"The plasma state of matter is a more 'intense' state than the gaseous state," she said. "It is a state in which the atoms of the elements of matter themselves 'vaporize' at it were. It is a state in which the atoms fall apart so that the electrons in atomic structure become so intensely excited, or intensely alive as it were, that they become disassociated from their specific atomic nucleus and become associated with the entire plasma 'soup.' If the temperature in the plasma becomes high enough the thereby 'exposed' nuclei begin to fuse together. They kind of melt into each other. This typically happens with hydrogen at temperatures in the fifty-million-degree range. When this 'melting' takes place, that enables the fusing of two nuclei into one, a heavier element becomes born. However, in the process of fusing, not all of the constituent building materials get used up. A tiny bit is left over, that then splits away at enormous speed in a super-energetic fashion. We can utilize the excessive constituents in the form of physical energy, to drive power-generating systems. That's how we 'harvest' vast quantities of energy from nuclear fusion.
"None of that is new, of course," said Dayita, "nor is it rare in the Universe. In fact 99.999% of all mass in the Universe exists in the plasma state. Most of it is hot enough to allow fusion to occur. The plasma fusion process is happening in every sun in the Universe, typically in its outer layers. The plasma fusion state is only rare on Earth. It is rare here, because it is technologically extremely difficult for us to artificially create the energy levels to enable the plasma state, such as generating temperatures in excess of a hundred million degrees. Of course, once we do this, we face the added challenge to keep the high-energy plasma contained in a bottle that won't melt at such high energy levels. Those are the kind of challenges that we face to be able to utilize nuclear fusion for nuclear power development. I can tell you that truly gargantuan efforts are already being made towards meeting those challenges, for the development of nuclear fusion power.
"Why do we do this?" she asked. "Well, we do this for three reasons. The first reason is that we are human beings, and as human beings it is natural for us to develop the potential we have to create new resources for our existence on this planet. The second reason is that we need this power resource, because oil and coal are running out, and uranium-powered nuclear fission may not be efficient enough to replace coal and oil and meet the additional future needs of a growing world population. The third reason is that we require enormously increased power levels that are needed for a rapidly intensifying economic environment that we must have to meet our needs in an Ice Age world."
Dayita paused and then continued. "With the Ice Age soon coming up, perhaps in a hundred years according to the most common estimates in the scientific community, we need vast amounts of power to be able to shift much of the world's agricultural production into indoor facilities. Nuclear fusion power enables us to do this. Fusion power is ideal, because it is extremely energy-intense. It is also extremely safe, pollution free, and virtually free of radioactive waste products. But most importantly, we have a near infinite fuel resource available to drive the fusion power process. Unlike coal, oil, or uranium, the fusion power resource cannot be exhausted within the life span of our planet. Fusion power therefore promises boundless life for mankind and a rich future, where the alternative is death. It literally stands as the pivot today for the life-death balance, as we prepare our world to enter the Ice Age, or fail to do so, which would be an act of killing our children.
"The big question is, whether we can get nuclear fusion power ready in time," said Dayita, our speaker from India. "My perception is, that we can meet the challenge. In fact, the leading edge labs in America are pursuing two different technology-options simultaneously for this, both involving enormously large efforts, and I mean really big efforts, almost gargantuan. Let me give you an idea of the scale of the work that is already being done.
"The presently leading technology option is centered on magnetically confined plasma fusion," said Dayita proudly, as if she was personally involved in the process. "It has been proven that it is possible to keep superheated plasma in magnetic confinement, in a torus type vacuum bottle, and to hold it there, and to heat it up further until fusion temperatures are reached. The Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in the USA, expects to reach temperatures in excess of five hundred million degrees before the year 2000. The achievement, when it is attained, might be sufficient as a starting platform for exploring some of the countless basic questions towards practical fusion power development, and the building of a demonstration power plant in the 2030 to 2050 timeframe.
"The technological hurdles that mankind is facing in this arena are larger than any hurdles ever encountered in basic research. We are talking about the need for a seventy years research effort that takes three generations of scientists and engineers to carry through, before we can get anything back in expected benefits. Also the physical scale of the effort is huge. The Princeton Lab's Tokomak Fusion Test Reactor is not a little tabletop device that researchers play around with between coffee breaks. The TFTR is a machine the size of a five-story house that took a decade to built, and may become obsolete after a decade of its use. However, before it becomes obsolete, it is expected to demonstrate a ten-megawatt fusion burn, thereby proving that mankind has a limitless energy-rich future to look forward to, with a possible intensity in humanist development, and economic development, that it renders the coming Ice Age a non-event, when it happens.
"Towards this end, a number of other leading edge research efforts are also under way," said Dayita. "When I visited the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab in America, they told me that their flagship, the TFTR machine, which just became operational, is already obsolete, as new principles have been discovered for the magnetic containment of high-energy plasmas in vacuum environments. There is already talk about the building of the next generation experiment that will be build around spherical plasma confinement. The already planned National Spherical Torus Experiment, named the NSTX, once it is completed at the turn of the millennium, is expected to be just as large in size as the TFTR machine. However, even the NSTX machine won't be sufficient to take us all the way to practical power development, by the time it is built. By then more and new questions will need to be answered. In order to answer these questions still another large experiment is already on the drawing board. It is designed to explore the characteristics of a still different plasma shape that may be useful for compact reactors. The resulting project is presently named the National Compact Stellarator Experiment. I heard them talk about a 2005 operational target date for it. As a compact machine, the NCSX machine will still be a huge machine of course, as these things tend to be. It is expected to be several times as large as the size of a house. Korea has also an innovative approach in progress that will be utilizing superconductor magnets in its design, and other design advances, in order to eventually explore steady state operation. The advanced experience gained from the Korean KSTAR machine, called the Korean Superconductor Tokomak Advanced Research Project, added together with all the American discoveries and experiences, will eventually shape an even larger project, the already envisioned International Tokomak Experimental Reactor project, named the ITER, meaning in Latin, 'the way.' The ITER is expected to be operational in the 2015 to 2020 timeframe with a 100-megawatt output, at a ten-fold power gain. If the venture succeeds, it could be opening the door to a possible operational power plant in the 2050 timeframe.
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