Category Archives: Technology

Tech stuff of both the good and bad kinds

Thoughts on Fusion reactor design

When it comes to some science topics, I’m more than just an interested bystander. I like to look at things, and ask questions about how they go together. Tinker with ideas and try to bolt them into a narrative.

Something that’s been bouncing around in my mind over the past five years has been how to build a working Nuclear Fusion reactor. What would it look like? How would it actually work on a semi continuous basis? Now I’m going to exclude ‘cold’ Fusion from today’s little rambling because, well, just because I don’t want to go there. Mainly because I don’t think it can or will work. Fusion needs thousands of degrees of heat and many atmospheres of pressure to slam all those light nuclei together to fuse and produce energy as they do so. Anything else is just chemistry.

Nuclear Fusion at present has been achieved in it’s crudest form as the Hydrogen bomb. A Fission trigger detonates and slams a lot of Tritium and Deuterium together with a resultant massive release of energy in a multi megaton explosion. Tokamak reactor designs have come close, and firing a humungous laser at a tiny pellet of fuel also promises a positive result, all conditions being perfect. The ITER showed promise, but last I heard was suffering with issues surrounding superconductor failures. There’s also a thing called a Polywell, which is the brainchild of the late Dr Robert Bussard. This too shows promise, and I think the idea is sound, but the execution leaves something undone. All of these approaches have one thing in common; they require more energy input than they produce.

My (albeit fictional) preference is for a merging of the two solutions, where the tight plasma toroids of a Tokamak type design are merged with the Polywell concept. In shape, the plasma flows would resemble eight ring doughnuts stood on edge in a circle so that the plasma streams all merge at a highly contained central point. Thus forming a plasma flow point of confluence in a central containment core. See flow diagram. The stylised sun indicates where the actual point of reaction should take place, the top red arrow shows the direction of fuel injected into the charged plasma, and the yellow arrow the excess ‘exhaust’.

One of the problems with the aforementioned approaches to Fusion is plasma requiring very heavy magnetic containment to prevent it arcing or in electrical terms, shorting to earth. There may be an answer to this issue and I saw it hidden in a report on an Italian experiment in 2008/9, where an electrical charge was applied to a plasma stream, which then self organised itself into a helix, or corkscrew shape. This was replicated by an American team led by Ray Fonck at the University of Wisconsin, as reported in this 2009 news item.

Now if eight lower energy helical plasma streams could be guided into a central area of heavy containment, where the little sun is in my rather crude diagram, then I wonder if my Tokamak / Polywell hybrid concept might actually work? If the Pegasus team in Wisconsin have found a way which makes Tokamaks easier to build, perhaps taking a mental sideways step and combining the approach with another might just lead closer to the dream of working sustainable nuclear fusion?

Now I appreciate I’m no Physicist. My original work training was in Electrical Engineering, mostly power distribution. Nowadays I write slightly geeky science fiction which hardly anybody reads for goodness sake. Yet no matter which direction I look at the subject, I’m left with this overpowering gut feeling that a hybrid approach might be the answer.

Build the Enterprise!

Just picked up a couple of news items about a campaign to build the Starship Enterprise. I like the idea. While I’m not so sure about sticking to Roddenberry’s original concept, the thought of actually building a starship, starting now, certainly engages my interest and arouses my inner geek.

The technical challenges for such a project are immense, but then so were the ones that took men to the moon in less than ten years. From John F Kennedy’s speech to Armstrong and Aldrin setting foot where no human had gone before. Less than ten years. This is particularly significant for me, as I’ve recently been helping my wife with press releases for the forthcoming To the Moon: Snoopy Soars with NASA exhibition at Nanaimo District Museum about the May 1969 Apollo 10 mission which took place a mere two months before the Eagle Lunar Excursion Module landed in the Sea of Tranquility.

From this speech

To this event.

In less than ten years.


Humanity should attempt this kind of project again. Soon.

End of an era

Watching the various vids on the Discovery Space Shuttle heading for the Smithsonian, then reading a news item about a dud European satellite; I was given to wonder, with the shuttle program having flown their last missions, who can fix this one?

The only reusable shuttle currently in use is the X-37B, but that is unmanned. Like when the Apollo program ended, for some reason I can’t sidestep a certain wistfulness and feel that an opportunity is being missed.

Amazon addition

Following a tip from a LinkedIn forum I’ve busied my first free Saturday in months with creating an Amazon Author profile. Don’t know what good it will do me, but in for a penny as the saying goes.

What with all the intrusions of relatives, who seem to have learned the niceties of personal interaction from some obscure Porlock based branch of my Wifes family, writing has ground to a complete halt. The September deadline for ‘Darkness between the stars’ currently looks about as attainable as World peace. Gosh, is that my cynicism, I wonder where I’d put it. Unlike Douglas Adams, I don’t like missing deadlines. Even self imposed ones.

One of my problems I think, is trying to cram too much into a single volume. The market for 150,000 word niche market volumes is very restrictive, and people seem not to want that length of work any more. Especially for the kind of ‘retro’ style sci-fi I write. Yet the sheer enormity of the story demands this kind of treatment, and to do anything less would be to cheat the narrative, leaving too many loose ends. To me, the story is all that matters.

Perhaps releasing ‘Stars’ in 15,000-25,000 word episodes at a dollar ninety nine a time might work, properly reformatted for the eBook marketplace. At present ‘Sky’ runs to 148,000 and if taken as a whole, seems to ramble a bit. ‘Falling’ is a much easier read, and has a stronger sense of direction. ‘Darkness’ is currently only 30,000 words in and the story is tightening up nicely, but I can’t focus at present. Maybe I ought to backtrack and play with the original a little, release the first novella of the Cerberus series when I’ve decided upon a better ending for it and go from there. Let the narrative for ‘Darkness’ unravel and retie itself in my head before hitting the keyboard in earnest. Then let people buy the originals if they want to.

I used to think that writing original works was the hard part. Now it seems the market has changed significantly, and so must the way I work.

Reactionless drives

In my ‘Stars’ trilogy, I’ve been looking at the issues, strengths, weaknesses opportunities and threats with regards to Reactionless Electromagnetic Drives, of which my fictional ‘Omega’ drive is one such.

Today I was reading about Project Icarus, and the type of Drive envisaged to send what Niven would call a ‘Slowboat’ to other worlds. Essentially a pulsed Fusion reaction (See this Animation).

The same principle was envisaged in the Project Orion of the late 50’s and early 60’s which was killed off by various Nuclear test ban treaties. Essentially the Orion and Icarus Drives use the principle of a controlled nuclear detonation to provide a pulsed thrust to the vehicle they propel.

To my mind these solutions are on a par with Ramjet technology. Sure they could be made to work, but using one for interstellar travel would surely be like trying to use wood burning steam engines to drive Formula 1 racing cars. Or even Sir George Cayley’s Gunpowder engine, which probably worked, temporarily. Although the Mythbusters test showed how difficult the concept is to implement.

There is a body of opinion which says reactionless electromagnetic drives are ‘impossible’. See this paragraph from a Wikipedia article below.

“In spite of their physical impossibility, such devices are a staple of science fiction, particularly for space propulsion, and as with perpetual motion machines have been proposed as working technologies.”

I’d disagree strongly with Electromagnetic Drives being akin to ‘Perpetual Motion’ devices. Mainly because it’s a bad analogy. An EM drive by its very nature would utilise huge amounts of energy, but not reaction mass. Which in itself would not violate the rules covering the conservation of energy or momentum. With my fictional Omega drive, these rules are scrupulously observed. There is definitely no such thing as a ‘free lunch’ when it comes to interstellar travel.

When it comes to reactionless electromagnetic drives, at least in my fictional universe; I make a paradigm shift in starship construction and design. Working on the premise that such a vehicle would have to travel inside a magnetic warp to obtain the acceleration described, my fictional engine is an integral part of the hull. Several theoretical advantages to this approach present themselves; firstly economy of hull shape and use of the well documented skin effect. Secondly a tightly contained electromagnetic ‘shield’ to deflect harmful radiation / small objects as a benefit of the hull coils creating a magnetic circuit. Thirdly to create a pulsed electromagnetic field of sufficient density which might allow the fictional ‘Sub space transition’ I write about.

Low velocity impulse would be provided by a VASIMIR type engine, but the serious ‘grunt work’ of traveling between star systems would be provided by an electromagnetic drive such as the ‘Omega’. Again, this is an almost practical proposition. All it requires is enough energy.

Whilst there are some who might dismiss my musings on this subject as being ‘moronic’ or ‘impossible’, at least I’ve bothered to try the ideas out and take them for a test drive. What’s foolish about that?

Readings, a study in frustration

One of the things I’m trying to put together is readings of my work to go up on Youtube, and embed back to this blog. I have a nice little camera with enough capacity to take decent quality video’s. I have a tripod, and a place to sit.

My problem is my household; despite repeated requests for some quiet to read aloud, I’m beset by a dog who whines and snuffles for attention every time I open my mouth and he’s not the focus of my every motion. My wife and stepdaughter have a habit of demanding my attention immediately, now, right this second, no matter what I’m doing, no matter where I am. With an unerring sense of bad timing, the doorbell rings with callers. The phone goes with some blasted autodialled nonsense trying to sell me stuff I don’t and will never want, or a call to my wife. It’s not so much the interruptions to what I see as vital market preparation activity. It’s the lack of privacy and personal space that grates.

Under these circumstances, any videoed readings tend to get interrupted, frequently. Short of hiring time at a professional studio, I don’t know what to do. Nevertheless; I shall persevere. One of us has got to give in, knuckle under, surrender, break, fracture, shatter, eventually. Who knows, in the words of the old folk tale; the Horse may learn to sing.

New Page

I’ve gathered up all the links to my currently published work on a single page, which I’ve added to the blog. I’m quietly pleased about the result, because anyone who wants to access my work now has a single point of contact.

Between visits to Vets for poorly pup, nursemaiding old friends through bereavement, house moves, and subsequent skirmishes with bureaucracy, it has been a very busy time. Throw in the odd run in with food poisoning and Google shutting off my email, not to mention extra shift work, I think I’ve coped admirably. Did I mention it was raining heavily and that snow is expected this Friday?

All grist to the mill. Carry on remorseless. The world turns on.