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Scientists say they have cleared technical hurdle in fusion research

File photo of a nuclear fusion reactor
by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) May 21, 2006
Physicists working in the United States believe they have cracked an important problem facing man-made nuclear fusion, touted as the cheap, safe, clean and almost limitless energy source of the future.

In fusion, atomic nuclei are fused together to release energy, as opposed to fission -- the technique used for nuclear power and atomic bombs -- where nuclei are split.

In a fusion reactor, particles are rammed together to form a charged gas called a plasma, contained inside a doughnut-shaped chamber called a tokamak by powerful magnetic coils

A consortium of countries signed a deal last year to build the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France as a testbed for an eventual commercial design.

But many experts have been shaking their heads at the many challenges facing the ITER designers.

One of them is a phenomenon called edge localised modes, or ELMs.

These are sudden fluxes or eddies in the outer edge of the plasma that erode the tokamak's inner wall -- a highly expensive metal skin that absorbs neutrons emitted from the plasma.

Erosion means that the wall has to be replaced more often, which thus adds hugely to costs. Eroded particles also have a big impact on the plasma performance, diminishing the amount of energy it can deliver.

Writing on Sunday in the British journal Nature Physics, a team led by Todd Evans of General Atomics, California, believes that the problematic ELMs can be cleverly controlled.

They found that a small resonant magnetic field, derived from special coils located inside a reactor vessel, creates "chaotic" magnetic interference on the plasma edge, which stops the fluxes from forming.

The experiments were conducted at the General Atomics' DIII-D National Fusion Facility, a tokamak in San Diego.

Nuclear fusion is the same process used by the Sun to radiate energy. In the case of our star, hydrogen atoms are forced together to produce helium. On Earth, the fusion would take place in a reactor fuelled by two istopes of hydrogen -- deuterium and tritium -- with helium the waste product.

Deuterium is present in seawater, which makes it a virtually limitless resource. Tritium would be derived from irradiating the plentiful element lithium in the fusion vessel.

The 10-billion-euro (12.8-billion-dollar) ITER scheme entails building the largest tokamak in the world at Cadarache, near the southern French city of Marseille.

The partners are the European Union (EU), the United States, Japan, Russia, China, India and South Korea.

It is designed to be a test bed of fusion technologies, with a construction period of about 10 years and an operational lifespan of 20 years.

If ITER works, a prototype commercial reactor will be built, and if that works, fusion technology will be rolled out across the world.

Other problems facing fusion technology include the challenge of creating a self-sustaining plasma and efficiently containing the plasma so that charged particles do not leak out.

In the various tokamaks, no one has achieved a self-sustaining fusion event for longer than about five seconds, and at the cost of using up far more energy than was yielded.

A huge jolt of heat, of nearly 100 million C (180 million F), is needed to kickstart the process, which then has to be sustained by tiny amounts of fuel pellets.

Related Links

China reaches milestone with completion of Three Gorges dam
Beijing (AFP) May 20, 2006
After 13 years of immense physical effort and technical ingenuity, China Saturday put the finishing touches to its controversial Three Gorges dam, the world's largest hydropower project.

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