Feeds

MIT boffins crack fusion plasma snag

Chance of success at French megaproject enhanced

Intelligent flash storage arrays

Boffins at MIT say they have cracked some tricky problems in the design of power stations running on nuclear fusion, though they hasten to add that many more hurdles remain before fusion energy becomes a reality.

"There's been a lot of progress," says Earl Marmar, head of the Alcator Project at the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC).

"We're learning a lot more about the details of how these things work."

The Alcator project has its own reactor, and physicists there have been working on several conundrums which have to be solved before the new super-sized international reactor in France (ITER) can even be completed.

In particular, the MIT brains say they have worked out a new and better method for making the unbelievably hot plasma inside the doughnut shaped reactor move around. It has to do that, apparently, in order not to lose all its heat into the vessel walls.

It seems that Yijun Lin and John Rice of MIT have found a way of making the plasma move about by pushing it with radio waves, which will be critical to the operation of the ITER.

"That's very important," Marmar says. "People have been trying to do this for decades."

No plasma circulation "is potentially a showstopper" for ITER, according to Rice. However nobody is exactly sure why the MIT radio-push methods work.

"Some of these results are surprising to theorists," says Lin.

The Alcator team are also proud to announce their development of a cunning noble-gas extinguisher method for quenching troublesome beams of "runaway electrons", which can apparently be an issue in the event of a fusion reactor's magnetic containment fields having a collywobble.

Lin thinks that incorporation of the MIT technology will give the enormous, multibillion-pound ITER a much greater chance of success. "Our results are just in time," he says, as the mighty machine is already half built.

That's obviously very important, because if practical fusion reactors can be developed which put out more power than they need to run, the human race's energy problems are largely over. Unlike the scarce and expensive uranium required for present-day fission reactors, the hydrogen isotopes which would be used for fusion are commonplace and could readily be extracted from seawater.

Clean and abundant fusion electricity, quite apart from rendering the wind/coal/fission power-station debate irrelevant, would also solve the underlying problems of replacing fossil-fuelled transport. No matter whether you favour hydrogen or battery or synthi-petrol made from CO2, very large amounts of energy have to be used.

Indeed, most of the world's troubles actually boil down to energy in the end. Farms in the Third World could easily feed the world's hungry if they had energy-intensive fertilisers and powered machinery: starvation is essentially an energy problem. Water is energy, too - there's no need to worry about how much you use if you can make more out of seawater.

So we should all be hoping that ITER is a success, and cheering on fusion researchers like the MIT Alcator team. ®

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

More from The Register

next story
GRAV WAVE DRAMA: 'Big Bang echo' may have been grit on the scanner – boffins
Exit Planet Dust on faster-than-light expansion of universe
SpaceX Dragon cargo truck flies 3D printer to ISS: Clawdown in 3, 2...
Craft berths at space station with supplies, experiments, toys
That glass of water you just drank? It was OLDER than the SUN
One MEELLION years older. Some of it anyway
NASA rover Curiosity drills HOLE in MARS 'GOLF COURSE'
Joins 'traffic light' and perfect stony sphere on the Red Planet
Big dinosaur wowed females with its ENORMOUS HOOTER
That's right, Doris, I've got biggest snout in the prehistoric world
Japanese volcano eruption reportedly leaves 31 people presumed dead
Hopes fade of finding survivors on Mount Ontake
Relive the death of Earth over and over again in Extinction Game
Apocalypse now, and tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that ...
prev story

Whitepapers

A strategic approach to identity relationship management
ForgeRock commissioned Forrester to evaluate companies’ IAM practices and requirements when it comes to customer-facing scenarios versus employee-facing ones.
Storage capacity and performance optimization at Mizuno USA
Mizuno USA turn to Tegile storage technology to solve both their SAN and backup issues.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.