source. A second reactor would likely be a prototype meant for commercial power generation.
The standoff put the project on hold. With today's agreement, the consortium can proceed with the drafting of an agreement on the construction and operation of the reactor. Officials involved in the reactor project said they hoped the agreement would be signed by the end of the year, allowing work on the reactor to begin next year and ground to be broken at the Cadarache site in 2008.
Current plans foresee the reactor operating in 2015.
Construction of the reactor is expected to cost $5 billion with its operation is expected to cost another $5 billion over twenty years, according to officials of the reactor project. Those numbers are based on present-day dollars, however, meaning the actual cost of the reactor will be much higher by the time it is completed.
Many experts also predict that construction could take much longer than currently foreseen, given the difficulty of coordinating multiple suppliers of costly and highly technical components in many countries. Today's agreement leaves open the possibility that still more countries may participate in the project. India, for example, has expressed interest in getting involved.
The final agreement on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is expected to include provisions that would require consortium members that cause delays to pay compensation.
The fusion project has stirred controversy since it was first considered in the 1980's, with many scientists arguing that "big science" projects like the multibillion-dollar experimental reactor would divert money from the "little science" of individual researchers who have often produced the most striking scientific breakthroughs.
But such criticism has been drowned out by the growing recognition of fusion's potential as a solution to the world's growing energy needs.
"We all know oil and gas depletion will start in 2030 or 2035," said Peter Haug, secretary general of the European Nuclear Society.
He said most experts agree that because of technical difficulties, renewable energy sources like wind or solar power are unlikely to provide more than 15 or 20 percent of the world's energy needs. There is enough coal in the earth to keep the world running for centuries, but at an unacceptable environmental cost because of air pollution. As the world's oil and gas fields become exhausted, the world is expect to increase its reliance on nuclear energy.
"We don't think fusion will remove fission from the production scheme," Mr. Haug said. "But it will probably be used along with fission because of the growing energy needs of man."
Still, few scientists expect a fusion reactor to generate commercially viable electricity before the middle of the century, if by then.
In the meantime, the fusion project means money for the industries and scientific communities that will contribute to it.
"It's brings great joy and great pride," said Pascale Amenc Antoni, director of the Cadarache Center, which is run by France's Atomic Energy Commission.. She said it also recognizes the work on nuclear fusion at its research facility.
Bracken Hendricks, Executive Director
Apollo Alliance, www.apolloalliance.org
Help us create a movement for energy independence and good jobs! Two years ago, political leaders and strange bedfellows came together to create the Apollo Alliance and called for a moon mission--a crash effort to build a clean energy economy and create good jobs here at home and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Join our coalition of Governors, labor unions, national security experts, environmentalists, business and community leaders from across the nation who are ready to take this vision to scale!
Arm yourself with facts about the energy bill and the kind of bold crash program America needs to end its dependence on foreign oil!
- : the truth behind President Bush's misleading speeches http://action.apolloalliance.org/ctt.asp?u=2413530&l=98279
- on reducing America's dependence on foreign oil http://action.apolloalliance.org/ctt.asp?u=2413530&l=98335
- comments on the efforts of the Apollo Alliance http://action.apolloalliance.org/ctt.asp?u=2413530&l=98336
- call for a bold plan for American energy independence http://action.apolloalliance.org/ctt.asp?u=2413530&l=98337
Declare Energy Independence and Help Create a National Dialogue
Help create a movement by moving the debate on energy independence!
- to your Local Newspaper's Editor
- Ask your family and friends to join you in Declaring Energy Independence! http://action.apolloalliance.org/ctt.asp?u=2413530&l=98384
- Join fellow activists in Seattle, Washington for the freedom from oil parade on July 3rd
Sign Our Petition
Help us collect signatures for our petition to urge Congress and President Bush to call for a bold crash program to end our dependence on foreign oil
- about our Petition
Highlights from the 2005 Take Back America Conference
A few weeks ago, thousands of patriotic Americans gathered in Washington DC to discuss our progressive movement's vision for a stronger America, and to outline the concrete steps we can take together to build it. The crowd was electric, the speeches were inspirational, and many - like us - left with a renewed sense of the power we have collectively to transform our country.
By Michelle Thaller, Christian Science Monitor, June 6, 2005 http://www.christiansciencemonitor.com/2005/0606/p25s01-stss.html
PASADENA, CALIF. - For the last few years, mentioning cold fusion around scientists (myself included) has been a little like mentioning Bigfoot or UFO sightings. After the 1989 announcement of fusion in a bottle, so to speak, and the subsequent retraction, the whole idea of cold fusion seemed a bit beyond the pale. But that's all about to change.
A very reputable, very careful group of scientists at the University of Los Angeles (Brian Naranjo, Jim Gimzewski, Seth Putterman) has initiated a fusion reaction using a laboratory device that's not much bigger than a breadbox, and works at roughly room temperature. This time, it looks like the real thing.
Before going into their specific experiment, it's probably a good idea to define exactly what nuclear fusion is, and why we're so interested in understanding the process. This also gives me an excuse to talk about how things work deep inside the nuclei of atoms, a topic near and dear to most astronomers (more on that later).
Simply put, nuclear fusion means ramming protons and neutrons together so hard that they stick, and form a single, larger nucleus. When this happens with small nuclei (like hydrogen, which has only one proton or helium, which has two), you get a lot of energy out of the reaction. This specific reaction, fusing two hydrogen nuclei together to get helium, famously powers our sun (good), as well as hydrogen bombs (bad).
Fusion is a tremendous source of energy; the reason we're not using it to meet our everyday energy needs is that it's very hard to get a fusion reaction going. The reason is simple: protons don't want to get close to other protons.
Do you remember learning about electricity in high school? I sure do - I dreaded it whenever that topic came around. I had a series of well-meaning science teachers that thought it would be fun for everyone to hold hands and feel a mild electric shock pass their arms. Every time my fists clenched and jerked and I had nothing consciously do with it, my stomach turned.
In addition, I have long, fine hair, and was often made a victim of the Van de Graf generator - the little metal ball with a rubber belt inside it that creates enough static electricity to make your hair stand on end. Yeesh.
Anyway, hopefully you remember the lesson that two objects having different electrical charges (positive and negative) attract one another, while those with the same charge repel. It's a basic law of electricity, and it definitely holds true when two protons try to get close together. Protons have positive charges, and they repel each other. Somehow, in order for fusion to work, you've got to overcome this repulsive electrical force and get the things to stick together.
Here's where an amazing and mysterious force comes in that, although we don't think about it in our day-to-day lives, literally holds our matter together. There are four universal forces of nature, two of which you're probably familiar with: gravity and electromagnetism.
But there are two other forces that really only come in to play inside atomic nuclei: the strong and weak nuclear forces (and yes, the strong force is the stronger of the two, the weak is weaker. Scientists really have a way with names, don't they?) I'm going to focus on the strong force, as that's the one responsible for nuclear fusion.
The strong force is an attractive force between protons and neutrons - it wants to stick them together. If the strong force had its way, the entire universe would be one big super-dense ball of protons and neutrons, one big atomic nucleus, in fact.
Fortunately, the strong force only becomes strong at very small scales: about one millionth billionth of a meter. Yes, that's 0.000000000000001 meters. Any farther away, and the strong force loses its grip. But if you can get protons and neutrons that close together, the strong force becomes stronger than any other force in nature, including electricity.
That's important- all protons have the same charge, so they'd like to fly away from each other. But if you can get them close together, inside the volume of an atomic nucleus, the strong force will bind them together.
The whole trick with fusion is you've got to get protons close enough together for the strong force to overcome their electrical repulsion and merge them together into a nucleus. The sun does this pretty much by brute force. The sun has over 300,000 times the mass of the Earth, which means there's a lot of gravity weighing down on its core.
That pressure gets the sun's internal temperature up to several millions of degrees, which means that particles inside the sun's core are flying around at huge velocities. Everything is moving around so fast that protons sometimes get slammed together before their charges have a chance to repel. The strong force takes hold, and a new atom (helium) is born.
In this process, some of the mass of the protons is converted into energy, powering the sun and producing the light that will eventually reach the Earth as sunlight.
Scientists have gotten fusion to occur in the laboratory before, but for the most part, they've tried to mimic conditions inside the sun by whipping hydrogen gas up to extreme temperatures or slamming atoms together in particle accelerators. Both of those options require huge energies and gigantic equipment, not the sort of stuff easily available to build a generator. Is there any way of getting protons close enough together for fusion to occur that doesn't require the energy output of a large city to make it happen?
The answer, it turns out, is yes.
Instead of using high temperatures and incredible densities to ram protons together, the scientists at UCLA cleverly used the structure of an unusual crystal.
Crystals are fascinating things; the atoms inside are all lined up in a tightly ordered lattice, which creates the beautiful structure we associate with crystals. Sometimes those orderly atoms create neat side-effects, like piezoelectricity, which is the effect of creating an electrical charge in a crystal by compressing it. Stressing the bonds between the atoms of some crystals causes electrons to build up on one side, creating a charge difference over the body of the crystal. Other crystals do this when you heat or cool them; these are called pyroelectric crystals.
The new cold fusion experiment went something like this: scientists inserted a small pyroelectric crystal (lithium tantalite) inside a chamber filled with hydrogen. Warming the crystal by about 100 degrees (from -30 F to 45F) produced a huge electrical field of about 100,000 volts across the small crystal.
The tip of a metal wire was inserted near the crystal, which concentrated the charge to a single, powerful point. Remember, hydrogen nuclei have a positive charge, so they feel the force of an electric field, and this one packed quite a wallop! The huge electric field sent the nuclei careening away, smacking into other hydrogen nuclei on their way out. Instead of using intense heat or pressure to get nuclei close enough together to fuse, this new experiment used a very powerful electric field to slam atoms together.
Unlike some previous claims of room-temperature fusion, this one makes intuitive sense: its just another way to get atoms close enough together for the strong force to take over and do the rest. Once the reaction got going, the scientists observed not only the production of helium nuclei, but other tell-tale signs of fusion such as free neutrons and high energy radiation.
This experiment has been repeated successfully and other scientists have reviewed the results: it looks like the real thing this time.
For the time being, don't expect fusion to become a readily available energy option. The current cold fusion apparatus still takes much more energy to start up than you get back out, and it may never end up breaking even. In the mean time, the crystal-fusion device might be used as a compact source of neutrons and X-rays, something that could turn out to be useful making small scanning machines. But it really may not be long until we have the first nuclear fusion-powered devices in common use.
So cold fusion is back, perhaps to stay. After many fits and starts, its finally time for everyday fusion to come in out of the cold.