When astronaut Harrison Schmitt stepped onto the Moon, on 12 December 1972, oil was trading at $3.60 a barrel—$18.30 inflation-adjusted—and oversized cars happily guzzled gallon after gallon of premium and unleaded. The "energy crisis" was something the world hadn't heard about yet.
Thirty-seven years later, no one is walking on the Moon, world energy consumption has almost doubled, oil reserves are fast disappearing and mankind is facing one of the harshest challenges in its history.
A geologist by training, former-astronaut Schmitt believes he has a solution. He is convinced that fusion could help "meet an anticipated eightfold or higher increase in energy demand by 2050."
In his recently published book, "Return to the Moon" (¹), he presents a compelling case for exploiting our satellite's Helium-3 (³He) resources—a possible fuel for "2nd generation" fusion power plants.
³He is a non-radioactive isotope of "normal" helium (4He). It can fuse with deuterium (³He+D) and with itself.
The ³He+D reaction occurs at temperatures in the one billion-degree range and, contrary to deuterium + tritium fusion, only releases charged particles. In principle this means that no neutron flux will activate and alter the chamber walls. In reality, the ³He+D reaction does release some neutrons, since part of the deuterium in the plasma will inevitably fuse with itself. But this can be mitigated.
The ³He+³He reaction, which occurs at even higher temperatures, presents better prospects; its energy yield (12.9 MeV) is still high and it releases no neutrons.
Both reactions unfortunately come with a slight technicality : the Moon crust is the closest place to get ³He in significant quantities.
This is not enough to deter a man who has accumulated the experience of a geologist, a moonwalking astronaut, a one-term US Senator and a successful businessman. Mining ³He from the Moon, Schmitt passionately argues, is not only necessary and feasible—it could be quite profitable.
Both a prophet and an accountant, Schmitt computed the figures of a privately-financed mining venture on the Moon. If launching costs could be brought down to $3,000 per kilo—compared to $59,400 per kilo in the 1970s—and development of a ³He fusion power plant and a new booster system could be kept under $10 billion, then according to his detailed business plan, it's got to be done.
(¹) "Return to the Moon : Exploration, enterprise, and energy in the human settlement of space," by Harrison Schmitt, foreword by Neil Armstrong. Copernicus Books, in association with Praxis Publishing, Ltd. $25.
Moon Fuel or Moonshine?
Provided that mining the moon is feasible, which many specialists doubt, the ³He+³He fusion reaction certainly has great potential. At the laboratory level, research at the University of Wisconsin (US) has proved it could be achieved.
Physicists who gave some thought to the "2nd generation" of fusion fuels prefer betting on the perfectly aneutronic "proton+Boron 11" (p+¹¹B) reaction(1). "This would be by far the ideal reaction," says Carlos Alejaldre, ITER Deputy Director-General for Safety & Security. But the challenges are quite formidable: the reaction rate for p+¹¹B peaks at around 6.5 billion degrees and confinement concepts would have to be developed that differ radically from those of tokamaks.
(¹) A proton is a hydrogen ion (H+)
Downloading takes time—especially when you're dealing with CAD Models, the complex 3D drawings that depict each and every part of the ITER machine.
Depending on the size, the number of queries involved and the geographical distance between database and client, a model that takes one minute to download locally can easily take 30 times longer if it's downloaded from, say, India or Korea.
In an international organization like ITER, which constantly exchanges loads of technical data with Domestic Agencies, these delays soon become a headache.
A possible solution consists in linking CAD workstations in the Domestic Agencies to the servers and databases at Headquarters. "We tested this concept with US ITER and the installation took more than a month," explains Network Administrator Björn Wilhelm.
The experience convinced IT that the most rational way of duplicating the servers was to do it locally, on hardware located in the Domestic Agencies, and to manage them remotely from here—the "IT Satellite" option.
India was first on the IT list of Domestic Agencies to equip—for Björn and his colleague Jean-Daniel Delaplagne, it was time to start packing.
"We were a bit stressed," acknowledges Björn. "It was our first big trip abroad. Wouldn't we forget something? Would the hardware be there when we arrive?" The pair travelled light: a tourist guide and a 500-gigabyte hard disk containing the data to install. "We arrived in Ahmedabad on 14 June and it was 45 °C. The building is a former ice-cream parlor with lush gardens all around—a very different scene from the rest of the city, which is very dry and dusty."
Björn and "JD" were to spend 11 days in Ahmedabad, first waiting for the hardware to arrive—it had been delayed by more than two weeks—then implementing the "IT Satellite" at the Domestic Agency. They didn't have much time to play tourist, just a two-hour tour of a temple on a Saturday, a visit to the Institute for Plasma Research in Gandhinagar, 10 minutes away, and a birthday party to which they had been invited.
With the infrastructure set up in Ahmedabad, remote monitoring installed and replication procedures being implemented, the Domestic Agency's personnel can access data as fast and as easily as if they were physically located at ITER Headquarters.
This capacity will progressively be extended to all Domestic Agencies and for Björn and his colleagues, this means more travelling: the US in July, then Russia, Korea, Japan and China.
On Friday 3 July at 5:30 p.m. the local TV channel Télé Locale Provence (TLP) begins broadcasting the fourth program of a series entitled "Une énergie pour notre avenir" (Energy for our Future).
This program is entitled "Iter-France: La délicatesse des bulldozers" (Iter-France: Bulldozers with a Delicate Touch). It deals with the ITER platform, how it was levelled, the accompanying environmental measures and the economic benefits for local companies. Like program #3, it has some very good rock'n'roll in it ...
TLP broadcasts over the TNT (Digital Terrestrial Television) network covering most of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department. If your TV set is equipped with a TNT decoder, tune in to Channel 21.
If you're still using a roof antenna system, follow these instructions to view the program:
In Manosque, tune to Channel 47In the Céreste area, tune to Channel 51In the Forcalquier area, tune to Channel 44In the rest of Haute-Provence, tune to Channel 56
The program will air:
Saturday 8:00 a.m., 12:30 p.m.Sunday: 1:00 a.m., 12:00 midday, 7:30 p.m. Monday: 1:00 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 8:00 p.m. Tuesday: 2:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m., 10:00 p.m. Wednesday: 1:00 a.m., 1:30 p.m. Thursday: 1:30 a.m., 6:30 a.m., 11:30 p.m. Friday: 1:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m.
The program will also be accessible on the Internet at http://www.tlp.fr/.
DivX Web Player must be downloaded and installed to view the program (follow the link on the site's opening page).
Want to know how it started and all that happened that led to us being here together today to build the ITER machine?
Then come and listen to Valery Chuyanov, Deputy Director-General of the Department for Fusion & Technology, on Thursday 9 July from 14.00 to 15.00 in the Salle René Gravier.
See you then!
The "information highway," through which huge amounts of data are transferred every day, is indeed very wide. However, with the standard Internet protocol—the old yet dependable TCP/IP—we are far from using it to the best of its potential. "It's like riding a bicycle in the fast lane," says Hans-Werner Bartels, head of the ITER IT group.
A team of Japanese scientists, headed by Professor Kei Hiraki from the University of Tokyo, has developed network enhancement methods that amount to trading the bicycle for a Ferrari. This technology was successfully deployed at the Japanese National Institute for Fusion Science (NIFS). The "Ferrari" recently broke the world record of long-distance data transfer previously held by CERN. Prof. Hiraki was interested in testing it at ITER, where considerable amounts of data need to be exchanged with the Domestic Agencies.
Visiting ITER during the week of 8-12 June, Hiraki and a team of network experts from NIFS managed to increase the best transfer rates by a factor 20, from 40 Megabytes per second to 800. In the coming months, ITER IT plans to establish a "proof of principle" of this high-speed transfer between Headquarters and the Japanese Domestic Agency. "It is good to have it as an option," says Hans Werner, "even though we will only fully need it when we reach the operation phase."
On Monday, Yoshiro Nishimoto, the President of the Japanese Superconductor Technology (JASTEC), and three of his colleagues took the chance to visit the ITER construction site in Cadarache.
JASTEC is one of the two suppliers selected by the Japanese Domestic Agency to produce the niobium-tin (Nb3Sn) strands for ITER's toroidal field conductors. "JASTEC have just started to deliver our superconducting wire which is small but an integral part of the fusion reactor," said Nishimoto, "It was encouraging for me to have a chance to visit to ITER site at this timing and to imagine our contributions towards the future."
At present, JASTEC has produced 12 tonnes of Nb3Sn strands, which correspond to almost half the volume under contract.
Lately, some serious road accidents have occurred on the roads inside the Cadarache Centre. The management of CEA/CADARACHE has thus decided to monitor adherence to the speed limits on the site. These must be strictly respected. If you are caught driving too fast, there will be severe consequences.
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