The Future May Smell Like Skunk

by wjw on September 19, 2013

So the Skunk Works has announced a workable fusion-powered generator by 2017, with a mass industrial rollout by 2027, each unit small enough to sit on a truck and powerful enough to provide electricity for a city of 50-100 thousand people.

The Skunk Works, being a highly secret division of Lockheed responsible for technological breakthroughs such as the U-2, SR-71, and F-117 Nighthawk, is not exactly being open about their design, which has led to a certain amount of paranoia, including speculation that the Skunk Works (which receives funding from the Air Force) has ripped off Robert Bussard’s Polywell fusion prototype (which was funded by the Navy).  (In fact, Bussard lost his Navy funding six or seven years ago, and has been trying to put together a funding package ever since.)

But anyway, that will all be the subject for nine-figure lawsuits, assuming this all pans out.

It is implied that the Skunk Works’ design will have helium as a byproduct, which further implies that they’ve managed a boron-proton reaction, which requires such extreme temperatures that it’s been considered, well, very very challenging.

Anyway, assuming that the Skunk Works prototype doesn’t evaporate into the same alternate universe as Pons and Fleischmann’s cold fusion announcement, what does this mean for the world?

Primary effects will include a crash in the fossil-fuel industry.  All those nasty, dangerous coal plants and coal mines can for the most part closed up.  Oil & gas will take a big hit, though petroleum (and for that matter coal) will still be useful in producing plastics, fertilizers, solvents, and pharmaceuticals.   And fueling automobiles and trucks.

Which means that most of the 174,000 people employed in the U.S. coal industry will be out of work, and millions more worldwide.  The 2.2 million oil workers in the U.S., and the many more throughout the world, will take a big hit.  So . . . big unemployment.  The blue-collar sector will see a lot of work floating away.

On the other hand, many of these jobs are crap jobs anyway.  40% of the oil jobs are minimum-wage in the U.S., and a lot of coal mining and transport jobs aren’t any better, particularly in the Third World.

And on the third hand, with energy inexpensive and abundant, those unemployment checks will stretch out a lot more, and  those unemployed workers will more easily be able to fill their trailers with cheap consumer crap.

Oil-producing states will start to lose a lot of political and economic clout.  Countries like Bahrain and Saudi had better hope that their plans for what to do when the oil runs out are viable.  They can’t all be Disneyland.

Green technology will go into screaming overdrive. A lot less carbon being put into the air.  Green cities.  Huge irrigation and desalinization projects.  And, because factories will be churning out more and more cheap pollution-causing consumer crap, a lot more effort being put into cleaning up those messes.

A lot less dependence on big power distribution networks.  There will be a limit concerning how much power companies will be able to charge for their electricity.  Charge too much, and the locals will be able to club together to buy a Skunkpower unit and start their own power company.

We’re going to see a lot of really fast warships and submarines, and ships generally.  Warships with rail guns, and rail guns that can hurl warheads hundreds and thousands of miles.   Incredibly powerful lasers, some mounted on large aircraft.

(And really powerful locomotives, probably without the rail guns and lasers.)

Robots robots robots.  (Which will put more people out of work, of course.)

The Third (and Second) World will be able to leap to First World status in a hurry, assuming that their societies don’t explode from the stresses of modernization and the large populations of young men with little hope of employment and easy access to firearms.

Getting from one planet to the next becomes a lot easier— Mars would be mere weeks away— but I’m guessing there’s still a high energy cost for lifting the Skunkship into orbit.

And that’s just off the top of my head.

Assuming of course that this happens at all, because I’m just paranoid enough to think that the extractive industries are going to make sure that all funding for this project gets pulled.  (You’re not that paranoid, though, are you?)

I’m distracted with a trip I’m taking to Long Island tomorrow to visit my in-laws, so I haven’t had time to think of tertiary impacts on, say, the shoe industry.  What have I missed?


Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) September 19, 2013 at 2:19 pm

Yes I’m that paranoid.

Energy and the movement of that energy is the great problem of our century. Fossil Fuels use is going to change our planet in undesirable ways, the more we use what’s remaining, the more change we are going to get.

Fred Kiesche September 19, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Bussard’s firm. Not Bussard. Bussard, alas, passed away.

mearsk September 19, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Wouldn’t it be great if this actually happened? However, I doubt it actually will. If the thing actually works and it looks like it might be successful, those interests you mentioned will come down on it like a ton of bricks.

Ralf The Dog. September 20, 2013 at 5:05 am

Mix this up with a dose of in home fab and you have just replaced industry with design. The cost of making stuff will be the cost of designing stuff. Creative people will rule the world. The only physical job I can think of that would survive is construction.

(Thinking Neal Stephenson The Diamond Age.)

If the fates had twisted, just a bit differently, I would be Midtown Manhattan about then. Unfortunately, projects turned very South, very fast.

Brian Renninger September 20, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Navy is still funding Polywell. It is dribs and drabs but seems pretty steady with incremental progress.

“As of August 15, 2012, the Navy had agreed to fund EMC2 with an additional $5.3 million over 2 years to work on the problem of pumping electrons into the whiffleball. They plan to integrate a pulsed power supply to support the electron guns (100+A, 10kV). WB-8 has been operating at 0.8 Tesla. The review of the work produced the recommendations to continue and expand the effort,[61][dead link]stating: “The experimental results to date were consistent with the underlying theoretical framework of the Polywell fusion concept and, in the opinion of the committee, merited continuation and expansion.”[62]”

–Brian R.

Raymund Eich September 20, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Assuming of course that this happens at all, because I’m just paranoid enough to think that the extractive industries are going to make sure that all funding for this project gets pulled.

But on the other side, you have companies that want cheap, autonomous generators to power, say, a giant server farm–is it a coincidence Google sponsored the presentation? Plus, the Boston/New York/DC axis, and its outposts on the Pacific coast, would love to cripple the middle America extractive industries as political rivals. They’re already on their way to that goal. (Note that anti-fracking is a mainstream position, whereas being anti-Google puts one in tinfoil hat territory).

TRX September 20, 2013 at 9:32 pm

Cheap desalinization would change some of the political structure of the US Southwest and the Middle East. Cheap air conditioning and electric heating would broaden the habitable comfort zone.

In some places, a reduction in electric rates would be a winner at the household budget level. I’m paying 23.5 cents per kilowatt-hour; I’d love to buy some of that 3-cent electricity the electric-car noids babble about.

MikeJustMike September 21, 2013 at 1:40 am

Methinks it all depends on the cost per watt, but another serious fallout would be an end to the the wind and solar sector if the electricity is cheap enough.
As a tech in the wind sector, this concerns me.

If fusion hit big soon, it would swallow any other power generation technology. People might keep wind turbines around for the nostalgia, and reservoirs in the Colorado for the water, but most of it will go by the wayside. The big debate will start on how we can safely decommission most fission nuke plants.
What would we do with all that extra helium after it became safe? I bet Zeppelin Cranes and dirigible surveillance.
But portable fusion? Hell yeah.
Damn. I’m going to have to go back to school.

Christopher Weuve September 21, 2013 at 5:26 pm

Hmmm, not convinced on some of the naval things mentioned. Surface ship top speeds are not limited by power generation (an LM2500 isn’t very big now), but the hydrodynamic limits on the hull form. That’s the reason why warship tops speeds have been fairly constant over the last 70 years. And rail guns primary limitation has been rail erosion, not power.

Don’t get me wrong — shipboard Mr. Fusion will be very useful, especially for things like more powerful radars and for laser anti-ship defenses. And if it avoids the expenses and headaches of fission plants, it may make the all-nuclear battlegroup a reality. (But even that isn’t as useful as it sounds, as the airwing is the part that uses most of the gas anyway, and hence drives at sea replenishment needs.)

Ralf The Dog. September 23, 2013 at 3:28 am

Christopher Weuve, if you have enough power on a ship, you can make water and air into all the aircraft fuel you need. It would take, quite a bit of power.

TRX September 23, 2013 at 1:22 pm

I made the initial assumption that the Skunk Works design would be cheap to operate. If true, it would be the next best thing to a new Industrial Revolution; with really cheap electricity, all sorts of things are possible. But if it’s portable, but requires exotic, expensive feedstocks, it would be a niche product. Depending on how much the fuel costs, it might not be all that useful.

Jerry September 24, 2013 at 7:59 am

Desalinization. Deserts will bloom and so will population. Entertainment will be the big winner, since stability of the various planetary nations and hegemons (hegemonoi? hegemoni?) will depend on it. As Machiavelli said, “Where neither their property nor their honor is touched, most men live content.”

Christopher Weuve November 13, 2013 at 7:54 pm

Ralf: Maybe. Hydrocarbon fuels are very energy dense per weight, which is exactly what an aircraft needs. There’s a reason why we don’t see hydrogen powered aircraft now. In addition, now you are talking about adding a chemical plant on top of the fuel storage requirement. At some point this stops being more efficient than simply shipping fuel from shore.

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