Sunday, November 30, 2003

Inertial Electrostatic Confinement (IEC)

There are such interesting things to be found on the internet. Note that the title is a little misleading. Inertial Electrostatic Confinement devices generally produce very little fusion, and generally low power levels. It's as a theoretical technology that it is interesting. I'm not aware of any IEC devices with cores much above a meter in diameter. There's just no money in it, at the moment. Everybody wants to make pebble-bed fission reactors and tokomak fusion reactors, at the moment.

It is perhaps unfortunate that IEC devices can be built so small. If the boundaries to entry were higher, we might see more funding and research in it. Sadly, 'real scientists' rarely have time to experiment with things within the reach of common man. Even though a proper IEC device would need to be enormous to reach the break-even point, the fact that small versions can be built by ordinary mortals may have poisoned the concept for serious investigation. It is similar to the great gulf that exists between commercial aerospace and amateur designs. You have essentially Estes rockets, large Estes rockets, custom large Estes rockets, and then a great gulf of nothing, until the large expensive commercial, government and military launch vehicles. Little research gets done on the gulf between them, and no bridging technologies are created. Some of this is being rectified, by the relatively new Xprize efforts, and new entities like SeaLaunch, but it's still very stratified. And uptake of new technologies is minimal. Anything from the amateur end is badly integrated, and deemed useless. Anything from the government end is so expensive and mired in existing systems, it never achieves a useful genericity.

But, I suppose there are vested interests in making developed technology seem arcane and complex, to justify research expenditures. And amateurs are hard pressed to develop general technologies.

Were I an idealist, I would say that the amateurs will be the ones to close the gap. As open-source internet communities spread from software to hardware, they'll embrace and extend out to large scale technological development.

But the scaling between a software project and something with a few hundred thousand moving parts, and spanning several scientific and/or engineering disciplines is daunting.

And amateurs seem far better suited to immerse themselves in psuedoscientific stupors, building and rebuilding half-imagined perpetual motion machines, antigravity generators, and historical replicas. Interesting that lots of people in this vein seem to refer back to the research of Nikolai Tesla. I've become increasingly of the opinion that he's become even more of a personage of borrowed authority than Einstein and Galileo, these days. There's no easier path to renegade science respectability than conjuring an analogy between your downtrodden theories and Tesla's mad and fantastic electronic designs.

If I see one more design based on a fundamental misunderstanding of angular momentum involving magnets or electricity, I may give up entirely.

I'm of the opinion that some sort of organized effort would be necessary. Some forceful extension of amateur science into the realm of real exploratory research. Sadly(or happily) our social and technological situation is hardly stable, and things continue to change rapidly. So such a movement may occur or be obsoleted without much forewarning.

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