Friday, November 10, 2017

German Scientists May Have Just Saved The Planet

Is it just me, or are more science fiction dreams coming true lately? 

You have to admit, putting a computer in your pocket that can out-perform some of the most advanced technology of 20 years ago is pretty incredible. Then we have self-driving cars, re-usable space rockets, wireless charging, and so much more. So what if we don't have jetpacks, lightsabers, or even Jetson's-style bubble cars just yet?

The real Holy Grail of sci-fi technology, though, is the ability to power the future cleanly and cheaply. To that end, serious research into nuclear fusion has been ongoing since the 1950s. 

Finally, more than 60 years later, a massive breakthrough marks a milestone that paves the way for that science fiction future to come true.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel – who has a doctorate in physics – turned on the Wendelstein 7-X experimental fusion reactor, Germany took a huge step forward in the race for nuclear fusion. 

After taking a first step by successfully creating helium plasma, the scientists achieved a major breakthrough creating hydrogen plasma, which is a much more difficult task. 

Within the reactor, the scientists used two megawatts of microwave radiation to super-heat their fusion material to a balmy 80 million degrees Celsius. This creates a pocket of hydrogen gas so hot that the hydrogen atoms begin to fuse and form a blob. 

Creating that hydrogen plasma, even for a fraction of second, proves that it's possible. Of course, the tricky part is sustaining the plasma without allowing it to cool by touching the sides of the reactor, which the "stellarator" – and isn't that a great name – achieved with 425 tons of super-conducting, super-cooled magnets. Remember, magnetic fields are what protect the Earth from the Sun's plasma when it throws off flares and coronal mass ejections.  

The goal is to re-create conditions within the Sun, which has been producing a steady stream of fusion power for 4.5 billion years. 

So they're not all the way there yet. The stellarator will have to heat that ball of hydrogen up to 100 million degrees Celsius, and will have to sustain that. 

But the energy from nuclear fusion has the ability to change the world. 

John Jelonnek, a physicist on the project, calls it "a very clean source of power, the cleanest you could possibly wish for. We're not doing this for us, but for our children and grandchildren." 

So what kind of a world can those children and grandchildren expect from nuclear fusion power?

Just one gram of fusion fuel creates the same amount of energy as 11 TONS of coal, with absolutely zero greenhouse gas emissions. 

That makes it even more efficient than nuclear fission, the process current nuclear power plants use.

However, although everybody naturally trembles at the word "nuclear," there's no chance of a fusion reactor suffering a disastrous meltdown like Chernobyl or Fukushima. 

And there are no radioactive by-products to worry about disposing.

These are massive machines though, just as big as any other power-generating station. 

And they don't come cheap. The Wendelstein 7-X cost $1.1 billion to build, even though it's an experimental reactor and won't produce any usable power. And, from concept to completion, the stellarator took 20 years to build.

However, at the other end of the spectrum, early estimates suggest one kilowatt-hour of energy from a fusion reactor will cost about five to eight cents. That could be less than half of what the average American pays now.

So our children and grandchildren might just inherit a planet with abundant, cheap power that doesn't spoil the environment with its waste products – and won't explode and kill us all. 

Seems like it's worth the effort, don't you think?

Share if you think this discovery is great for our kids and grandkids' generations!

Main image via Twitter / @MattiasMarklund

Collage image via Max Planck Institute | IPP / Bernhard Ludewig


Author: verified_user