Sympathetic Stupid

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Bubble Bobble

More clean energy!

Sonofusion (or Bubble fusion) promises "almost limitless cheap energy" from "table-top fusion". Yeah, it reads like Hans Christian Andersen, but one of these will turn out to be feasible. Although this currently "produces energy about seven orders of magnitude lower than that which went into it", which is almost as wasteful as a Hummer. But there are reasons to be optimistic.

So what's the deal? Let's start with the dogmatic, enthusiastic proponent, Rusi Taleyarkhan. He grew up in India before moving to the US, establishing his semi-crackpot credentials by inventing "variable velocity bullets" for use in a futuristic stun gun - that's right, it's "set phasers to stun"! But despite this wacky sci-fi innovation, he has impressive titles from Purdue and Oak Ridge Labs and appears competent and respected.

That is, until the subject of sonofusion comes up. Here's how it works. You can use sound to pop bubbles in liquid - and this can give you temperatures and pressures similar to the inside of the sun! This load of energy causes visible flashes of light through sonoluminescence, and, just occasionally, it apparently causes nuclear fusion. Which is a good thing. Fusion is the ultimate goal; it throws neutrons which give us energy without the nasty radiation problems of nuclear fission (like in A-bombs and nuke power plants). This is where the "table-top fusion" catchphrase comes in.

The argument is about whether fusion actually occurs. Taleyarkhan's method uses a burst of neutrons to create bubbles, ripe for the bursting. Critics say that the neutrons he's detecting on the way out are the same ones he sent in. Changes in the experiment haven't proved conclusive in either direction, but there's a distinct lack of success when other teams attempt the experiment. But despite this, and a big gaggle of detractors in the physics community, reputable peer-reviewed journals like Science and Physical Review E have published pro-sonofusion articles.

It's not yet the holy grail, but add it to the long list of potential innovations to change the world. And, just in case, also to the list of potential ridiculous hoaxes.