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E&E Exchange

Welcome to the Energy & Environment (E&E) Exchange, a blog dedicated to science and engineering topics that are (generally) related to energy and the environment. This blog is meant to encourage discussion about the challenges and possibilities surrounding sustainability through science and technology. The blog's owner, cheme_wordsmithy, is a former technical writer and engineering editor at IEEE GlobalSpec, the company that powers CR4.

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The Power of the Sun...

Posted October 31, 2012 12:00 AM by cheme_wordsmithy

"The power of the sun… in the palm of my hand."

So said Dr. Otto Octavius, the infamous scientist turned supervillain, in the movie Spiderman 2.

What he was referring to in that quote was the fusion reactor he had created, a device that generated a self-sustaining energy source like that of the sun. It was this device that quickly turned out of control, generating a strong magnetic force that nearly leveled the building and resulted in the death of his wife. From then on, Dr. Octavius was Doctor Octopus - Doc Ock.

(<--It will stabilize! Credit: Chanmainor.com)

The reality of fusion is not too far off from the Hollywood version. Fusion is the process of combining two atomic nuclei together to create one new (heavier) atom. Its simplest form involves two hydrogen atoms (one proton each) combining to form one helium atom (two protons). This process of fusion produces massive amounts of energy, as exemplified most prominently by the sun that heats our planet. The hydrogen bomb, which uses a nuclear explosion to generate the high temperatures needed for the reaction, is the most prominent working example of fusion we have.

(Fusion reaction. Credit: CCFE-->)

Harnessing that energy in a useful (i.e. none destructive) manner though is a real challenge for the physicists and engineers working to build fusion reactors. To achieve high enough fusion reaction rates to make fusion viable as an energy source, the fuel (two types of hydrogen - deuterium and tritium) must be heated to form a plasma at over 100 million degrees Celsius. Wow that's hot! When these temperatures are achieved, the fuel begins fusing to create helium atoms. The heat from fusion then provides the energy to sustain the plasma's temperature, and the excess heat can be harnessed to heat steam to drive a turbine and generate electricity.

The most promising fusion technology involves a machine called a tokamak. The tokamak utilizes a ringed magnetic confinement system; a circular bottle surrounded by strong magnetic fields. This confinement isolates the plasma from the outside environment in order to maintain stable temperatures and prevent contamination with impurities. Check this link for a picture of ITER: the world's largest tokamak.

The latest developments in fusion technology involve the Joint European Torus (JET), Europe's premier magnetic confinement fusion facility based at Culham, UK. It has completed eleven months of tests to simulate the environment inside the ITER fusion facility being built in the South of France, and to prototype key components. JET is basically a mini-version of ITER, using the same materials for its wall - beryllium and tungsten. These materials have been carefully selected in order to minimize plasma contamination and prevent fusion fuels from becoming trapped in the wall.

(The interior of JET, showing its new wall of beryllium and tungsten. Credit: EFDA)

Initial tests with beryllium and tungsten have proven that they work much better than carbon-based wall materials. Specifically, experimenters found the amount of fuel retained in the wall was at least ten times less with the new design. These results may convince the ITER project to skip its initial operation with carbon, which would save the project both time and money.

Experiments at JET will restart in 2013, with the goal of demonstrating full deuterium-tritium based plasma tests by 2015. This is an exciting prospect for the development of the ITER, which plans to create its own first plasma by 2020. The possibility of commercial fusion energy is definitely a bright light amidst the clouded future of sustainability, and I will be keeping my eye on the progress.

Paving the Way for Commercial Fusion Power Plants - Science Daily

How Fusion Works - CCFE

The Science - ITER


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Join Date: Dec 2008
Location: Anthem, AZ
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Good Answers: 8

Re: The Power of the Sun...

11/01/2012 3:12 PM

These experiemnts are very interesting, but are pretty well moot. Hundreds of Kilowatt hours of excess heat have already been generated from various experiments with Lattice Assisted Nuclear Reactions (LANR). Off-the-shelf LANR heating products for the home and businesses will be available long before ITER comes close to boiling water from a sustained reaction.

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