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Fusion Energy is the future. But the future might be quite a long ways off
Nov 17, 2011
Thing is, the way Wurden sees it, the concept of fusion energy being available to help save the planet is a long way off. He suggested to me in a recent interview that "it's a 50-100 year energy solution for the planet, not a 3-5 year solution."The problem with that, of course, is that it's hard to get funding for long-term projects; as Wurden said, "it's not a highway project or a building." The bigger issue, Wurden says, is that research teams may not be able to stay together long enough for funding to kick in. Scientists have families to feed as well, and it's understandable if they need to move on to other projects. Still, it's hard not to get excited listening to Wurden explain the process they're using at Los Alamos called Magnetized Target Fusion. Wurden and his team are working with Air Force research lab in nearby Albuquerque. "We built a plasma injector, and they built a can-crusher, and you put the plasma into that aluminum canister, and then you crush the aluminum can, with the huge current produced by the capacitor bank," Wurden began. ""You put 11 million amps of current, and that produces a big magnetic field on the outside; that crushes the can very smoothly and uniformly. "We put a magnetic field inside the can, we then inject the plasma from the magnetic field into the can; if the plasma's in there and you do it right; we crush it by a factor of 10." Wurden then explained how the process works further. "If you take a can from 10 centimeters in diameter to 1 centimeter of diameter; when you change the area by a factor of 100, the magnetic field in the can gets 100 times stronger than it was. This gives you a magnetic field of 5 million Gauss; and we have that plasma supported by this incredibly large magnetic field. "We can hold the plasma together for 1/millionth of a second, at this incredible density and incredible temperature; we take the energy of motion in the can. We've merged the technology of crushing a can, fast and smooth, with the plasma injector we have." Wurden, who has been working on fusion since 1977, said that the Magnetized Target Fusion approach is something in between the strictly magnetic fields approach, and the inertial compression approach used at the Livermore Lab in California. How would fusion energy affect us when it comes to energy consumption? "By using the magnetic insulation, we can deliver energy on a slower time scale than conventional Inertial Fusion; with that we can deliver cheaper energy," Wurden said. Siemon, who after leaving Los Alamos went on to teach at the University of Nevada-Reno expanded on that idea, explaining how that while fusion energy would still require large plants to make and process the energy, it would be quite different from the large electrical plants now in use. "First, it would create a very concentrated form of electricity; you'd have big electrical plants, but you wouldn't have any huge concentrations of coal or gallons of oil; you'd bring a thimbleful of energy," Siemon said. "Fusion energy is energy condensed by a million. It would be a source of energy that looks like traditional energy, but you would use a significantly less amount of fuel. "People who are worried about protecting the environment," Siemon added, "when they start looking into this, they realize this is a much cleaner form of energy than gas and oil." Indeed, scientists like Siemon and Wurden know that fossil fuels will eventually run out, and in the meantime they are causing global warming. Among the benefits of fusion energy is that fusion reactors can't melt down, and they don't produce significant nuclear waste. Both Siemon and Wurden expressed some skepticism about Laberge's project in Canada, with Wurden saying that "we're trying to answer 1-2 questions at a time, and they're trying to answer 20 questions at once." Indeed, it's clear Laberge and his team are trying speed the process up. But if it can move the process along with its research, and equally as important, if it can garner the kind of funding possible from private sources, fusion energy's potential may be closer to us than we think.
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