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Son of Sonofusion

sonolum.jpgA little over a year ago, we posted a piece about research done at Purdue on "sonofusion" -- the energy released when sound waves compress bubbles in liquids. It's been known for almost a century that pulsing sound through liquid can cause flashes of light, a process called sonoluminescence; some scientists believe that the process results in high enough temperatures that fusion is possible. But many people are skeptical -- in order for this to be fusion, you have to see (among other things) plasma generated in the bubble.

Well, guess what?

This week's Nature has an article by scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign describing the detection of plasma within the bubbles made to expand and collapse by sound.

"Nobody has been able to measure the temperature inside a single collapsing bubble before," says [UIUC scientist Ken] Suslick. The bubbles reached more than 15,000°C he says, which is four times hotter than the surface of the Sun. [...] "Our results can neither confirm or deny Taleyarkhan's claims to fusion," he says. But he adds that any confined fusion reaction requires a plasma. "Our paper shows for the first time, and definitively, that there can be a plasma formed during this process."

This is one of those discoveries that could -- if replicated -- have enormous implications. This is quite literally tabletop fusion: a jar of liquid producing temperatures hotter than the Sun, driven by sound. As of now, it takes more energy to produce the luminescence than results from the process. But that could change as researchers begin to understand better how sonofusion works, which liquid media are best suited for it (in the UIUC research, for example, sulfuric acid produced far better results than water), and how best to tap the resulting energy.

What I wrote a year ago remains true today: ...what this discovery does do right now is provide us with a friendly reminder that we can't assume that all the tools we'll have for fighting global problems have already been invented. New discoveries, new technological or social innovations add to our response capabilities. While we certainly shouldn't assume that a deus ex machina is going to save us all, neither should we despair that our current abilities are insufficient for the task at hand.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Son of Sonofusion:

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WorldChanging reports that desktop fusion just got one more contender. When Rusi Taleyarkhan announced, in March 2002, that his team had succeeded in table-top nuclear fusion, using a method that came to called Sonofusion (the process got called Sonolu [Read More]

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Comments (14)

Nice to see someone who hasn't give up on the spirit of innnovative problem solving just yet. Forget hydrogen fuel cells - all you need is your "AudioFusion" underhood or backyard fusion generator...

"... all you need is your 'AudioFusion' underhood or backyard fusion generator..."

Um - to do what?

There's an unspoken assumption here that abundant cheap energy is the key to solving a multitude of linked problems. I think that's a fallacy if abundant energy only encourages further physical growth - the amount of land we farm, the forests we fell, the minerals we dig up, the rate at which we reproduce. Paul Erlich once famously said that our current society having fusion energy would be like giving a machine gun to an idiot child.

If we address the problems of physical growth, including population growth, then tabletop fusion might make a welcome addition to our toolkit of technologies - but I doubt that we'd need it.

Please note that I'm distinguishing "growth" from "development." This planet, with pretty much the same atoms for the past 4 1/2 billion years, has developed, not grown. We need to learn from that.

Ah, and I suppose giving the world (with its undereducated, often biased and ignorant masses) unfettered access to vast amounts of knowledge and information, and an open global forum in which to communicate would be dangerous as well, eh? Who knows what ideas those idiot children could come up with!

Come on, Dave. Lets not rely on tired execuses to hide from technology and progress. The Population Bomb was written in the sixties, drawing on the same mindset that produced Soylent Green in the seventies. Its widely acknowledged that Ehrlich's Malthusian dreams are not going to come to pass... to complement your quote, Ehrlich also stated...

"The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now [that being 1968]. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate..."

Ummm hmmmmm. Yes. As Joe Deely pointed out in another thread here, around a million are dying from malnutrition a year - obviously a horrendous number, but nowhere near the global food holocaust envisioned by Ehrlich.

My point is that rejecting a technological advance for fear of what it might allow people to do is recidivism. That's exactly why a technology like this should be in circulation - who knows what wonderful and amazing things innovative, intelligent people will be able to do with limitless, clean electricity?

Ajax Bucky:

Rod Edwards you sure put paid to Ehrlich, and David Foley into the bargain. As far as the single isolated point of Ehrlich's minor prediction that unchecked population growth would lead to mass starvation.
Foley's larger point, that we need to learn more from the 4 billion year-old history of our home, is still waiting your reply. Except you seem to be afflicted with that arrogance that needs to learn only how, and never what. A mechanical world, like a giant toy, waiting for you to do whatever you want to it, whatever you can get away with. Science has no morals, people do. Putting science above people is inhuman. People are more than just numbers. Just as trees are more than just individual specimens. Forests. Communities. The interplay and inter-dependence of living things. You can't breed that in a lab, not in the little bit of time you have.
Many voices, and Ehrlich's among them, predicted with far more accuracy that the headlong rush toward more more and more, without a recovered sense of who we are and where we live, would lead directly to deep doo-doo.
We're burning, in the US alone, over 380 million gallons of gasoline every single day. The ice caps are melting, the weather's going bananas, there's a nightmare of bloodshed raging in the world over access to dwindling oil reserves, songbird populations are crashing, the seas are going sterile, fresh water's rapidly becoming the new oil, and did I mention the weather's going bananas? Welcome to deep doo-doo.
It's not as simple as scrambling to supply the increasing needs of the consuming mass, and it's not as simple as just curbing the numerical growth of human beings, as though that's all that needs changing.
It's how we live, and our attitudes toward life, which in this bizarrely artificial scene sounds like just another self-help topic. Our attitudes toward life, and toward all that makes life possible, is the make-or-break step now.
Fabricating chimeras in the gene-labs isn't going to fix what's wrong, spreading feeble proprietary seeds everywhere isn't going to fix it either, and - speaking of wonderful uses of electricity - how about the wonderful application of electrodes and high-volt low-amp current in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? You think technology's going to fix that? Or maybe as long as your private parts aren't being scorched you're okay with that? And maybe you really believe genetically-modified corn is going to feed the hungry world. It isn't.
It's not a tech problem. It's a humanities problem, in every sense of the word. The idiot child has already seized the machine gun, on his own, and he 's not going to give it up willingly.

Yo Jamais. Cool post!

These Reliance Energy guys in Bombay are ruthless collectors, they have threatened to cut off my electricity several times. It would be nice to have my own sonofusionator. Then we Indians could finally forget the Enron fiasco.


Better still, I would like to play Pink Floyd to a goldfish in a bowl and thus light up my apartment ;)

Rod (and others),

I realize my last post might sound offensive. I apologize - that wasn't my intent. Perhaps it was a mistake to cite Paul Erlich, who is often remembered for his mistakes rather than his contributions. I'm sorry to have been unclear about my central point, which is this: we need to reduce the "throughput" of physical materials and energy through our society. We need cutting edge technologies, yes, absolutely, but these will be insufficient or even detrimental if we don't address the larger issue of exponential material growth. We need family planning and women's health services at least as much as tabletop fusion. We need "Factor 10" efficiency improvements more than Tokamak reactors. We need organic farming more than lunar colonies.

We need to learn how to develop without growing, like this planet does.

So I can't get too excited about "Sonofusion" for its own sake, until the larger system in which such a technology arises is reoriented.

I hope this explains my point better.

Ajax - you in turn have missed my larger point (the common theme of this thread!) that releasing a technology like sonofusion isn't a matter of finding ways to consume more in mindless fashion; its a powerful worldchanging tool - like the internet. I have faith in the moral nature of humanity to make good use of such a tool to improve humanity's lot on this planet. Contrary to what you've said, to restrict the release of such a technology is to put science above humanity, because to do so means that you don't give humanity enough credit, or have enough faith in the collective intelligence of our species.

David - agreed with what you've said. Don't apologize to me; I apologize back to you for letting my rabble-rousing conversational instincts run free - apologies for my harsh reply to your original post.

Jamais Cascio:

Ajax, you say:

How about the wonderful application of electrodes and high-volt low-amp current in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? You think technology's going to fix that?

Actually, it did, or at least put a stop to it. The only reason we even know that the torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo was happening was because of the technology of digital cameras and email.

While it's doubtful that tabletop fusion would be an unmitigated good, it would have enormous potential for transforming how we live. Clean (as far as we can tell at this point) energy, with easily distributed production, makes possible other sorts of desirable social changes (e.g., avoiding global warming-induced environmental collapse, enabling new transportation models, breaking the back of dinosaur fossil fuel companies, etc.).

Science and technology may, as you say, have no morals -- may be amoral -- but that doesn't mean science and technology are inherently immoral. There can be beneficial, brave, even profound uses, too. One of our tasks at WorldChanging is to call attention to those uses.


I understand having faith in the good of humanity, but obviously there is also bad in humanity. There are some people who are willing to use the tools we have to honor life and peace and overall gentleness to the environment so that more suffering isn't created. There are some people who use the tools we have foolishly, creating more suffering. The thing that i see missing in many reports on this site and with myself and with people in general is that they don't look at the longer term consequences of doing things. There was a post recently on the current benifits of genetically modified food. I didn't see any thing in that report saying what long term effects of doing this could do. Off the top of my head, maybe genetically modified food could out-compete a native crop that other life forms rely on. This in turn would destroy that other life which is connected to other life (as all life is connected as far as i have observed). People see that something can help them and forget to check if it can hurt them. Unlimited energy has the obvious potential to help us (in our minds). Does unlimited energy also have the potential to hurt us? I wish you all well.

rod, yes "releasing a technology like sonofusion isn't a matter of finding ways to consume more in mindless fashion". however this is not what i got out of what david and ajax wrote. it seems they wanted to suggest, among other ideas, that its release would further support the dangerous exponential consumption of mindless fashion leading too... deep doo doo sqaured! you have faith in the moral nature of humanity to make good use of such a tool? come on man, what are you trying to say or do? i am very interested in your perspective on this issue but those are silly trick relatively meaningless words. the moral nature (if we do have a moral "nature") of humanity does not have a perfect track record dude. one does not even need to regard the past 5000 years, look at the past 100. with that said, yes i feel sonofusion is neat super rad neat gwiz. however, if i had to pick a reality it would not be the one where monkeys get their hands on fusion so early in their game.

Johnny - the comments that David and Ajax made hinged compared people to idiot children. Your comment compares people to monkeys. My point is that regardless what mistakes weve made as a species or what mistakes we make in the future, people deserve to be treated as more than idiot children or monkeys. Refer back to my original comments on the dangers of release the internet to the ignorant unwashed masses.

James Orman:

It looks as though they have found the natural frequency to water.

Patrick Tomlinson:

Hello all. I have a question. Just how much energy are we talking about generating here? It would seem to me that the nanoscale bubles aren't going to be big enough to produe any large amount of energy and that they can't be scaled up to produce more energy either. Atleast not in the same grand fashion that solar fusion reactors hope to do someday. So aside from being a neat way to make stars several nanometers wide, what is the ultimate purpose of this technology?


Number the one- unfortunately postive energy back hasn't been acheived yet.

Number the two- cheap energy can get us to space easier. taking a load off earth's non-organic resources (which hurt organics during/after extraction)

Munber the three- like above post said tech is moral nuetral. Humans are not. However, clean energy promises an ability to be more moral in our dealings w/ the earth (fossil fuels)

number the four- Our tech 'til now has got partially out the yoke of oppression- there was no moral eden in the past. We need tech to make us more physically independent of our needs so we can be more emotionally engaged w/ each other.

number the five- we determine our future. any tool that will help us approach the asymtote(sp?) of justice for justice for life is a good in my book.


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