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Golden: Igniting a burning plasma
By Peter Golden / Local Columnist
Sunday, September 19, 2004
Arguably the most accessible and incontrovertibly important applications problem currently confronting the experimental physics and energy technology communities today is fusion power. Little understood in terms of its current state and immediate potential for development, fusion power is still largely a dream.
Notably, a recent alumnae event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a world leader in fusion power research, featured an "alternative energy fair" yet omitted fusion power. Similarly, a recent article in the Boston Globe on "cold fusion," a controversial and entirely unproved concept, omitted any reference to "hot fusion" and burning plasma whatsoever.
Yet, as is largely understood in the physics and technical development communities, burning plasma represents the first, best hope for meeting the world's future energy needs. This can be said with certainty for a number of reasons, including the current state of the art, projected cost for devising a prototype device, and our capacity as a nation to support such an effort.
Burning plasma -- star power -- is composed of the same stuff of which the sun is made and when ignited within a magnetic containment or inertial, laser-driven device regularly achieves temperatures of upward of 100 million degrees under laboratory conditions.
Sustaining such temperatures for ever-increasing amounts of time -- a thousand seconds is the estimated duration necessary for commercial power generation -- is the current goal of researchers in the field. Under such circumstances fusion devices are projected to produce up to ten times the energy put into them, an astounding result.
As of this writing -- September 2004 -- most of the scientific work and early technical development necessary to the ignition of burning plasma is being carried out in university laboratories. An international "experiment," really a shared-cost collaboration between nations directed toward burning plasma ignition, is stalled in negotiations over project location.
Recently, the United States Government quietly canceled an independent initiative with the same objective. While the executive branch has publicly espoused support for fusion power, US efforts are largely confined to experimental work carried out on a very tight budget.
Part of the challenge confronting fusion power advocates is the lack of a general understanding at the public level of the need for large-scale, low cost energy sources other than those available from fossil fuel or small-scale alternative power technologies.
The debate over global warming and diminishing supplies of oil, while widely joined and increasingly directed toward conservation, has yet to result in public demand for accelerated action. While most Americans happily consume billions of kilowatts of electric power, only a minuscule number are concerned with the source of that power and its costs.
Further clouding the debate are the attractions of a wide range of alternative energy technologies. Solar, wind, tidal, hydro and biomass systems, in many instances well developed and commercially viable, draw the popular imagination and a flurry of investment dollars for numerous reasons. Nuclear power, while much reduced in cost, is encumbered with environmental and security concerns which foreclose its long-term development.
Yet when compared with fusion power, none possesses the safe operational characteristics, robust capacity and economies of scale necessary to meet the needs of growing urban populations and substantial industrial consumers -- the central forces in global development.
The potential of fusion power is also made ambiguous by limited options in those technologies that must accompany it if its early potential is to be realized. Lack of progress in power storage and distribution means that the virtually limitless electrical energy available from fusion will be constrained from delivery to consumers, where domestic and industrial applications will revolutionize life, as we know it.
For those interested in pricing such an exercise, the bill, even when discounting the pie-in-the-sky estimates of the research community, is remarkably modest. For the price of a new aircraft carrier or a few hundred miles of new highway, the technical means now appear to exist sufficient to achieve sustainable, man-made burning plasma.
One can imagine, just as was the case in the early development of electricity generation, that once a working prototype is made the commercial marketplace will pile on. What one day is a huge, costly kluge of a device, the next, if not available at Walmart or Costco, will rapidly diminish in size and cost while showing dramatic gains in efficiency.
And therein lies the great promise. What today is only to be found in the laboratory tomorrow becomes commercialized and the day after is a commodity. Linking the rapid progress now being achieved on the science front with a defined development schedule under the sponsorship of the American people is the next big step. It is time to take it.
Peter Golden writes about public policy, the environment and technology. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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