Twinkle, Twinkle, Inefficient Star

Posted by Rezwan Razani on Feb 22, 2012 at 01:07 PM
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The Sun. 
A huge ball of nuclear fusion. 
All that MASS and POWER. 
Just to twinkle.

Image - European Association for Astronomy Education aka @EAAE_Astronomy

Awesome Twinkling Power

How much energy does the sun twinkle away every day?  “In one second, our sun produces enough energy for almost 500,000 years of the current needs of our so-called civilization.” ( Multiply that by seconds per day and you get 43 BILLION years of our energy wants.  Daily.

This is one average star in a universe full of them. Routinely twinkling billions of years worth of energy into oblivion.

The meager planets that lurk in the fringes catch some energy scraps while struggling to keep their atmospheric coats on. 

Of course, the stars aren’t just twinkling benign energy, there’s quite a bit of radiation in the mix (cosmic rays!)  If it weren’t for Earth’s magnetosphere, we’d be toast.

Awesomely Elegant Local Fusion Scene

I’m not here to question Almighty architecture or the divine purpose of a vast expanse of space dotted with flaming twinkle balls, light years away from one another. 

I’m here to point out how heroic, efficient and elegant the fusion endeavor on Earth is.

It seems like only yesterday (1868) when someone proposed the existence of helium in the sun.  And a little while later when they proposed the electron (1898) followed by the proton, and finally (1932) the neutron.  Yes, it wasn’t until the 30s that people figured out what fusion was, and realized the sun operated on it. 

And then quickly realized how tough it was.  A fusion reaction will only take place at extremely high temperature and pressure: about 100 million degrees and 1000 times normal solid densities. In stars (like the sun), gravity confines the hydrogen at the density necessary for fusion.  On our cold little planet, that doesn’t happen.

Faced with this enormous hurdle, did we give up on fusion?  Did we give up on scaling it down to earth?  No. 

As you can see from indoor ski slopes, you don’t need the mass of a mountain to ski, you just need the slope.

What is the “slope” for fusion?  Heat and confinement without the mass of a star.  And so the fusion community wrestles with elegant magnetic cages or an array of lasers firing on a tiny point to implode it, and many other under-explored ideas.

And it’s working.  Fusion has been taking place in labs around the world, with increasing efficiency.  Net energy (aka ignition) has not yet been achieved, but we’re on the way.  Yes, we are orders of magnitude away from that point, but think of how many orders of magnitude we’ve come.  We’ve made fusion happen without the mass of that giant twinklebox.  Where does that stand on a fusion Moore’s Law scale?  Think of the sun as Fusion Reactor 1.0.  Then check out the chart below. 


Man v. Sun

Many people deride the “quest” aspect of fusion.  Some don’t have much confidence in mankind’s ability to solve the fusion challenge.  Others deride its inefficiency.  As Romm says in the NYT article, “Fusion is done by our sun really, really well and for free.  Here on Earth in reactors…not so much.”

The point of this article is to offer perspective.  In fact, the sun isn’t doing fusion that well.  It’s actually glaringly inefficient. 

True, human-made fusion reactors don’t, at present, provide us with commercially viable energy.  However, once we crack fusion, even our most inefficient, bulky designs will be more efficient than the sun.  Technically, they will be billions of times more efficient.

This is because the sun, that huge fusion reactor in the sky, uses all that mass and power just to TWINKLE.

We are engineering stars - without all the waste.  This is something extraordinary.  And most people are whining about running their refrigerators today and missing the bigger picture of what the fusion endeavor is trying to accomplish.  It’s not just about your energy.  It’s about a LEAP of capability. 



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Wasn’t ignition achieved in 1954, in the hydrogen bomb?

At least it proves that net energy fusion is possible on Earth and without involving gravity to bring the nuclei together.

Rezwan Razani's avatar

Indeed, but that’s “uncontrolled” thermonuclear fusion. gulp The challenge is in controlling it.


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