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EPISODE: The Engineering Physics Department Newsletter

 

Spring / Summer 2006
Featured articles

Fonck named chief scientist for international fusion experiment

Physicists persevere in quest for inexhaustible energy source

Radiation studies key to nuclear reactor life, recycling spent fuel

Systems analysis may guide fuel-cycle decisions

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Grainger Professor Gerald Kulcinski

Led by Grainger Professor Gerald Kulcinski, Fusion Technology Institute researchers are among those at UW-Madison whose research will benefit ITER. FTI researchers are conducting ITER neutronics analyses, helping design and analyze ITER tritium breeding blanket and shield modules, and modeling ITER diagnostics.

Physicists persevere in quest for inexhaustible energy source

Decorative initial cap As fuel prices soar and greenhouse gases continue to blanket the atmosphere, the need for a clean, safe and cheap source of energy has never seemed more pressing. Scientists have long worked to meet that need, exploring alternative energy technologies such as wind and solar power. But, after decades of quiet progress, the spotlight is now on another potentially inexhaustible energy source.

The largest fusion-energy experiment ever conducted, ITER (The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is the culmination of years of research by scores of scientists, and is poised to answer long-standing questions about the real-world viability of fusion energy.

Professor Ray Fonck

Ray Fonck
(Larger image)

An international collective of physicists and engineers is working to both complement and lend expertise directly to the ITER initiative and researchers at UW-Madison are firmly placed among them. “[ITER] is a major threshold that we’ve been waiting to get to for 20 years,” says Professor Ray Fonck, the chief scientist of ITER’s U.S. project office. “The project is the No. 1 priority in fusion research in the country and the world, and essentially takes us to a regime we’ve never been to before.”

Fusion energy describes the energy released when atomic particles “fuse” together to form heavier particles. The process is fundamental to our universe, fueling both the sun and the stars. Here on Earth, physicists have tried to harness the energy potential of nuclear fusion by working with plasma, essentially a collection of particles, such as hydrogen nuclei, that carry electric charge.

Because hydrogen can be easily extracted from seawater—a cheap and abundant resource—scientists have been tantalized by the prospect of plasma one day serving as an inexhaustible fuel.

But plasma has to be very, very hot—on the order of millions of degrees—for its gas particles to efficiently collide and release energy. “Basically, we’re trying to make a sun here on Earth,” says Physics Professor Stewart Prager, who also advises the U.S. government on national fusion-energy research. “But it turns out to be one of the most difficult scientific problems in the world.”

One of the biggest hurdles, of course, is finding a container that can hold searing hot plasma without burning down itself. Scientists have been working around the problem by using invisible magnetic fields to hold the plasma in place, but they are still searching for the most efficient and optimal ways to do it.

UW-Madison scientists are delving into pure physics and engineering research questions surrounding the issue. Their work both complements ITER’s goals and, in a sense, looks one step beyond it.

Prager and his team, for instance, run the Madison Symmetric Torus (MST), the largest fusion-energy experiment on campus. Working with a device known as Pegasus, Fonck and his group are exploring weaker magnetic fields, but are approaching the issue in a way different from the MST.

Unlike the donut shape of the MST, the plasma within Pegasus looks more like a ball with a small hole in it, which influences how the plasma behaves. Fonck’s work relies on the same fundamental physics that is at the heart of ITER’s design, and could one day lead to new methods for testing large-scale components in future fusion reactors.

Electrical & Computer Engineering Professor David Anderson recently made waves when he designed a new device that holds plasma within a magnetic field, without an electric current in the plasma to power the field.

“The current is running in external wires and not in the plasma itself, and that represents a tremendous engineering advantage,” says Anderson, who works with a plasma instrument known as the Helically Symmetric eXperiment, the only machine of its kind in the world. Plasma can become unstable in the presence of a current, so Anderson is exploring ways to trick the plasma into staying in place by twisting the surrounding magnetic field into a special—and highly complicated—shape.

“It’s very exciting to work on something that’s totally new and offers potential advantages to the field,” says Anderson. “A lot of what we’re all doing here in Wisconsin is looking for what the next research steps will be beyond ITER. In that way, we really do have a unique place in the world’s fusion-energy research program.”

 


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Date last modified: Friday, 23-June-2006 11:49:00 CDT
Date created: 23-June-2006

 

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