Friday, September 19, 2008

What do Hollywood and ITER have in Common?

Both believe in fusion! I recently attended a Capitol Hill briefing on the ITER, the international fusion energy experiment.

For the record, ITER once stood for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, but since the general public tends to get freaked out over anything "nuclear", the name was dropped (MRI anyone?), but the acronym stuck.

One of the first slides in the excellent presentation by Dr. Ned Sauthoff, Director and project manager of the U.S. ITER project at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, showed images of Dr. Otto Octavius, the main villain in 2004's Spider-man 2. "Hollywood says fusion is a part of our future," he began.

Fusing the atomic nuclei of two light atoms results in a release of energy. ITER will fuse deuterium and tritium together to create 10 times the amount of energy originally needed to make the nuclei stick together.

The comic's notorious mad-scientist desperately wants to overrun the world with cheap fusion power. Unfortunately, he ends up going insane after his experiment fails and results in a set of artificially intelligent (as well as heat and magnetism resistant) mechanical arms permanently fused to his spine, along with the death of his wife. He becomes a serious threat to the denizens of New York City.

But Hollywood has always had a thing for fusion; remember the 1980s trilogy Back to the Future? Dr. Sauthoff did. An image of the "Mr. Fusion Home Energy Reactor" popped up in the following slide. This is the device that powered the DeLorean time machine when it traveled to 2015. The reactor used nuclear fusion to convert household garbage into energy needed to power the time machine's flux capacitor and circuits.

The days of viable fusion power as mere concept of science fiction are numbered, however. ITER is a huge international project that aims to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy.

In 2006 most of the northern hemisphere, the U.S., countries of the European Union, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and India signed an official agreement to build the experiment in Cadarache, in southern France.

Scientists will construct the largest tokamak fusion power reactor ever, in order to create strong magnetic fields needed to confine 'burning plasma' also known as self-sustaining fusion reactions, at temperatures around 400 million degrees Fahrenheit. In addition to producing nearly 500 million watts of power, the experiment will enable scientists to learn more about burning plasmas and how they can help us create cleaner, more efficient energy.

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