How much audacity does it take to pique the interest of the president-elect? For a man with a notoriously short attention span, something of spectacularly high stakes and monumental reward would seem to be required.
Is it possible that such a project might actually serve the public good? Could his administration, for instance, bring us the solution to global climate change?
There may be a convergence of circumstances and interests that produces a highly ironic outcome. It may be the very qualities that excited and offended the American voters of this last election, the brash and narcissistic character he exhibited, constitute what is required in a leader to effect that solution.
The scale of disruption needed to right the energy business is such that only a person of extraordinary ego and contentiousness could possibly stay the course. Donald Trump may be the right man for the job.
One word among the many of a tumultuous campaign season seems to persist: infrastructure. The incoming administration likes to build stuff.
Here’s a proposal for a really big infrastructure project, a game changer, a legacy play. This administration just might find it irresistable.
It has a big role for government, the defense establishment, the energy industry, Wall Street bankers; architects, designers, fabricators and construction companies. It presents a formidable challenge to the deepest thinkers in physics, chemistry, quantum mechanics and engineering. Everybody’s nest gets feathered. And, if it succeeds, it may be the solution to mitigating climate change. Permanently.
If we don’t do it, chances are the Chinese will. They’re working on it now. If they get it done before we do, the power literally will be in their hands.
What we propose here is a complete restructuring of the way we produce energy as a nation. The scale is immense but not unprecedented.
A brief tour of the past 50 years or so charts a course of change and upheaval in our world that is breathtaking. Before it happens, it can be unthinkable, but seen in retrospect it becomes a matter of course.
There was a time not long ago when the Soviet Union collapsed. Rock & roll bands played on the Berlin Wall. Eventually, the people tore them down, the Wall and the Soviet Union. It was a startling moment, an event previously unimaginable was occurring: the dissolution of one of the world’s greatest powers with not a shot fired to bring its surrender. It was a harbinger of even greater change to come.
Some observers attribute the demise of the U.S.S.R. to American technology investments, and not just traditional weaponry, that bankrupted the Soviet government. They began with NASA’s gambit to place a man on the moon and culminated with the Star Wars missile defense shield that was loudly trumpeted though never built. The cost was incredible, each step raised the ante, but the purpose was thought to be worth it. A lot of interesting stuff was learned along the way.
One concept that took root and bore fruit was “dual-use technology.” When the Cold War ended, for a brief period, at least, the Defense establishment and its rabbit-warren of contractors were looking for a new raison d’être.
The idea that military technologies, many of which were now based in space, could yield commercial applications took a few years to get traction. There were lots of rules and regulations to undo. Once the channels opened up, though, the results were pretty impressive.
From that effort came the Internet, global positioning systems and remote sensing technologies, which, with the surge in personal computing, telephony and wireless communications, completely changed society. They became our decision support system. The entire economy shifted to a technology base.
The military high ground, once it was made available to commerce, became a playground of innovation. What was primarily linear became three dimensional. Space added depth, triangulation, a new way to get from one fixed point to another. One-bounce technology, a signal sent from earth to space and back, could take you half-way around the globe. Distance became irrelevant.
Another important, barely noticed change was commercial launch capability. The stranglehold DOD and NASA maintained over access to space grudgingly gave way to gaggles of entrepreneurs at the gates. Their goal is to lower the cost of getting to space, bringing business savvy to a government-run enterprise.
Some of them are particularly well-heeled. There’s an old saw about how to make a small fortune in space: begin with a large fortune. Some of these guys did. Mostly, they were focused on commercial launch, building rockets to go to orbit and beyond, carrying cargo and, someday, humans into that very last, very vast frontier.
But, there were other, equally ambitious and more outlandish schemes afloat. One was mining dead planets and asteroids. Riches too copious to calculate are said to reside in the mineral deposits whizzing around the heavens and no environment would be damaged in exploiting them.
In the half-century since the moon program, there have been a series of disruptive technologies that fundamentally changed the way we do things. One of the first was a brazen assault on the closed shop called network television. There was a time when television consisted of three networks, maybe a local independent channel, and eventually PBS.
Bob Magness and John Malone pried that model off its hinges and turned it on its head. They built relay towers, strung cable, and invested in satellites. Network television never recovered, while cable TV became a source of incredible diversity, targeted advertising and great wealth.
Bill Gates and Steve Jobs uncoupled computing from massive mainframes and put it on personal desktop devices. Jobs further undid the computer market by migrating those functions to mobile devices. Industry stalwarts IBM and AT&T, among many others, had to reinvent themselves to survive.
There are examples everywhere we look. Few traditional industries have remained untouched. The news business, merchandising, advertising, banking, travel, transportation, music and entertainment; all of them have undergone signal change. Many of the traditional players didn’t survive the shakeout. Perhaps, it’s past time that same dislocation takes place in the energy industry.
Some of the people who effected those signal changes in their respective industries are now at the gates of space. Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, all of them doing important things with vast fortunes to support them; and, perhaps, there are many others whose plans we know nothing about. Some may be exploring a disruptive play in energy provision.
Bill Gates “announc(ed) the launch of Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV), a fund that will invest more than $1 billion in scientific breakthroughs that have the potential to deliver cheap and reliable clean energy to the world.” He was careful in reminding us that current efforts like wind and solar have value, but that we must use the technology we have as a bridge to the technology we want.
Satellite systems were the first step in the commercial development of space. They are integral now to the way we conduct our lives
Commercial launch is beginning to show early signs of success, as well, both in lowering the cost of getting to space and in doing business successfully that only the government used to do.
Is there a plausible case to be made for mining in space? Riches is always a compelling reason, but there are a fair number of hurdles to be cleared before that harvest can be had, not the least of which would be the required commitment of the U.S. government to lead the way.
The infrastructure investment to kick start a venture like this is massive. With all due respect to BEV, and important as it will be to have the private and philanthropic sectors substantially involved in the effort, only the government has the scale and the in situ resources to get it underway.
We have a vast storehouse of knowledge and capability from our space ventures that is largely going unused. The investments already made in both civil and defense space technology could yield results far greater than what they currently produce.
When Hitler was developing an atomic bomb, we responded with the Manhattan Project. When the Soviets threatened to capture the high ground of space, we put a man on the moon. These were massive investments in technologies we wanted to master first. We wanted them in our control, not some other nation’s.
If we focused all the intellectual and technological resources we have, and brought sufficient funding to bear on the need for clean sources of power, we would have them in very short order. The only question is if it matters enough to do it.
Of course, those solutions would be very disruptive, too. There are very big, deeply vested interests who don’t want that to happen.
Nevertheless, there are potential solutions for clean and sustainable energy systems that deserve our consideration. There are compelling reasons to seek them. One that rises to the level of audacity we first referenced is mining the moon.
There is a substance that is rare on earth but plentiful on that barren body orbiting our planet. Absence of an atmosphere allows the solar winds to deposit Helium 3 in its soil. There are said to be huge deposits of it in the top few meters of the lunar surface. Moon rocks returned from our lunar landings showed us. We weren’t the only ones who noticed.
Helium 3 is an unique source of fuel to feed a fusion reactor. Fusion could provide abundant clean energy safely and virtually forever. Unfortunately, no such reactors exist on earth. None exist anywhere, for that matter. Except for those few trillions of stars like our sun, which are pure fusion reactors at the cosmic level.
If we dial it down from the macro- to the microcosm, from the cosmic to right here on earth, could such a source of energy production be constructed? Do we have the science and the technology to do it? Is this a reasonable place to put our money?
There is said to be enough Helium 3 on the moon to feed the earth’s energy needs for centuries, if not the millennium. If it can be mined there and off-loaded to earth in rockets the size of the space shuttle, one or two shipments a month could power the world perpetually.
If we wanted to go there again and return with cargo, we could do it. We know how. If we wanted to build a colony on the moon, a reasonably hospitable place generating water and oxygen from the ice at the polar caps, and housed beneath a dome that shielded the residents from radiation, we could do it. We could terraform the moon for those purposes. We’ve had that ability for a long time.
What we haven’t had before is the need. Like NASA itself, we haven’t had a good purpose for humans in space since we landed on the moon nearly 50 years ago.
But having humans there all these years since has taught us how to live and work in space. How to maintain our health, grow things, build things, fix things.
And, now we can suggest, an overwhelming usefulness presents itself. We can colonize the moon if we choose to, mostly with available skills and technology.
Skeptics will have plenty of arguments to make. Fusion technology is not established. We’ve studied it for decades and nothing’s come of it.
One response might be that fusion has been barely studied for decades with research budgets as flat today as they were in the middle of the 20th century. So, perhaps, it hasn’t been given a serious look.
Still others will say that fusion is the fuel that powers the universe; if we are smart, we will tap into it and give thanks for an abundant, nearly infinite source of energy. What better place to make a serious investment?
All sides will agree that the challenges are formidable. Here’s a brief look at Fusion 101:
“Fusion happens when two lighter elements are forced together by enormous energy (pressure and heat) until they fuse into another isotope and release energy. The energy needed to start a fusion reaction is so large that it takes an atomic explosion – or perhaps very focused lasers – to produce this reaction. Still, once fusion begins, it can theoretically continue to produce energy as long as it is controlled and the basic fusing isotopes are supplied.1
A fusion reaction that loses control (becomes unbalanced) slows down and drops temperature until it stops.2
Once it is ignited, fusion reaction will continue to produce clean energy for as long as the elements it needs for fusion are available. Helium 3 is such an element.
Fusion is clean energy that emits no radiation, no greenhouse gasses, no pollution whatsoever. If the fusion reaction goes wrong, the process simply shuts down with no negative consequences except the loss of energy. It cools off and quits.
That is precisely the opposite of nuclear fission, which conceivably in a run- away meltdown could burn to the center of the earth, emitting massive amounts of radioactivity. To the contrary, fusion is safe and clean.
However, it takes a very hot blast of energy to ignite it. Something on the order of super-intense laser light or a thermo-nuclear device. That is problematic, a very big hurdle to clear. If we do it successfully, though, a star is born.
What would a source of clean, safe and abundant energy be worth to humanity and its future? If we ever are going to move beyond carbon-based fuels as a means of fully powering the world’s energy needs, this is something to consider.
But there must be a powerful incentive for the energy industry to wean it off carbon and lure it to investing in a clean source of power. If this seems unlikely or even undoable, we should remember that it isn’t the coal industry or the oil & gas industry we’re talking about. It isn’t solar, or wind, geothermal or biomass. It is the energy industry. And, what we are trying to build is an energy industry capability.
When policy changes, when the regulatory environment shifts, when carbon is taxed severely because it has become too dangerous to human health and well- being, when the game finally unravels, the prudent business leader changes with it and moves on.
Global and even ex-global infrastructure. Science, engineering, architecture, design and construction. Lots of research, lots of building and manufacturing, putting to use a lot of things we know how to do and learning how to do lots of things we haven’t done before. Very substantial amounts of money needed to underwrite it all. And very large profits to be made. That’s what we propose.
Here’s another way of looking at it: how would you like to buy all of your energy, every bit of it you need for every aspect of your life – lights and heat, cooling, cooking, blending, grinding, cutting, charging our devices and running all our gizmos, even firing up the Tesla in the garage and getting ready to go out for a spin – how would you like to buy all that energy from the Chinese?
The People’s Republic of China intends to mine the moon for Helium 3. It announced that intention a few years ago and reaffirmed it December 27, 2016 when it announced the nation’s five year plan for space. It has made systematic steps to hone the technology and map the way. More than any other people on earth, the Chinese have critical need of abundant clean power. They are going for it.
If they acquire it, they not only can realize their multitudinous dreams as a nation, they can selectively fuel – or refuse to fuel – the dreams of other nations. Because the nation that masters fusion energy will have the world’s premiere source of power and a world-wide market clamoring for it. That nation will be in control. That’s where the balance of power will reside.
So, if we want to discuss the current and future balance of power among nations, it is precisely this: fuel=energy=power. If it is clean and plentiful, as fusion is, there is nothing anywhere we know of today that can compete.
For those who are concerned about the fate of the ecosystem, fusion could be a safe, clean, abundant and permanent solution. For those who proclaim to make America great again, fusion could be the preeminent source of power.
Is it possible that those very widely divergent perspectives might see a common interest in pursuing disruptive technology to fuel the energy needs of the world? It would take an especially audacious leader to champion such a thing. One who is undaunted at taking on the most powerful forces of the status quo among us. The potential rewards would argue for making the effort.
James Michael Pagliasotti (c) 2016 All rights reserved
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