Imitating the Sun on Earth: Fusion Reactors

Last week I visited the Wendelstein 7-X fusion device being built at the Greifswald branch of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) and was given a tour of the site in addition to an excellent presentation by former IPP director Professor Friedrich Wagner. This visit took place in the company of a group of young jurist from Germany, Austria and Switzerland who were meeting in Greifswald to discuss the topic of risk and law, or the law of risk. A report of the substantial discussion of the meeting will follow later and will be available from the NCCR Trade Regulation website. (photos)

The idea behind fusion research is to develop a power plant that releases energy by the same mechanism as the Sun does, that is, by fusing light atomic nuclei. What is special about nuclear fusion as a source of energy is that one gramme of fuel – hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium (produced from lithium) – generates as much energy as eleven tons of coal (90’000 kilowatt-hours of energy). When these two hydrogen isotope nuclei fuse, helium and neutrons are produced releasing large amounts of energy. In addition, the fuel itself is very abundant on earth and for all intent and purpose one may consider this to be a renewable source of energy. The energy is captured as thermal energy and converted to electrical power using turbine technology. Fusion reactors generate radioactive byproducts however these decay to background levels within one hundred years, and thus do not pose the problem of nuclear waste disposal that fission reactors do.

The sun, like other stars is a naturally occurring nuclear fusion reactor and exists not as a solid, but as a plasma. A plasma consists of electrically charged particles. The plasma of interest in the case of nuclear fusion consists of hydrogen isotope atoms that have been ionized, that is, where the electron that usually keep the atom in its neutral non ionized state has been supplied with enough energy to break loose. On earth, we have all seen plasmas in the form of neon signs or fluorescent light bulbs. Other examples include most flames, polar auroras, welding arcs, lightning and comet tails.

The first commercial commodity fusion power plant is still in the future. The two devices now under construction in Europe, ITER in France, and Wendelstein 7-X in Germany, are research devices meant to demonstrate proof of concept. In addition to these European efforts, there is the Large Helical Device (LHD) in Japan which is the largest supercoducting stellarator in the world. All of this confinement, that is the containment of the plasma is needed because like a coal fire, a fusion fire does not happen on its own, it must be ignited. To ignite a plasma and cause fusion to occur a plasma temperature of 100 million degrees is needed. To produce this kind of plasma temperature, one relies on magnetic a

Of the research fusion reactors being built, ITER is a tokamak and Wendelstein and LHD are stellerators. The difference is one of geometry. A tokamak has a magnetic toroidal confinement (like a doughnut) and the other a Möbius confinement for the plasma. In either case, the torus or the Möbius create a tube closing on itself where the plasma is confined. So, what is this plasma and why does it need confinement?

Last year a film made by the IPP on behalf of the European Fusion Development Agreement with funding from the European Union won the MIDAS Award. It is only nine minutes long and gives an entertaining and informative account on how a fusion power plat will work and what environmental properties are to be expected.


About Problems and Nobel Prizes

I had the opportunity to attend three lecture-presentations by Frank Wilczek recently, and if ever you are near such an opportunity, go for it. He has enough of a website and media presence that it is sort of besides the point to hyperlink to any of it; and yes, of course, he is on Wikipedia. However besides his discussion of Majorana fermions and supersymmetry (SUSY), what struck me were the side remarks about problems, and our ability to solve them. Certainly our understanding of matter at a fundamental level has come a long ways and all the easy problems have been solved. What remains are problems that are rather complex, and that may or may not be amiable to solutions or scrutiny. The art in our continued exploration of the fundamental nature of matter is then in finding questions or problems for which we can reasonably hope to find solutions with the available tools. Indeed, in my view there is no scarcity of complex problems that challenge us with questions for which we can provide no answers.

Continue reading “About Problems and Nobel Prizes”

LIFT07 to reboot9: Floccinaucinihilipilification

I have been in a ranting mood these past weeks. It could just be that having put myself on a weekly diet of 10’000 words of newly written fresh words of storytelling never-told is doing strange things to my mind, or it is doing strange things to the revelation of lack of mind!


The notes that follow have a complex structure, if you get lost, do so at your own risk.

Yes, I do like self-referential contradiction, and self-referential contradiction is not oxymoronic, it is more a ying-yang duality characteristic. I like to think that to translate ying-yang to terms that our culture can better relate to, is to translate it to the conjugate pair of freedom and respect. Conjugation is appropriate here to designate the relationship between these two ideas of respect and freedom. In our society I would conjecture that we do value these two very much, or at least claim to value them. We, and I do mean we the whole of society, value these so much that we start wars to defend these values. In case that you have not yet noticed it, in the XXI century there are wars going on while some of us indulge in the debate of what digital technology is bringing society in the form of challenges and opportunities.


The conference called Lift, and happening in Geneva now for two years in a row, has changed my life, twice. It is a welcome change, and it is uncomfortable change. Although the realm of personal reflection is one that I prefer to indulge in the next, when it comes to action research, I would like to think that this blog is more the place for it since it can be filed under the categories development and intellectual. But are the following reflections on communication, an issue that I return to again and again, to be considered as action research? One can consider them as such, or one can also consider them exploration and reflection on what has been said, and how that impacts my own life. Impact is a good word to think about.

After LIFT07 I did get my chance to go air out my mind in the tepid temperatures of the eternal city, be pampered by caring friends, while for some irritating reason keeping Calvin’s city present in the background. What would Steinbeck have done in my place? My supercilious old ego, arrogant in nature, has no idea.

Communication has always been a challenge for me, however the circumstances surrounding this challenge have very peculiar singularities and I have lived most of my life in the false belief that it was so for everybody. It is not, and I am surprised that in the process I have learned more about communication than I had ever hoped for. The study and exploration of the nature and practice of communication is an intrinsic aspect of my own life. But why am I even surprised?

A writer, be it novelist or non-fiction scribe, spends a lot of time either reading, or starving and then writing. In the time interstitials of these solitary activities one gets to brush one’s teeth, sleep and perhaps on a good day, there is time for family and friends. An observation is that we are all so busy with productivity, or making our dreams reality, or just dealing with fate’s generosity or indulging our own very healthy egoism, so that most of the time friends and family do get the short end of the deal. We are hedonistic, solitary and we barely know how to reach out and ask for help.

I know that I am an hedonist. I can not understand what anybody as a self-sacrificing self-declared or otherwise, not an hedonist, has to offer to those around them other than to induce guilt, pity or righteousness depending on how the others are inclined. But it simply is not that simple, not really. I am the kind of hedonist that engages in the ascetic practices of fasting and meditation, submits to demanding hierarchies, and has not quite given up on meritocracy. Is an hedonist a simple pleasure seeker, and if so, what is pleasure then?

For those reading between the lines, you have by now figured out that indeed, my insistence – in spite of many self generated distractions and foreign inducements – in doing what I want to do, has caused a few serious breakdowns along the way.

I have been thinking about the saving grace that ambiguities in communication provide us in social situations, and the ever so benefactive white lie, or why complete knowledge of another – that is total transparency – is an obstacle to satisfaction at any level, regardless of what consists satisfaction, or how you define it. There is however a fallacy intrinsic to the expression of complete knowledge, and that is that complete knowledge is at best a chimera, but certainly not anything attainable. When would you know that you have complete knowledge of anything? Here lies the first, if not the fundamental problem with what is often called transparency and the ungodly beast of identity.

My intimate experience of the the arab world taught me the value of that precious stratagem, the white lie or shaving the truth, or just allowing the other and yourself to both keep face. Indeed, in the face-to-face world, keeping face is the name of the game. It is the social game, the only game that we ever endeavour to master is keeping face. Game theorist here or there, humans are gamers, and some players are just better than others. So when will we face the fact that it is all a game anyhow, and that some are better with the rules, the roles, the strategies or just the invention of the games?

Another way of looking at it is to consider the possibility that to keep face, is just another expression for respect and that it includes self-respect.

Ah… these are just a few loose thoughts left out in the wild of my machinations, or expectorating fantasies. I think that the present day geeky social web applications are way far off the mark and at the same time right on track in terms of empowering the world of relationship technology that allows for social evolution. While checking out how the reboot wiki site is evolving I stumbled on the idea of ambient intimacy. This is interesting, and it is part of the story. I also like to think that one psychological ingredient that makes Twitter so popular is the considerable amount of insensitivity space that it allows. I can at any time decide to respond or not respond to something that somebody whom I may know or not know shares within the twitter timeline. In short an interaction is not expected, and it is at the same time possible to interact. These options are the equivalent of giving me my personal space and privacy, and I am the one in control. I can consume twitters, or I can turn it off. Nobody in their right mind expects me to stay glued and attentive to the chatter on twitter or twittervision. I may have an interest in following the noise, and then I may not. My hedonist needs this much space, your mileage may differ.

I also happen to think that there are a few fundamental flaws in the thinking around science and how to use it, but then… how many of us have a really deep insight on how human beings function and interact?

Yes, I think that values are important, but I also think that the name of the game is called power. If that is so, tell me, what is power?