Ben Bova: The science is called magnetohydrodynamics -- MHD, for short.

Commentary

I write novels about the juncture where science and politics meet. To me, this is one of the most exciting subjects to write about, a subject that is vitally important to us all, yet little understood or appreciated by most people.

Over the years, I've seen poorly informed political decisions hamstring promising scientific research time and again. The politicians make their decisions for political reasons, not scientific ones, and often the short-term demands of politics outweigh the long-term benefits of science.

In 1957 I was working on the Vanguard satellite project. Soviet Russia had launched Sputnik, beating us into space. The first Vanguard launch ended in an explosion 4 feet about the launch stand.

Congress, driven by then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, formed a joint House-Senate committee for space.

At a party in Washington I was introduced to the newly-appointed chairman of the joint committee for space, an amiable gentleman from Louisiana.

He told me, "When Mr. Majority Leader Johnson told me I was gonna be chairman of the space committee, I didn't even know what outer space was!"

He was appointed because Johnson wanted someone he could control, not because he'd be an effective leader. That's the kind of political decision-making we had. And, I fear, still have.

In the 1960s I was working at the Avco Everett Research Laboratory. One of our programs involved a new way to generate electricity.

The science is called magnetohydrodynamics. MHD, for short. MHD is the study of gases so hot they can conduct electricity and their interaction with magnetic fields.

Picture the hot exhaust gas streaming from a rocket engine. The gas is so hot that it can conduct electricity. Run that blazing hot stream of gas through a pipe that is lined on its inside with electrodes. Wrap a powerful magnetic coil around the pipe.

That's an MHD power generator. You can get megawatts of electrical power as long as the hot gas is flowing.

The electricity that powers your home is generated by steam turbines. Water is boiled by burning a fossil fuel, or by the heat of a nuclear reactor. The steam spins a turbine. The turbine turns a bundle of copper wires called an armature. The armature spins in a magnetic field created by a strong magnet.

Michael Faraday discovered in the 1830s that an electrical conductor moving in a magnetic field generates an electrical current. He used a copper armature and produced the first electric power generator, which he called a dynamo. Its efficiency was about 40 percent.

Half a century later, Thomas Edison developed the first commercial electric power generators, using Faraday's ideas. Their efficiency was about 40 percent.

Today, more than a century after Edison, commercial steam turbine power generators are still about 40 percent efficient. Nuclear power generators actually run a little less efficiently.

In an MHD generator, that supersonic stream of hot gas replaces the copper armature. The laboratory-sized generators we were testing in the 1960s were more than 60 percent efficient. The full-sized MHD generators that we wanted to build would be even more efficient.

But we never got that far.

MHD power generators could burn high-sulfur coal, a fuel we don't use today because it causes acid rain. Western states such as Montana have abundant beds of high-sulfur coal, which are useless with today's power generators.

In an MHD generator, the sulfur could be extracted before it gets out of the generator. We could use high-sulfur coal and generate electric power twice as efficiently as today's power stations.

Moreover, MHD generators don't need to boil water and make steam. In Western states water is scarce. MHD power could be a godsend to those states — and the rest of the world.

But it was not to be. There were technical problems with MHD, but they could have been solved. The MHD program went nowhere because neither the corporations, nor the electric utilities, nor the government gave a damn about generating electric power more efficiently. The program died of neglect.

That's why my latest novel, "Power Play," is about MHD. How the politics cripples the science. How we have turned our backs on a promising technology. How we waste our time and talent. Why we're paying $7 trillion a year to import petroleum.

Bova lives in Naples. "Power Play" is his 125th book. His website address is www.benbova.com.

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