A guest article by Joseph Friedlander
What if thermonuclear power in a controlled manner is so hard to do that it is actually easier to directly annihilate matter and use that instead?
In a sense it is, because if you have antimatter or a black hole freely and conveniently available in small metered sizes, you could construct power stations “today”( IE after about 6-12 years of massive engineering effort) to use them cheaply. Alas, those wonders are not so available and so we can’t. (To be technical, each of those could also trigger fusion, so their lack will also pain the fusion people, not just the cool future tech people)
The classical antimatter for easy handling has been anti-iron. (in science fiction. In real life we’re happy to get anti-Hydrogen 1)
If we could snap-convert iron 56 suspended in a good (VERY good and very cold ) vacuum to anti iron 56 oh, man. Levitated anti iron dust would make many science fiction dreams and nightmares possible. If we could meter a tiny flow of hydrogen 1 magically to antihydrogen 1 we basically would have an antimatter reactor right now (not to mention a gamma ray blowtorch). But we don’t.
A sample paper by Professor A.A. Bolonkin on how if you have a micro black hole you can produce amazing amounts of energy
A number of people have had the conviction (Robert A. Heinlein among them) that there has got to be something better than fission, with its’ unstoppable radiation headaches, and fusion, with its’ ignition, sustained controllable burn and neutron problem. He said that when we truly understood the nucleus we would have atomic power in convenient packages.
What if we get the ability to directly convert matter to energy, in first an uncontrolled, and then a controlled manner? The world changes, but how useful that change is depends on the practicality of the hardware we would use to do it.
So lets see how the world would change IF the hardware were practical.
The following is rank speculation, not to be confused with real physics, unless working hardware is forthcoming. Kindly think of it as an exercise in fantasy physics, clearly labelled.
Let us suppose that there is a hidden pothole in the laws of physics with a thin cover over it so no one has discovered it yet: What do I mean by that?
Imagine a world where U-235 and Pu-239 were known but not recognized for what they are: Fissionable isotopes which can sustain a chain reaction. This of course was once the case. Imagine how hard it would be to develop nuclear power in such a world.
Now imagine it was discovered belatedly and a vast range of military and engineering and political consequences happened, because a hidden corner of the then known laws of physics had concealed a hidden tech treasure waiting to be found.
So here comes the fantasy part: That under certain conditions it is possible (though difficult) to trigger a transition in matter that I have labelled ‘snap-conversion’.
Why that name? Because a wavefront of change something akin to but different from a population inversion shoots through the mass to be converted (the ‘reactant’) in a snap– faster than annihilation and other dire consequences of the transition can follow. It snaps from one condition to the other almost as if it was always that way. It starts as matter, snaps to antimatter and from that point forward it annihilates the ordinary non reactant matter of its’s container.
In this article we consider what would happen in an uncontrolled runaway reaction– a bomb– which is probably far the easier to trigger. I do not speak of a reaction without limit that can consume any matter at all (and potentially consume the planet) but rather a runaway reaction in a specialized and limited pool of reactant matter.
In a future article, if I ever get to it, we consider what I might call a DARE reactor– Direct Annihilation Reactor (Electrical) which has the much more complicated job of directly inducing current flow from an annihilation reactor rather like certain Boron 11- Hydrogen 1 reactor designs.
The standard reactor design discused used p+11B (hydrogen and Boron-11) as fuel, since it fuses without releasing any of its energy as radiation or neutrons. All the energy of the reaction is contained in the kinetic energy of released charged particals. If the fusion reaction is surrounded with voltage gradiants or other systems to convert the kinetic energy of high speed charged particals directly to electricity. Virtually all their energy (about 98%) directly to electricity. Making a ridiculously compact and simple electrical generator.
(Friedlander again here. An intermediate approach for such a snap-conversion reactor would use heat to boil water or super-critical CO2, a process which has great precedent but less great economics for truly cheap power since there is massive power loss (often 2/3 ) to waste heat and then you have to amortize the entire thermal conversion suite of installations and machines. So the power ends up up to 5-10 times more expensive than directly.) But in general a bomb burns a lot of fuel at once and quickly, while a reactor tries to meter out the power at a constant rate.
The ability to directly convert matter to energy, in an uncontrolled manner amounts to an explosive device or a bomb. This may have military uses but need not be designed in the expensive mil-spec way for routine commercial use.
- There is an outer assembly that has the usual deploy characteristics of any powerful, expensive — safety interlocks, shock thermal control (this can be quite elaborate for deep underground placement), EMP, pressure, electrical and other isolation zones, (including crush zones) multiple fuses, ring sail parachute if a air-deliverable munition, and so on. Stuff you want near but not part of the actual bomb just its’ support infrastructure.
- There is an inner assembly that accepts the initiation signal from the outside assembly. This too has an outer part (which may include an outer sacrificial dewar for topping up the inner dewar, and other field maintainable parts.) and an inner part, by analogy to present devices, the ‘physics package’. This is the part only maintainable in major facilities, depot level or better because of precise configuration requirements which if not fulfilled will result in a non functional device.
- When detonation requirements are initiated and satisfied, here is the hypothetical sequence of events in an uncontrolled reaction:
- The reactant is a (reasonably) pure isotope, because I happen to believe we live in a safetied universe. If runaway matter annihilation reactions were easy to trigger AND common we simply would not be here. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle Therefore any undiscovered reaction must be complex to trigger and uncommon, although hopefully working on common feedstock isotopes.
- Imagine if any idiot could buy at a hardware store a device with a nail in the back of it you could hammer into any pile of ordinary matter and which would detonate in a radius of 5 meters that matter at the rate of 1 atom in 1 million– in other words about the power of ordinary TNT from any given pile of ordinary matter– gravel, sand, hay, a building with someone you hated in it, you name it. The 5 m radius is just to put a limit on it– if a runaway uncontrolled detonation could eat a continent, that’s all she wrote. But even the radius I gave basically lets any idiot with a dollar and a hammer do this.
Each “Sailor Hat” test consisted of a dome-stacked 20 x 40 feet 500-ton (450 t) charge of TNT high explosive detonated on the shore of Kahoʻolawe close to the ships under test. Note the man on the right side of the pile for scale. Note the ship on the left. This is the yield of a W-54. now imagine it in the pocket of an excitable boy who whips it out like a switchblade when he’s ticked off.
I doubt very much that civilization would survive if such a capability was universally available to crazy individuals. (Counter evidence for my own thesis: From say 1900-1930 you could buy X ray tubes and dynamite, acid and poison, openly at your friendly corner hardware store the only deterrent being the common sense of clerks and civilization in the USA survived quite handily.).
Now let that hypothetical hardware store detonator ignite a runaway reaction a million times more powerful– runaway disassociation and annihilation of matter to the limits of the fuel supply– the Earth and its’ atmosphere– I doubt a civilization on Pluto would survive. The Sun itself only annihilates 4 billion kg of matter a second, and the Earth is 6 trillion trillion kg or so. So 1500 trillion times the Sun’s output if it happens in 1 second. Man, that smarts!
- It begins in the module I call the Zero Module, By unspecified means, but probably involving a phase transition from one quantum regime to another, by a structure not utterly dissimilar to a quantum dot, the snap-conversion zone is initiated. Snap-conversion spreads rapidly via an expansion cone to enter the reactant chamber.
- The expansion cone also conditions the reaction and the transition to the reactant zone.
- The reactant chamber, a glorified shock proofed dewar, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryogenic_storage_dewar holds the reactant, isotopically pure He4 in the superfluid state with a classified seeding material within the boundaries of the dewar to treat the radiation in a pre- positioned array as the reaction starts to spread. The seeding material is deployed on the surface of structures that also act as anti-slosh baffles do in a liquid fuel rocket tank. This also helps the handling characteristics of the device during routine deployment.
- The reaction spreads throughout the reactant chamber, from the expansion cone to the limits of the reactant in the dewar. Note that the snap-conversion reaction would (in this theoretical construct) only operate when in the ground state and in the case of superfluid helium https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superfluid_helium-4 only 8% or so is in the ground state at any one time. As it says in: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bose%E2%80%93Einstein_condensate#Isotopes:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Z6UJbwxBZI BBC on superfluid helium
If the reaction proceeds efficiently the reaction is fuel limited–.remember that only ground state atoms are converted and thus annihilated so after the explosion theoretically the other 92% could someday be recaptured and burned as well.
Because of the 8% ground state limit the reaction is not as overwhelmingly powerful as the antimatter 100% + 100% annihilated math would suggest. (The common thought on antimatter in science fiction weapons has been, 21 megatons energy per kg of antimatter PLUS 21 megatons energy per kg of matter eaten up by the antimatter, thus 42 mt and no neutrino losses. Divide by 3 for neutrino losses and you get 14 megatons real yield, like the Castle Bravo explosion of 1954.
( The density of liquid helium-4 at its boiling point and a pressure of one atmosphere (101.3 kilopascals) is about 0.125 grams per cm3, or about 1/8th the density of liquid water.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_helium) and then a further factor of 12 or so more to account that only 8% of THAT would be in the ground state.
the superfluid state of 4He below 2.17 K is not a good example, because the interaction between the atoms is too strong. Only 8% of atoms are in the ground state near absolute zero, rather than the 100% of a true condensate.
To stay alert, the bomb stays cold. Not like a room temperature lithium (modern hydrogen) bomb, more like the emergency deployed Jughead models of 1953 which are interesting to me because most people think that cryogenic Mike like bombs were never deployed. Wrong, and here’s a picture (below)
Thus as weapons, they are not a huge improvement in terms of yield. No magic gigaton weapons light compact and dense–No magic1000 x more yield for the same missile warhead fitting (which in any case would give rather less than 100 x the area destroyed). More like a 10x boost in yield. for the same weight (but more volume). You still need a radiation casing in this simulation but not the heavy metal tamper. Engineering them for an ICBM warhead would be a challenge, especially the helium resupply umbical.
(Ease of handling on base is definitely a loser, given the cryogenic requirement, far less convenient to handle and basically chained to a major cryo plant on the sub, on the air base or on the missile base. Also needing cooldown and only a part of the force can be on instant alert at any time and for limited duration.) .
But the relative lack of activation fallout and long lived radiopoisons and boneseeker isotopes like cesium and strontium would make them more usable thus a credible deterrent. In fact the inconvenience of staying on high alert for long would make a first strike credible, like early ICBMs with cryogenic oxidizers. And a first strike with these things would not end up killing massive numbers of civilians by fallout. (Although by blast and heat and fire, you betcha)
Lacking a fission core (or indeed tritium boost gas) hey would be much harder to detect, thus the upcoming deployment of neutrino detectors might make boomer subs want to be armed with these rather than regular devices (and a DARE reactor rather than a fission reactor). And Homeland Security would not be happy should these things be proven possible. How do you detect incomings being smuggled?
- hard to produce
- easy to downgrade (U 238 with U 235 or 233– or Pu 240 with 239–easily mixed hard to separate)
- easily detectable.
- the only practical way to set off a fusion explosion.
not so this hypothetical device. How do you detect a dewar full of helium?
If as likely the dewar wall need be high z (purposes of the reaction propagation, just an assumption) that would be detectable but lead is not uncommon and doesn’t react funny in scintillation tests. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamma_camera
Nonetheless such a bomb could be build but so could a large hydrogen bomb and that large a bomb has never been built. Most people don’t need a 20 gigaton device to get deterrent value. Although if it were either orbited up to say 900 miles (1500 km) or brought to the bottom of the ocean over a magma reservoir it would be an awesome threat simply because of the area to be brought to ignition temperature (probably a 900 mile circle) or the threat of an unknown geological consequence opening up a new volcanic province on the Earth. http://news.sciencemag.org/earth/2015/04/two-huge-magma-chambers-spied-beneath-yellowstone-national-park I am not sure that 20 gigatons is enough to crack open the upper Yellowstone magma chamber but if it does the grand prize is 10,000 cubic kilometers of magma at unknown pressure. I myself would not want to risk it. Still the energy of a 20 gigaton device is not much bigger than a major earthquake. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Megathrust_earthquake The 1755 Lisbon earthquake was about 30 gigatons. http://nidm.gov.in/easindia2014/err/pdf/earthquake/earthquakes_measurement.pdf In any case the biggest recorded earthquakes tend to be in the sub 200 gigaton range. Of course this is discussing single shots, not taking into account the horrific idea of a war fought with 1000 of these babies. Wow. Even if radiation were not a factor, nuclear winter like stratospheric dust and nitrogen oxide prompted ozone depletion (never exhaustion, but great depletion) and nitrogen oxide prompted acid rain imply strongly we are not to give this new frontier of destruction a grand tour.
So we have touched on a few possibilities for war, now what of the possibilities of peaceful use in great engineering works?
For engineering purposes there is one great thing about this hypothetical system:: No fission products, no fallout no tritium, even somewhat less activation fallout.
- Nuclear winter like stratospheric dust
- nitrogen oxide prompted ozone depletion
- and nitrogen oxide prompted acid rain
What would be the civil uses of the Helium Bomb?
Ironically since the output is in the gamma range, better than even X-rays, one use would be triggering D-D fusion if underground explosions were allowed. This means that given the cost of helium at $50 a kilogram (with yield of 7mt per kg) and D-D fusion Deuterium at $500 a kilogram with 82.5 kilotons a kg., helium is about a hundred times cheaper still. So who knows how cheap things could end up doing– but then you have the neutron irradiation problem again. So let’s ignore it. On the other hand this feeds back to the military side again. A small power makes Helium Bomb detonators which trigger large D-D bombs? That could breed fissionables, too. Or breed tritium for D-T reactors in the case of Helium bombs working, D-T fusion working, and you don’t want to source your tritium from fission reactors.
http://www.ralphmoir.com/pacer/ great pdfs on Project Pacer (nuclear bombs trigger D-D fusion and irradiate thorium and lithium to make U-233 and Tritium plus 1 gigawatt or more of energy. Practical fusion NOW and lots of isotopes for fission reactors that are ‘burners’ not breeders, designed to be safe and compact but not neutron productive.
<$1000 in fissionables for a nuclear bomb? Or even for the entire bomb itself? If the Helium bomb could be made that cheap AND detonate a D-D neutron source, even without a working DARE reactor (above) it could enable clean energy basically forever. In the sense that D-D is available for billions of years, and
yield explosives. Already, the Corps has underway a program to develop, test
and employ … explosives in the sub-kiloton and low kiloton ranges for
excavation. As we look ahead to the projects which the Corps or other agencies
like us might build in the future, we cannot visualize many where explosives
could be employed with yields greater than 50 kilotons; on the other hand,
there are very many, indeed, where small yields could be employed, if available.
So, where does that leave us today? Consider the unit cost curves for
yields in the 20 to 50 kiloton range (FIGURE 9) and you will find that they
are very close to the margin. ….
And, they must be clean explosives. As we use smaller yields to make deep cuts,
we will have to work in stages. If such work is to be economically feasible,
we must be able to re-enter the site quickly and get back to work. At the
present time this is not possible.
The fact that the total radioactivity
produced and released per unit of energy decreases as yield increases may
lead us to make explosives radiologically cleaner by making them larger,
reinforcing our tendency to rely on larger yields. But it is also a fact
that the total amount of radioactive materials produced and released increases
as yields increase. As we move up the scale to larger yields, we soon come
up against more stringent restrictions, such as the Limited Test Ban Treaty
of 1963, which prohibits us from carrying out any nuclear explosion which
causes radioactive debris to be present outside our territorial limits…– we must reorient our future efforts so as to develop smaller, even cleaner nuclear excavating explosives which
are efficient, economical and capable of being used in proximity to people.”
If buildable the Helium Bomb would give General Groves his wish 45 years later. The ability to use small kiloton yields cleanly and far cheaper than the TNT equivalent. The fact that the multimegaton versions would be many times per cheaper per kiloton does not change the fact that sometimes earthquake avoidance and nuisance value dictates working close in with smaller charges and that your biggest worry after leaving the job site should be getting a shower and not checking your dosimeter.
Of course, using gigaton devices for civil engineering would enable amazing things including the ability to cut through entire mountain ranges but at the price of 50 km high dust clouds like a super volcano. I have a post here about such consequences. There might be a way to shield the Earth from such dust pollution, and I might write an article about such a technique but look well at that picture and imagine a cloud far taller yet than the right side one. It would be visible for over 800 kilometers. A deep detonation might well bury a river in a base surge or otherwise alter coastlines by throwing great masses of rock to extend the land into the sea– while making a giant inland harbor in the same blast.
On the other hand, I could see a future Chinese government for example doing a very large trench detonation project (in stages, over decades) to get a unbombable kilometers wide sea level canal going all the way to the Black Sea to end China’s geopolitical isolation from the west. I don’t mean from the political West, I mean to literally give China’s west a seaport from which you could sail west to Turkey. I mention this not because I think it’s ecologically sound but just to give this as a sample of the amazing capability such devices would give, to enable a government to change by super engineering the previously unchangable geopolitical facts of life. The advantage would not simply be the ability to do it but the ability to do it radiation free (again, curious if that is really true because of the gamma activation).
estimated to be 20.6 billion cubic meters (744 billion cubic feet) http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/helium/mcs-2014-heliu.pdf
and find that helium’s density is .1785 kilo per cubic meter (air is 1.29) x 20600 x 1 million
But if it were able to be used as 7 megatons of yield in TNT equivalent per $2500 100 kg charge that is the equivalent of a gigawatt year almost.
8760 gigawatt-hour = 7.537284894837 megaton
At a penny a kilowatt hour (you pay 10 cents) that is 87.60 a kilowatt year or 87.6 million dollars a gigawatt year. So the Helium Bomb’s output would be 35040 times cheaper than penny a kilowatt hour for the fuel alone, even deuterium is only 2000 times cheaper.http://www.rapidtables.com/calc/electric/electricity-calculator.htm
This is a 1963 LLNL study of a sea level canal from the Med to the Red Sea. A gigaton of 2 megaton warheads http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2014/ph241/powell1/docs/453701.pdf would never be allowed by the Israeli government’s planning commission. If there were absolutely no fallout– well, times have changed and there is a powerful green movement in Israel. Even in case of national emergency the damages for seismic shock in Beersheba and Eilat (and probably Ashkelon) would be considerable. But in a 1973 like war when the Suez was closed– you never know. Every country probably has one or more projects like this that would like to get done if the gain is more than the pain.
Direct non explosive release of helium’s mass energy at the same relative cheapness and ease would change the whole world. If it could be used directly as electricity– well, how many appliances do you have in your home vs. charges of TNT?
And the joker would be if snap-conversion could literally be done from a small gas capsule on a power chip that literally never ran out (given the rated output, it would last longer than a lifetime in human terms). Your laptop need never go off, your car need never be refuelled– what would that kind of world be like? A future article may consider it.
Use of Nuclear Explosives for
Excavation of Sea-Level Canal Across
the Negev Desert
(Canal Studies Filefolder)
H. D. MacCabee
Channel width of 1000 feet in rock 520 2 megaton devices.
Conventional methods of excavation of this magnitude are prohibitively expensive.
One possible route for such a canal across the Negev desert has been
sketched out in Figure 1. The route northward from Eilat on a bearing
of 5 degrees for 83 miles, then turns westward on a bearing of 295 degrees for 20 miles to
pass between two mountains then turns northward again on a bearing of 348 degrees for 58 miles, to the Mediterranean passing by Beersheba and the Gaza Strip.
Approximately 130 miles of the 160 mile length of the route are in
virtually unpopulated desert wasteland, and are thus amenable to nuclear excavation
methods. Conventional methods could be used in the vicinity of the populated (areas).