Fusion Power at Iter

The Plain Folks’ Guide to Plasma Power

Perhaps you’ve heard the words “fusion” and “plasma” intertwined with “limitless energy” and “harnessing the power of the sun”. Maybe you wonder if it’s true, or just some impossible dream being chased by physicists. The idea of truly free, sustainable energy sounds like a fable to most people.

Plasma power is not a fable. In a way, you are already using it in your everyday life. Every time you switch on a fluorescent bulb, you are “exciting” a tube of gas with a bit of electricity and creating light. A spark of electricity causes the gas to jump around inside the tube and this makes light. When you switch out your old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs for those fancy, twisty energy bulbs, you are also using the same theory.

Fusion is like a fluorescent bulb so efficient, it puts out more energy than the electricity needed to jump-start and excite the gas inside it. You end up with more power than it takes to run the thing. It’s a fluorescent on a huge and much more efficient scale.

Fusion is the driving force inside our sun. A team of the world’s most brilliant scientists are working in France to try and harness it on a smaller scale for earth. If they are successful, it would provide unlimited pollution-free power to the planet.

A common analogy to help understand fusion is this: You build a big fluorescent bulb, and then use a small battery as the spark to excite the gases inside it. The bulb lights up, and begins putting out more energy than the battery it took to start the process. Then you plug everything in your house into that bulb. Your battery never runs out, since you can also plug it into the bulb along with all your appliances. The energy is free, safe, and non-polluting. This is a gross simplification, but it covers the basic theory.

There are several locations doing fusion research. However, the top dog is ITER, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a large complex located near Cadarache in the south of France.

Thermonuclear bombs are dangerous. Plasma fusion is safe. Even in a worst-case accident at ITER, the radiation exposure to anyone at the plant or in the local area would be less than 1% of normal background radiation. A possible Chernobyl it is not.

ITER is trying to build the world’s first sustainable fusion power plant. If it succeeds, the electric output would be relatively modest, not enough to run Paris, for example. Their main goal is just to make it work. Up until now, no one has succeeded in sustaining the plasma reaction for long, but ITER believes they are close.

Seven countries, including the United States, have signed agreements to share costs and research for ITER. If it works, it will produce more power than it takes to keep it running, as well as generating enough power to run the facility. A side product of the process is hydrogen, which can be tapped to power vehicles.

ITER won’t come online until about 2018. The plan is to run it for twenty years and study the results along the way. If it works, ITER will become the model for fusion generators around the planet. They have no carbon or CO-2 emissions, no pollution, and produce no radioactive waste.

Fusion generation can conceivably end the burning of fossil fuels. We could switch virtually everything that now runs on fossil fuels over to electricity easily.

If you want to blame somebody for fusion power, blame Einstein. It was all his idea.

To learn more and see pictures of the ITER plant in France, visit their website.