27 May 2006

Another ITERation towards controlled fusion?

The CORDIS: News service is just one of many reports of the signing of a pointless piece of paper in the saga to achieve controlled nuclear fusion. The next machine, ITER, comes after an increasingly large, and increasingly expensive, series of magnetic confinement machines.

Another title for this could have been "Bunch of old men in suits sign pointless pieces of paper".



The only reason for mentioning this non-event here is that my short lived career, all of three years, as a research physicist was in nuclear fusion. Way back then, the world was a younger place, nuclear power had yet to blot its copy book, and climate change was something that happened in science fiction (read the excellent Hothouse by Brian Aldiss).

The timetable for nuclear fusion back then in the mid 1960s was that it would take 25 years to get to a commercial power station – 40 years on and the timetable is more like 40 years before commercial electricity flows from fusion. Makes you wonder where we will be 40 years hence.

The whole fusion programme has a fascinating history. The first revelation that there was a peaceful fusion effort came with claims that an early machine, Zeta, had produced thermonuclear neutrons. That is, neutrons produced by banging together isotopes of hydrogen and creating atoms of helium. Zeta had done no such thing. The neutrons happened because particles had smashed into the walls of the machine and knocked off the neutrons. (Did someone mention 'cold fusion'?)

Maybe there'll be time to go into some more of this history later. At the moment we can only marvel at the acres of coverage that the media gives to this event, very little of which shows any understanding of the history of fusion power. Maybe someone will find time to go into the subject in enough detail to explain just why it has taken so long. Then again, that would require some fairly detailed description of things like magnetic instability, H modes and stuff.

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