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article imageCan scientists find a way to copy the sun's nuclear fusion?

By Martina Rathke     Jul 7, 2000 in Technology
Greifswald, Germany (dpa) - Scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Munich
and Greifswald are now pursuing an ambitious project - they want to create a
sun on earth.
The goal: putting the kind of nuclear fusion of the giant star of our solar
system to the use of humankind.
"Nuclear fusion is an environmentally-friendly and catastrophe- free option
for the future," says Alexander M. Bradshaw, scientific director of the Max
Planck Institute at Garching, near Munich.
If mankind wants to solve its future energy problems, it cannot count
exclusively on renewable energy, Bradshaw says about such options as wind,
solar cells and other alternative power sources.
He says these have only "stand-by" status, meaning they are not always
readily available.
The projections for the future are cause for concern: in a few decades, the
world's human population is going to grow from the current six billion to 10
billion.
Despite warnings about the greenhouse effect and global climate warming, at
the moment 91 per cent of the world's energy needs are covered by burning
limited supply of fossil-based fuels.
At Greifswald in northeastern Germany, the Max Planck Institute aims to give
a boost to nuclear fusion for energy production. By the year 2006, the
"Wendelstein 7X" stellarator reactor, the potential oven for future nuclear
fusion power plants, is to be built.
Scepticism has been forthcoming from the environmental Greens party in the
German parliament, for example their scientific research policy expert
Hans-Josef Fell, who is calling on Germany largely to abandon the field of
nuclear fusion research.
But the Max Planck researchers are sticking to their plans. They believe
that in 30 to 40 years' time the first prototype nuclear fusion reactor ITER
is to go into operation.
Bradshaw thinks that in 50 years the first nuclear fusion power plant,
possibly from the stellarator model, can go into operation.
Some 600 million marks (295 million dollars), with 45 per cent of the sum
from the European Union, are being invested in the research in
Greifswald.
A display of how future energy problems can be solved is awaiting visitors
to the Greifswald institute.
A 1:1 scale model, made of rubber, of the stellarator Wendelstein 7X -
measuring 15 metres in diametre by four metres high - shows the nuclear
fusion process which takes place on the sun 150 million kilometres away and
which might one day be copied on earth.
Under the framework of the Expo 2000 world fair in Hanover, the institute in
Greifswald is showing visitors around the research facilities.
Visitors are quickly shown the difference between nuclear fission - the
process of atom-splitting on which atomic power plants operate - and nuclear
fusion.
Friedrich Wagner, head of the Greifswald institute, explains that in nuclear
fusion, contrary to nuclear fission, an uncontrollable process in the form
of a chain reaction can be ruled out.
In nuclear fusion, the basic element needed is hydrogen, which is virtually
unlimited and found everywhere in the world. What is needed are the
hydrogenous elements deuterium and tritium which are fused together to
create helium, in the process releasing energy.
Deuterium is found in natural hydrogen, while tritium can be derived from
another synthetically-produced element, lithium. Contrary to nuclear
fission, the fusion process needs only low- radiation materials and produces
no long-lasting radioactive waste, Wagner points out.
This makes the safety risks calculable. But the difficulty in nuclear fusion
is that it requires a lot of initial energy input in order to get the
reactor going and to keep it in operation.
In experiments so far, the energy input has been less than the energy
produced. As a result, this raises questions about whether nuclear fusion
really is a viable alternative for solving future energy problems.
In 1997, then Research Minister Juergen Ruettgers withdrew Germany's bid to
be chosen as the site for the prototype ITER test reactor, and the United
States and Russia have also withdrawn from the worldwide nuclear fusion
research alliance.
Last January, the ITER researchers presented a scaled-down concept for a
test reactor costing only half of the original plans.
Even Bradshaw, a physicist, admits that the influence of nuclear fusion
sceptics is increasing in Germany. But this still poses no danger to the
worldwide research going on in nuclear fusion.
"We want to demonstrate the feasibility of nuclear fusion so that succeeding
generations can decide whether they want it or not," he says. And the head
of the Garching institute adds that possibly, they won't have any other
choice.
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