153: Re-Fusing! What is a Breakthrough?

Matt and Sean talk about new fusion energy production breakthroughs, like the US National Ignition Facility’s recent announcement on the first fusion ignition, and the long path to viability.
Watch the Undecided with Matt Ferrell episode, “What This Breakthrough Means For Nuclear Fusion”: https://youtu.be/u-I8r0nH4Jw?list=PLnTSM-ORSgi4dFnLD9622FK77atWtQVv7

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On today’s episode of Still To Be Determined, we’re gonna be talking about what it means when we say the word breakthrough. Hi everybody, as usual. I’m Sean Ferrell. I’m a writer. I read some sci-fi, I read some stuff for kids, and I’m just generally curious about te. Luckily for me, my brother is Matt. I’ve undecided with Matt Ferrell.

Matt, how you doing today?

I’m doing pretty well. Pretty good weekend.

How about yourself? Not too bad. It’s been bitter, bitter, bitter, cold, which is a result of, I don’t know, the North Pole invading North America. I’m not sure exactly. Yeah. You know, it’s the, it’s climate change. I know that’s the ultimate reason for all of this, but it was.

Here in the city was not as bad as it was in your neck of the woods, where I understand schools were closed proactively, and windchill was taking it deep into the negatives.

It was negative 10. That’s not windchill, that’s just negative 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and then the windchill was making it feel like 40 below.

Nice. It was cool. Yeah. Yeah. So before we get into today’s discussion, which is about Matt’s most recent episode, which dealt with fusion energy production, wanted to share a couple comments from our most recent episode. This is episode 1 52, in which we talked about brick batteries. There were comments like this from Treksh

who said Sean asks such good questions to bring about discussion. Thanks for the great content. Treksh I agree with you. I’m sick of all the naysayers. Granted, most of those naysayers are horses, but the naysayers who said that I don’t add anything to the podcast . So hashtag go Sean in the comments. Yes, down with Matt Boo.

Matt. I, I think I even hears in the background . I hear it. Yeah, just watch your back map. That’s all I’m saying. Yeah. There were also comments that actually had to do something with the content of the discussion. like this one from Dom Burt who wrote about our commentary around district heating. And Dom wrote, what I like about district heating is that you can throw in multiple heat sources in a single distribution network.

Like I know that in Vienna, Austria, they use heat from waste, incineration, biomass, geothermal, and heat losses of gas power plants, which raises their overall efficiency. In summer, they also use the that access. For district cooling with absorption refrigerators, so that is so cool. A really, yeah. Really interesting.

Network of, I mean, playing the game, like what do these things all have in common? I don’t think anybody would’ve connected them all together saying, well, they’re all used in district heating . So yeah. It goes back to something Matt and I, the, the bell that we ring almost every episode, the right tool for the right job and not one tool to fit all needs.

And here’s a case of Exactly, and it’s city deciding like we have all of these excess things, what can we do with it? Let’s turn it into district heating. So yeah, good job, Vienna. On today’s episode, as I mentioned before, we’re gonna be talking about Matt’s most recent episode. This is his January 31st, 2023 episode.

What this breakthrough means for nuclear fusion. Matt, can you believe that we’ve already finished January?

I don’t, the time. Time has no meaning anymore. Yeah. Yeah. I feel like we’re living

in a vortex. Yeah. It feels like getting to 2023 suddenly felt like Really? 2023 and now we’re already one 12th of the way through it, so.

Okay. I’m ready. Strap yourself in shot. Uh, it’s too late for that. There were lots of elements in this that were kind of a meta discussion. Around. What does it mean when we say breakthrough? Yeah. And I wanted to focus on that right out of the gate because you’re trying to measure the impact of something.

But when it comes to measuring impact, it really depends on the context. So the impact, yes. On our daily lives. Well, this breakthrough has zero impact on our daily. None. Yep. As far as a scientific community saying this is remarkable, there’s huge impact in the scientific community. Yes. So it’s all about context and one of the things, there’s a subtle criticism on your part of the media and taking and.

For better or worse, you and I are both part of media. We have this podcast. You have your main channel. You write headlines, no different than any of the articles that you highlighted in your piece. And you yourself fingerprinted a click bait . Yes. So maybe a quick discussion around what does breakthrough mean to you and what does.

the consumption of this through media into the public. How do we manage expectations better in your, in your estimation, right? Let’s start with the first part, like what do we mean when we say breakthrough? Usually what

we should mean is that it’s something that’s, that’s, uh, a like a massive step forward in whatever the technology is.

Like. It’s something that is just a huge leap from what we’re doing. But again, it comes back to being in context because like you just mentioned in this one, it’s, there’s a scientific breakthrough and then there’s like the practical breakthrough. This is not a practical breakthrough. This is not going to impact you or me at all, but this is something really big for the physics.

And phys fusion, uh, studies of saying, oh, look, our theory, it’s been proven. We did it so good on us, that that proves that the theory is no longer a theory. Mm-hmm. , that’s huge. It’s a big achievement. It needs to be heralded, but at the same time, From a media point of view, when you talk about that breakthrough and you don’t give it enough context, Joe on the street reads that headline, and then we even read the article and we walk away going, wait, that wasn’t a breakthrough.

Where it’s like, it’s important to give that context as it’s a scientific breakthrough and then pointing out those. Challenges that still lie ahead for science to keep progressing. That’s often what’s missed. So that’s kinda what I was pointing my finger at. Right. And I’ve been guilty of that in past videos myself.

So it’s like I’m pointing the finger at myself as well. Right. But I try to provide context. So whenever I’ve used the word breakthrough, I always try to give context around it. And I’ve even been criticized of that click bait, and I’ve actually started to use the word. much more. Mm-hmm. in the videos. And there’s a reason for that.

It’s because of that criticism of not everything can be a breakthrough. Not everything is a breakthrough, but most of these things are definite advances, right? So it’s like, here’s what we do today. We’ve taken a step forward. That’s an advance where a breakthrough might be changing the paradigm or like leaping far forward.

So that to me is what breakthrough means. It’s something that’s a huge leap forward.

What do you think are ways that this can be managed better in. There’s obviously the idea of Click Beatty headlines, but yeah. One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently as far as like the consumption of this via news sites.

Mm-hmm. , I know for you, you have put together a advisement team to be able to look at your scripts and to look at what you are claiming and say the science is or is not backed up. Right. Do you think. , something as simple as that. Scientific advisement, education of journalists and editors along the lines of what is actually happening versus what they claim in a headline.

Yes. Is that one or the only path, or can you think of anything else? I

think, well, one, there’s, that is one of the paths. The other path is making sure that you have somebody on the editorial team, like before it gets released, that asks the hard question. Really . They’re just like pump the brakes. Really?

Just ask the question of, have you vetted this with somebody? Have you talked to somebody that’s in the know? It’s just journalism. Mm-hmm. . It’s like verify, and so that’s kind of what I’ve done with my science advisory team. It’s like when we’re talking about technology, it’s like, is there something we’re missing here?

It’s basically the question. Then they can help us look at that and go, no, you, you. Or you could express this better, or that might be a bad way to phrase this. So it’s basically to help us to make sure that we’re not tripping ourselves up. And that’s I think, what’s missing in a lot of media reporting.

Cuz oftentimes, if you read some of the blogs out there that just like if you read them, they read almost identically. They’re all written, you know, they’re not plagiarizing each other. But then when you go back and see where they got it from, they got it from a press release and they’re only. cherry picking the certain information out of the press release and the quotes outta the press release.

And because of that, everything kind of has the samey tone, right? But if all they had done in the press release is clicked, the sourcing within the press release, they could have read the original report, which like detailed all the facts of the pros, the cons, the, all that kind of stuff. Mm-hmm. . So it’s like they just didn’t do their due diligence and go deep enough, even though the information was all there.

And that’s kind. This reporting or on this video I was coming across a lot and I wasn’t the only person that knows this. There were other YouTubers and experts that commented on this pointing out similar things of like, wow, this kind of like took on a life of its own, of like, this is amazing. And it’s like, well, not really if you just in the press release, click through over here or watched the entire announcement.

The team that did this fusion break. They talked about this stuff, like they, they, they brought it up, right? It wasn’t like they were trying to hide it. It was, it was, they were saying this is a scientific breakthrough and you know, yes, it took, the lasers are inefficient and blah, blah, blah. And they talked all about all that stuff.

But that didn’t get reported in half the stuff that I was seeing around. It was like, this is insane. It’s like, did you not even watch the video? ,

there’s a. That’s a good moment to transition from the kind of meta conversation into the particulars of this topic directly. Yeah. The first thing I wanted to bring up is that the phrase, Fusion’s future is kind of hard to say, and I wondered, how many bloopers did you have in recording your video

That one I actually didn’t do too bad on. I tripped myself up, Sean, on the weirdest words, words that I say every day that would never trip you up, and for some reason when I’m on camera and I’m kind of reading from my script, I’ll just be. over and over again. My favorite one is in grad school. I was doing a, I was doing a recording and I had to say the word, a random word, Marzipan

hmm. . I can say Marzipan marzipan but for some reason, for one, for some reason that one word I went through like 20 takes before I got it right. It was insane. So,

yeah. And that explains Matt’s hatred of German desserts. That’s right. About this breakthrough. One of the things that you talked about was that the elements that are required include, in some cases diamonds and other extremely rare earth materials like tridium.

Yes. Oh yeah. What are, you mentioned there are alternatives to these, and you touch on some of them. I believe that as you moved into the hydrogen and the, is it deuterium? Yeah. And there’s also, uh, boron. Are there other alternatives that are more readily available than the diamond and tridium designs?

That’s a good question. I don’t know

the exact answer to. But yeah, there are, it’s, it depends on what your approach is. From all the stuff that we came across, it was w it’s kinda like how, um, he’s approach Diff Fusion is different from first light fusions, which is different from HB 11, which is different right from what the National Laboratory was doing with their experiment.

It’s like they’re all doing slightly different things. It requires different ingredients. There are paths. to get to that energy generation in different ways. And so, yes. Um, I can’t give you a full list off the top of my head, right? But like, things like the, the boron and hydrogen are clear ones because hydrogen’s very easy to make so, right.

It’s not gonna be in short supply, but tridium is extremely hard to come by.

It may be a related question to that as far as resources, availability. Australia seems to be coming up again and again and again in your channel. They really seem to be, yeah, driving a lot of research. And I’m wondering, is there a region or a country that seems to be further ahead in this kind of research?

That’s kind of hard to say. I would say Australia is ahead, the UK is really kind of guns blazing and then of course the US is doing some good stuff, but there’s like even Canadian companies and stuff that are. Great stuff here. So I wouldn’t say one of them is necessarily ahead of the other, but those are kind of the leaders I would, from what I’ve seen.

Mm-hmm. in the space.

And is the reason for advances or lack of advances in this related entirely to money, is that the leading factor in this? Because you point out there are models of this that use very plentiful resources. So you know to say, oh, the reason. China is doing this is because they have so much of this resource is one thing, but to say, oh, some regions aren’t doing this research.

and why not? Could it be just entirely reliant on funding? I dunno, that’s kinda a loaded question.

I would say on a surface level, yes, but there’s also everything I’ve been learning up to this point and seeing it really does seem to come down to basically privately funded and publicly funded. And there is, money is a big part of the question, but publicly funded seems to move at a glacial pace and it also doesn’t seem to have enough money.

These companies that are coming onto the scene that are privately funded, I don’t know if it’s a different, totally different mentality, but they tend to be a little more, I don’t wanna say Silik Valley, cuz that is so, Has so many negative connotations, but like that whole thing of going back to first principles, what’s the, what’s the baseline thing we’re trying to do and like just taking the shortest path to doing that where when you’re talking about government funded, that’s where like the high level research is happening and.

It’s, it’s a little slower. It’s a little more on the scientific side of things. Where the privately funded is we’re gonna make something that we can attach to the grid and actually make energy, right? It’s like there’s a different focus, which is causing certain things to happen faster, and I think the privately funded is what’s happening faster because they’re taking that, we wanna be the first to market to have something that can put energy into the grit.

So I think there’s a laser focus there where it’s kind of missing. Public funded method. So I don’t know if it’s necessarily a money issue, but I think it’s more of a focus issue of what they’re trying to do and accomplish.

How much of this, the sci-fi aspect of all of this, Kind of caught you off guard because there is a lot of evidence in your video 3D models that are spinning together and all of it’s coming together and it just kept looking like this is all fake.

This is, yes. It reaches a level of, of it really feels like we’re living. If this is being built right now, we’re living in a future. And how much of that do you think is, how much of of that really does feel like it’s a cutting edge of a thing that is beyond the imagination of the general public? Like the side fineness of it really is just too big to consume.

I think

almost all of us like the part of the reason why we have to rely on. kind of cheesy 3D graphics is because if you saw the actual thing working, you’d be like, okay. Like if you look at the, the NF kind of facility, it’s just what looks like miles of just like big white, kind of like conduit running one direction and then the other, and then it’s like, oh, there are lasers in there.

Oh, I can’t actually see the lasers. I can just see these conduits. And it’s like, okay, we’re gonna get ready to come to the fusion. What, what just happened, , we just did it. Yeah. It’s like, it’s so anti-climactic, right? Like you wouldn’t actually see anything, you can’t quite wrap your head around what you’re seeing.

Like if you go in the chamber where that little, um, the whole rom was that they shot the lasers into, it’s just like, it kind of looks like a mini version from the X-Men of, you know, like the, the room they go into with, um, the. The helmet where Patrick Stewart’s in there and it’s, it looks like a mini version.

It’s, yeah, it looks like a tiny little c It’s just like this little itty bitty, like, like circle room. And I found a picture of like a couple of scientists inside there, like setting stuff up and I was like, really? That? That’s it. It’s just like a little. Reflective looking little room and has all these like circles on the walls and they just put this little tiny thing, like a pee on a little stick and they walk out , right?

It’s like it’s so anti-climactic that you kind of need these crazy visuals to kind of help us wrap our brain around it because it is so freaking sci-fi that there’s really no other way to kind of like show it practically being done. So we have to do all this crazy. Visuals

to make sense of it. It’s sort of feels like you’re talking about the difference between watching a star Trek and watching Blade Runner where Yes.

It’s like, oh, star Trek and then Blade Runner. Boy, it’s rainy. Yes. There’s a lot of rain. There’s a lot of rain. . Yeah, it, that’s the one thing that kept making me rewind. I loved watching those 3D models. Yeah, it looks like this. Or the rail gun, which anytime anybody says the word rail gun, immediately, I’m just like, Ooh.

And it, the video for all intents and purposes looks like they’re shooting a penny at an ice cube. Yes. And they’re saying, this is fusion. And I’m like, go into my kitchen and I can take a penny and an ice cube. I’m like, Nope, it’s not working for, Yeah. Some of the comments on this episode that caught my eye included this one from junk mail, junk mail rights.

It seems that right now we’re pretty much at the same point. Infusion technology as airplane inventors Were in the late 18 hundreds. Slow, but compounding progress and relative in relevant technologies will eventually find the. Write design that gets the job done. I appreciated the comment for the comment.

Yes, it’s a very good analogy. I also appreciated the pun, so well done. The bad joke, pun, tip of the hat that I am not wearing. Good job, sir. But I thought that that was an interesting analogy. So you take that and say, well, what does that mean? Late 18 hundreds people were fully embracing the idea of like, let’s start.

Let’s do this thing, and it would be decades later that the Wright brothers would actually create a plane that was propelled and they were able to have a pilot on it. And then it would be many more decades later that we would have air travel in a, in a mode that was widely available to the public. So it’s a good, it’s a analogy, and that means we’re looking at 50 years.

Would you say that that’s a, a realistic, just where you, from your research and where you’re standing right now, do you think somewhere 50 years in the future there will be a fusion power plant somewhere? Yes, yes.

I, the funny thing about the Wright brothers is, I can’t remember which one it was, one of them actually didn’t think flying was gonna be possible.

Right. We, we can get off the ground, but we won’t build land. It’s like he didn’t think it was gonna work. And so it’s like, and he’s one of the people that invented flights. . Yes. So it’s like you don’t know what you don’t know until you try it. And it’s kind of the state we’re in right now. The, the rate of innovation and like discovering the thing and then making it a reality has been shrinking and the adoption of it has been shrinking over the past a hundred, 200 years.

Right? So it’s like, I do not expect, like if you just took like what’s happening with flight and how long it took that and apply it to this, I don’t think it’s gonna be the same thing. And you could also argue, we’ve already been in that same thing for Fusion all along. It’s like, we’ve been working on this since the what, forties or something like that.

So it’s like this is something that’s been taking a long time to figure out. We’re in that final leg right now, especially with what this topic of this video today was about, which is like, you, we can do ignition. It’s like the theory, it’s no longer a theory. It’s like we now know it can be done. Now we have to figure out how can you do that with less energy going into the system, right.

To make it happen. So it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s possible. And then there’s other companies that aren’t even trying to hit IG ignition like he. that, and in HB 11 that I talked about in this video, it’s like they’re not trying to get to ignition, so it’s something very different, right. Um, yeah.

So it’s a question of whether getting the flame from the match is important or whether just striking the match against the ignition strip is sufficient.

Yeah, that’s, yeah. The two paths that are being taken,

Which is part why I’m like 50 years seems like an easy bet. It’s like, I think we can do this in 50 years .

There were all, there was also this comment from Richard Fellows that struck my eye. The N I F facility is really impressive. They do put on tours for the public, so if you can get in.

On one, it is very worth doing. The nd YAG pump lasers have always been spectacularly inefficient. The crystal plates they’re using are amazing. The frequency doubling twice also required two input photons for each output photon. So this achievement is really wonderful and hard. One, kudos to them. I think they are only about three orders of magnitude away from generating engineering break even.

So there is. But it won’t happen soon, certainly not in this old laser engineer’s lifetime. So much of that comment was above my head, above my pay grade, but I just appreciated Mr. Fellows weighing in, sharing basically. Scientific sites as tourism sites. I loved that idea. Yeah. So thank you so much Richard, for, for weighing in and I am using that as my jumping off point to invite listeners to come into the comments.

What sciencey site would you put on your bucket list of a place you would wanna see? Jump into the comments and let us know where you would go or where you would encourage other people to go if it’s a place you’ve already been. I look forward to reading. Everybody wants us all to go and putting together a little, uh, trip for myself at some point in the future.

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