Saturday, April 23, 2011

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

Fusion reactors.

Then ...

... Now

Still not quite there yet.


I recently paid a visit to the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, touring the National Spherical Torus Experiment. For a physics geek like me it was very cool.

After a short video and some introductory remarks, we were off to mission control.

Which recently had a computer upgrade.  

The place was empty, save for a couple of technicians, as the system is currently idle. Experiments resume in July and will continue for eight months. Then the system,  first used in 1999, will undergo a major upgrade (pending funding). It is targeted to be back online in 2014.

We then wandered through the situation room on our way to the reactor itself.

One wonders what kinds of "situations" there might be. Unlike fission reactors, the fuel for fusion is not radioactive. It is hydrogen. And the by product of fusion is helium. And the amount of fuel in use at anyone time, thanks to E=mc2 , is rather small, a couple minutes worth (fission plants have six months to a years worth of fuel). And if something goes wrong the plasma simply dissipates.

And those are two of the main appeals of this technology, ample fuel and no harmful waste. Think about that in terms of current events.

Along the way we passed equipment like this tritium monitor, "abandoned in place", old stuff no longer in use but not worth ripping out. Fossils of experiments past.

We walked down a long tunnel, donned hardhats, and pass through giant doors to the reactor room.

A sense of scale can be had by comparing the letters on the sign to the person in the image below.

That person is Jackie, a high school student from southern NJ who was visiting on her own. How cool is that? I along with everyone else, were here as part of a tour organized by a local astronomy club, (fusion powers stars). Jackie was here working on a science project for school. She had emailed the lab a couple of times and when she didn't hear back called them. Incredibly cool if you ask me. Maybe there is hope.

The brass pipes in the background aren't pipes. They are coaxial cables, like the one plugged into the back of your TV. Only much much larger (note the "Neutral Beam Injector" sign center right). And then realize that this is a "small" test reactor. 

It was too large to effectively photograph, to really give the sense of scale. There was just no vantage point to "get the big picture". So here are some smaller ones ...

Labels are exempt I guess.

I couldn't find the dilithium.

If the main reactor goes down we're covered.

Hmm ...

A window to the heart of the sun. 

(It's not obvious, but people can walk around in there. Yeah, this thing is big. Not as big as the sun though.)

We spent four hours at the lab and we had a fun time. A big thank you to the people at the lab who took time out of their day to show us around and answer our (sometimes silly) questions. It it a very cool place.


Unfortunately, it is not as cool a place as it could be.

Fusion research is an international endeavor. Alas, our "leaders" have decided that it is not a technology worth investing in. So the big reactors are being built elsewhere, France, Japan, Russia. Here in the US, we do things like give BP a $13 billion tax break. And call it an energy policy. 

A massive failure of leadership.

The OPEC oil embargo occurred in 1973. Thirty-eight years ago. And we've essentially done nothing to gain energy independence in all that time. Instead we spend trillions on wars over oil. 

A massive failure of leadership. 

Back at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, further layoffs are expected as the current regime enacts their draconian cutbacks.

A massive failure of leadership.

Heaven forbid we should invest in the future. 

A massive failure of leadership.


Anonymous said...

Super WoW Steve, and they can fit all that into an English Police Box from the 1920's amazing Dr Steve! Love the go ahead science student! Is she the new Doctors offsider?

Bobbi Dunn said...

I know zilch about physics but I can agree and connect with your comments. Note the leadership failure is irrelevant of political party. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Hey is pretty cool to see the Lab through the eyes of a visitor. We had limited interaction with PPPL, but enough for several visits a year. After a while, you stop seeing the wonder of the place and only see the machinery and people. And I agree about the failure of our leaders (from both parties) to recognize the urgent need for this type of research. Then again, we live in a State that doesn't recognize the need for teachers, either.