Sunshine for tomorrow

Published on Nov 24, 2006 12:09 AM IST

In the gloom about climate change and rising oil prices, here's some good news. ITER, a future source of limitless energy, is getting underway.

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In all the gloom about climate change and rising oil prices, here is some heartening news. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) fusion energy project, a futuristic source of limitless energy, is getting underway. India, along with the United States, the European Union, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea signed an agreement in Paris earlier this week to start work on the Iter without any more delay.

Fusion energy has many advantages over conventional nuclear power that works by fission, or the splitting of atoms. Fusion reactions neither emit greenhouse gases, like fossil fuel power stations, nor create the highly radioactive waste found in current nuclear power plants. Using nothing more exotic than deuterium (a form of hydrogen found in sea water) as fuel, the Iter seeks to produce fusion energy by imitating the sun. All ordinary stars shine by breaking down atoms into electrons and electronic nuclei, generating an electrically charged superhot gas called ‘plasma’. The bare nuclei are then forced to fuse, releasing enormous amounts of energy. Once the Iter replicates this, the energy could be tapped to produce electricity. But this is easier said than done. To facilitate the reaction, the gases must be heated to a 100 million degrees Celsius — more than six times hotter than the sun’s core. Add to this the incredible pressure (of over 100,000 atmospheres) required to overcome the forces of repulsion between the like charges of the nuclei, and it is easy to see why initial expectations of researchers were quickly dampened.

Even after several decades of research, frontier facilities, like the Joint European Torus project in Britain, produce only negligible amounts of fusion energy. The Iter, pooling the world’s best scientific talent, is obviously the best bet for spawning the first commercial fusion power station, some day. Critics may argue that it won’t be until the second half of this century that controlled fusion is achieved, if it is achieved at all. But the pace at which the energy situation is deteriorating, there is all the more reason to hurry up with the Iter. Hopefully, with this project underway, controlled fusion power will not be confined to science fiction, but an alternative energy source for the future.

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