Nuclear Fusion Reactor Nears Final Design!

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  1. Time/02112 Senior Member Registered Senior Member

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    Nuclear Fusion Reactor Nears Final Design!</font>

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    October 12, 2000 08:00 CDT
    (image courtesy UCAL)

    It's make or break time for the dream of never-ending fusion power.

    In a last-ditch effort to realize a 50-year-old dream of making limitless electricity from the same reactions that power the Sun, physicists last week presented their final cut-down design for a nuclear fusion reactor. They warn that unless governments now find the capital needed to build the reactor, the dream will die.

    The international fusion project has been on hold for two years, ever since funding governments balked at the original price tag. Researchers have since drastically scaled down their ambitions.

    Speaking at a fusion conference organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Sorrento last week, Evgenii Velikhov, Russia's leading fusion scientist, says that if a decision to begin construction is not made soon, "our future is very bleak". Umberto Finzi, the European Commission's coordinator for energy and the environment, warns that if governments fail to back the new design, practical fusion energy research will fade away.

    The US, Europe, Japan and the Soviet Union began to work together on fusion in 1986. However, by the time the design for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) was finalized in 1998 the political climate was very different. US support for fusion had since dwindled and Russia had little money to put on the table.

    The US pulled out of the project last year, and fusion researchers in Europe, Japan and Russia have since been reworking the design, cutting the original capital cost in half. Finzi points out that the cost of building the reactor, if spread over 10 years, is only 25 percent of the $1.4 billion euros already spent on fusion research worldwide every year. Behind the scenes at Sorrento, Finzi was busy preparing for negotiations next year on a funding package between Europe and Japan.

    The principle of the revamped ITER is the same as before: inside a large doughnut-shaped vessel known as a "tokamak", powerful magnetic fields contain a plasma of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. When heated to over 100 million degrees, the deuterium and tritium nuclei fuse to form alpha particles and neutrons. The alpha particles reheat the plasma while the energy of the neutrons can be extracted.

    Many of the key parameters of the new design have shrunk. The amount of power to be generated has been reduced from 1500 to 500 megawatts, while the volume of plasma has dropped from 2000 to 837 cubic meters. The reactor is no longer aiming to "ignite" the plasma. Ignition occurs when the alpha particles provide enough energy to sustain the reaction, and no further input of heat is needed. The aim now is to provide 67 percent of the plasma's energy from alpha particles, a figure that cannot be achieved by any of the existing small research tokamaks.

    Despite the need to input energy, the reduced ITER should produce ten times as much energy as it consumes. No other tokamak has yet produced surplus power, though the JET fusion reactor at Culham in Oxfordshire has come close. Experiments at JET over the past few months have for 5 seconds reached the levels of plasma pressure, density and confinement required for ITER. "'We have made steady progress on all fronts," says JET's leader, Jerome Pamela. "I'm sure ITER will work."

    Apart from the design, the other burning question for ITER researchers is the location of where it will be built. Possible sites to date include Cadarache in southern France and three locations in Japan. But Canada, an associate ITER member, has proposed building the reactor next to an existing nuclear complex at Clarington, west of Toronto. The advantage of the Canadian site is that tritium is already produced there, and it would also be an acceptable compromise between Europe and Japan. In addition, ITER scientists hope this location may entice the US to rejoin the project.

    This article has been adapted from a report made by New Scientist.

    Cosmiverse Staff Writer</font>
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  3. Cris In search of Immortality Valued Senior Member

    This seems like good news.

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