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A Millennium Project

By Dr. Wilson Greatbatch


The 20th Century was the century of Aviation and the century of Globalization. The next century will be the century of Space, and in the next millennium Globalization will explode into the far reaches of our galaxy. For this I coin the word 'Galaxian', with apologies and due credit to Isaac Asimov.

We will be driven by the need for new energy sources. By the year 2050AD we will have run out of all the economically recoverable fossil fuels, like oil and natural gas. We still will have adequate supplies of coal, but only if we are willing to ignore its enviromental consequences. Also we will have run out of places to put the toxic residues of our present nuclear fission reactors. West Valley NY doesn't want them and neither does Nevada. Worse yet, in 2050AD all the alternate sources of energy, like hydroelectric, wind, wood, tidal, geothermal and solar, will not supply even 25% of the energy we will need to feed the 10 billion people that will populate Earth by that time. We will have no place to go but nuclear fusion.

Our nuclear fission reactors operate like a slow 'A' bomb, splitting heavy plutonium or uranium atoms into smaller elements and giving off power. American and Russian nuclear engineers and physicists have succeeded in slowing down the fission reaction to produce useful power, like Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl, (a mixed blessing!). Others have accomplished this more successfully. France generates a significant part of its energy requirements from fission reactors and these have achieved a perfect safety record. Their reactors are all of the same design and are run by nuclear engineers. We build ours all differently and mostly leave the actual operation of the reactors to technicians. But France still has the same problem that we do in the disposal of the toxic residues.

We have never succeeded in slowing down our nuclear fusion reactors, at 'H' bomb, fusing light atoms like hydrogen or helium. Our present nuclear fusion reactors are classified by the methods used to support the nuclear fusion reaction, which takes place at a temperature much hotter than the surface of the Sun. No material bottle on Earth can hold it. The reaction must be suspended by either electromagnetic, electrostatic or gravitational (inertial) fields.

The TOKAMAK at Princeton NJ operates by magnetic confinement in a huge 250 ton watercooled electromagnet. The electromagnet exquisitely controls and shapes a magnetic field which physically supports the reaction. The TOKAMAK has never operated longer than a few seconds at a time and now the federal government has withdrawn its support.

With inertial confinement, hundreds of fantastically powerful lasers are pointed concentrically at a gold capsule containing a small amount of hydrogen. The pressure and the temperature of the capsule are raised to fusion levels and produce a burst of energy. This process must then be repeated, perhaps 100 times per second to provide a reasonably continuous flow of power. Two such reactors exist in the USA, one in Rochester NY and one in Livermore CA. Neither has ever approached 'break-even' in power generation.

With electrostatic confinement (remember picking up paper scraps with a comb which you charged by drawing it through your hair?) the reaction is confined in a 3 ft., 1000 lb. spherical, vacuum-sealed cage with a very strong electrostatic field inside it. Ions of helium-3 (He-3) are dropped into the cage and fall through a 'polywell' into the electric field where they oscillate backwards and forward at increasing speed until two He-3 ions collide, fusing into a He-4 ion. Two protons are left over from this collision, which come off at a half-million volts of DC electricity which can be directly connected to our existing high-voltage power distribution grids.

Nearly all of our existing power sources are generators which use a heat cycle. This includes our coal, oil, and gas fired utilities, our automobiles, trucks, and trains, and even our nuclear fission utility power plants. All are 'heat engines' and thus are confined to a theoretical efficiency of about 40%. Did you know that when you buy a gallon of gas that over 60% of the energy you pay for goes out the radiator in the form of waste heat? In fact that's why you have a radiator in your car in the first place. This is a basic law of physics and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. This is also why our fossil-fueled power utility plants are built by rivers.

But He-3 nuclear fusion reactors are NOT heat engines. They generate electricity directly and are not limited by the 'Carnot cycle' efficiency.

More importantly, The He-3 nuclear fusion reactor doesn't generate carbon dioxide or any of the other 'greenhouse' gasses. By going to future global He-3 power generation, we can wipe out global warming in one fell swoop! Of course, we will still have the global warming of volcanoes and forest fires, but most scientists agree that it is the excess produced by civilization that is doing the damage.

Enough said!

The beauty of this reaction is that the fuel (He-3) is non-radioactive, the process producs no residual radioactivity, and the residue (He-4) is non-radioactive. In fact, the residue, He-4, is what we put in kids' balloons. Thus, He-3 is the perfect fuel!

Does this sound too good to be true? Yes, there are a couple of caveats. The first is that the reaction takes place at a temperature much hotter than the surface of the Sun. But we engineers can handle that. The other is that there is practically no He-3 on Earth! But I tell my engineering students that these are just minor engineering challenges.

He-3 comes to us from the Sun in an ionized form on the solar wind. The ions hit the Earth's magnetic field and get diverted away. They cannot land on Earth, so they drift around and eventually land on the Moon. They have been landing there for four billion years. There is more He-3 energy on the Moon than we have ever had in the form of fossil fuels on Earth. All we have to do is to go there and get it.

There is a tiny bit of He-3 deep in the Earth, from when the Earth was first formed. It comes up to the Earth's surface as a tiny percentage of natural gas. There is a small additional supply of He-3 in our old nuclear bombs in the form of radioactive tritium gas (H-3), which decays into, of all things, He-3 in about 13 years (half-life). Thus, we have enough He-3 here on Earth to build one big earth-bound reactor and one small orbiting reactor. Then we must go to the Moon! My friend and colleague Dr. Gerald Kulcinski, director of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin in Madison WI presently has a reactor running on deuterium-helium, and expects to demonstrate the helium-helium reaction in a few years. We in Buffalo are trying to help him. For years he has operated on a budget of only $35,000 a year; enough for one graduate student. I have long felt that an investment by the Department of Energy (DOE) of a million dollars a year for the next thirty years would pay a higher return than any other investment this country could ever make.

Most of what I have said here, so far is either 'le fait accompli', a done deal, or something reasonably achievable with present technology. But now let me dream a little:

He-3 on the Moon is contained in an ore called ilmenite (iron titanate), which contains titanium dioxide. He-3 comes adsorbed on the titanium dioxide. The ilmenite must be scraped off the Moon surface and refined to obtain the titanium dioxide. This will produce by-products of water, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and other elements needed to make the manned Moon-colony self-sustaining.

Having little atmosphere or gravity, the Moon-colony could then be an ideal space station from which to blast off for the stars.

The recovered titanium dioxide would then be placed under a large transparent plastic hood and held there two weeks, until the Moon rotated around towards the Sun. It will become very hot under the hood and boil off the He-3. Then we would wait two weeks until the Moon rotates around away from the Sun. This would result in very cold temperatures under the hood which would go a long way toward liquefying the He-3. Aerospace scientist Robert Zubrin estimates that the lunar temperature 'in the shade' of lunar craters is as low as -230 degrees Celsius. A single shuttle load (25 tons) of He-3 brought back from the Moon would supply all of the energy needs of the USA for a year.

The cost of the He-3, including the shuttle, the Moon colony, and the ilmenite refinery, amortized over a suitable number of decades, has been calculated to be an equivalent oil cost of about $8 per equivalent barrel of oil. We now pay about $22 (in early 2000AD)! The whole project is not only technically feasible, it is economically feasible. In fact, in the opinion of many, including this writer, it is inevitable. There is no reasonable alternative. But if we want to get there by 2050AD, we had better start NOW!

Another thought on the space station on the Moon:

Rocket scientists agree that we have about reached the limit of our ability to travel in space using chemical rockets. To achieve anything near the speed of light we will need a new energy source and a new propellant. Nuclear fission is not an option for galactic travel, but nuclear fusion of light elements like hydrogen or helium would permit approaching the speed of light. To this pragmatic engineer it seems very attractive to refuel your space ships where the fuel is, rather than transporting the fuel to a (Russian?) space station.

History has repeatedly shown that when a new method or material becomes available, new uses for it arise. He-3 is no exception. In only the last few months reports have emerged from Thomas Daniel at the University of Virginia Health center and from other sources, of the use of He-3 to greatly augment the utility of the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) procedure in visualizing lung lesions. The patient breathes a few breaths of He-3 which has been super-polarized by laser irradiation as he breathes it. The gas holds this polarization for a few seconds and the resulting polar response is many times more effective than that of the normal water response that the MRI usually sees. This permits visualization of lung lesions down to a resolution of 1 mm. When gasses are 'hyperpolarized', it means a large quantity of the atomic nuclei's 'spin' - a magnetic property of quantum particles - point in the same direction. The hyperpolarized gasses provide an MRI signal that is about 100,000 times stronger than the signal produced by water, the substance that is normally visualized by MRI scans, according to Dr. Daniel.

Physicists Gordon Cates and William Happer at Princeton University, along with Mitchell Albert of Brigham and Womens' Hospital in Boston are primarily credited with the idea of using polarized gasses for medical imaging.

Unfortunately the present cost of the He-3 (about $400/litre) rules it out for routine clinical use and much effort is going into trying to use the less effective, but cheaper, xenon gas for the purpose. Certainly the availability of reasonably priced He-3 would encourage more research into other possible uses.

So, the challenge of the Moon is clear. The rewards are manifest. But, who should do it?

Only one nation has the equipment, the know-how and the need for energy to drive this idea forward. That nation is obviously the USA. And we must do it alone. This is no job for a UN committee. It needs the same kind of unwavering dedication and the kinds of people that got us the first nuclear submarine and the first man on the moon. We need the kind of leadership exemplified by President Kennedy who ignored the negatives relating to a 'man-on-the-moon' and convinced us to 'just do it!' But we must do it as good stewards, aggressively (but not forcefully) exerting control over the moon. We can best do this by going there. We are the only nation that has the capability to do it. However we must exert our stewardship in a generous and altruistic way, making the completed facilities available to all comers, especially including the have-not nations, on an equitable basis compatible with their economies. Also, we must do it soon, while we still have the technological lead to accomplish it, and while the energy shortage is not yet so severe as to encourage terrorist elements (and even our friends) to take extreme steps to block us. Our objective must be, not only to alleviate our own energy needs, but also a strong altruism that recognizes that helping to alleviate the world's needs would deter them from extreme and desperate acts if they find themselves with the immediate prospect of NO energy. In the coming millennium we must get used to evaluating national and business (and Galaxial) options on a 100 year basis, rather than on a quarterly basis. Our survival demands no less. Procrastination on this item will prove prohibitively expensive in the long run.

It is clear that the nation that assumes stewardship of the Moon now will inherit stewardship of the galaxy in the coming millennium. I think the USA is ready for that challenge! I know I am.



Copyright C 2000 by Wilson Greatbatch.


About the author:

Wilson Greatbatch is an American Academician, a longtime member of the USA National Academy of Engineering. At 81 years of age, he has been granted over 200 patents and is the inventor of the implantable cardiac pacemaker. He was named 'Man of the Millennium' by 'Living Prime Time' magazine. He has been elected to Fellow Grade in nine technical societies, has been inducted into three 'Halls of Fame' and was awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Bush in 1986. He is a decorated veteran of W.W.II, having served as a rear gunner in dive bombers flying off our aircraft carriers in the South Pacific. He prides himself on being a member of Tom Brockaw's 'The Greatest Generation'.

Between speaking to 4th grade elementary school classes and lobbying vociferously before Congress about the Patent Laws, Wilson Greatbatch lives in Clarence NY in a 150 year old former one-room brick schoolhouse with Eleanor, his wife of 55 years.



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