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Tag archives: fusion

Terahertz analytics for better plasmas

Terahertz generators: Gianqian Liao (left) and Yutong Li

Terahertz generators: Gianqian Liao (left) and Yutong Li.

By Hamish Johnston in Beijing 

Today was the last day of the Fall Meeting of the Chinese Physical Society here in Beijing and this morning I grabbed a coffee with Yutong Li and Giuqian Liao. I was hoping to learn more about their work that we covered in May in “Coherent terahertz radiation created in laser plasmas“.

Their technique involves firing a powerful laser pulse at a thin metal foil. This creates a plasma in which electrons are accelerated to high energies before bursting out of the foil. When they emerge, coherent terahertz radiation is given off.


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Physics World 2016 Focus on Nuclear Energy is out now

By Michael Banks

Proponents of nuclear power in the UK have endured an agonizing wait for Hinckley Point C – a European pressurized water reactor (EPR) to be built in south-west England that would fulfil 3.5% of the UK’s electricity needs. Earlier this year, it looked as if the French utility giant EDF would finally give the project the thumbs up and start construction. However, following months of political wrangling – and resignations by senior EDF executives – a final decision by the EDF board is yet to see the light of day.

Cover of the 2016 Physics World Focus on Nuclear Energy

Hinckley Point C is not the only EPR under construction that has been beset with delays and cost hikes: two in China, one in France and one in Finland have also had issues. In this first-ever Physics World Focus on Nuclear Energy, we delve into the EPR design and Hinckley Point C, as well as look ahead to other, more ambitious reactor designs in the pipeline – known as generation-IV designs – that could vastly reduce the amount of nuclear waste produced. Although work on such designs has slowed following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, supporters argue that generation IV will still play a vital role in the long term.

The focus issue is not only devoted to fission, but fusion too. For decades physicists have dreamed of using fusion to generate electricity and, with construction well under way on the ITER fusion tokamak in Cadarache, France, that vision is now getting closer to a reality. But is ITER the only way forward? We explore how several private firms are developing small-scale fusion technologies, while in Germany a novel “stellarator” device has just started up that promises to deliver a “steady state” plasma.


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Comic book fusion, Nathan Myhrvold on innovation, and picking winners of the Global Physics Photowalk

Comic book physics. (Courtesy: PPPL)

By Hamish Johnston

The comic book artist Frank Espinosa and Princeton University’s Sajan Saini have joined forces to create a comic book called A Star For Us. The book begins with a brief history of our understanding of nuclear fusion in the Sun and goes on to chronicle the challenges of creating a mini-Sun here on Earth.

Espinosa and Saini – who is a physicist turned professor of writing – spent time with physicists at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Espinosa says that he was impressed by the researchers enthusiasm for the future of fusion energy. “I was trying to channel that energy of hope,” he explains.

“The mood of the comic tries to really capture a sense of a vast cosmic scale being made palpable, being made into something that we can realize within our own hands,” says Saini. I agree and you can judge for yourself by downloading a PDF of the comic book free of charge.

The physicist and former chief technology officer at Microsoft, Nathan Myhrvold, has a nice essay in Scientific American about the roles of the private and public sectors in driving technological innovation. He explains that when Microsoft Research was created in 1991, the company was keen on not making the same mistakes as AT&T, IBM and Xerox – which were all in the process of winding down their world-famous research labs. The problem was that these firms funded research in areas that they were not immediately able to exploit commercially. Myhrvold points out that many of the technologies first developed in those labs – including the transistor and giant magnetoresistance data storage – made much more money for fast-moving competitors such as Microsoft than they did for the companies that did the basic research.


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Preparing for DEMO

Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak

Laying the groundwork: engineers are rebuilding the Mega Amp Spherical Tokamak. (Courtesy: Michael Banks)

By Michael Banks

Yesterday I took the train from Bristol and headed to the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) in Oxfordshire.

Owned and operated by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, the CCFE is already home to the Joint European Torus (JET) tokamak, which in 2011 underwent a £60m upgrade programme that involved replacing the carbon tiles in the inner reactor wall with beryllium and tungsten. The purpose of this retrofit was to test the materials that are to be used in the ITER fusion experiment, which is currently being built in Cadarache, France.


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Candy corn in space, compact fusion reactors and physics in Palestine


By Hamish Johnston

Besides the great views of the Earth, one of the best things about being on the International Space Station (ISS) must be messing around in near-zero gravity. In the above video on Science Friday the American astronaut Don Pettit describes an “experiment” that he did on the ISS using candy corn, which are kernel-like sweets. He begins with a blob of floating water into which he inserts the candy corn pointy-end first. The points are hydrophilic so they tend to stay in the water, and eventually Pettit has a sphere of candy corn packed around the water. The flat ends of the candy corn have been soaked in oil to make them hydrophobic so the candy corn layer acts like a detergent film or one half of a cell membrane. It’s a fun video and I wonder how he got the idea in the first place?


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Ice cream that changes colour, tag-team parenting and the ITER director-general hits back

Shades of pink: the Xamaleón ice cream in action. (Courtesy: IceXperience)

Shades of pink: the Xamaleón ice cream in action. (Courtesy: IceXperience)

By Hamish Johnston

It has been a cracker of a summer here in south-west England, with lots of sunshine and temperatures in the mid-twenties just about every day. Not surprisingly, I have been eating my fair share of ice cream, but unlike this concoction whipped up by a physicist-turned-chef in Spain, the stuff you get in Bristol does not change colour when you lick it!


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Bananaman, fusion boy, an astronaut and more

By James Dacey

The Red Folder is bulging this week with some weird and wonderful physics stories from around the Web. Here is a round-up of some of the best we have stumbled across.

One of the more eye-catching articles this week included the surreal image of Stephen Hawking posing for a picture with a bunch of men all dressed as Bananaman. In case you’re not familiar with this brilliant character, Bananaman is a comedy super hero created in the 1980s by British cartoonists who valued the importance of nutrition. When Eric Wimp – an ordinary British schoolboy – eats a banana he turns into our hero, a fully grown man in a blue and yellow suit with special powers to rival both Batman and Superman. Anyway, I digress. According to the Telegraph, the 10 besuited chaps in question were on a stag do in Cambridge. They were lost (perhaps a few too many banana liqueurs?) when they turned a corner and spotted the world-famous cosmologist getting out of a car. The result was a group shot with far more a-peel than any of those self-indulgent Oscars selfies that have been doing the rounds this week. Please accept my apologies for that bad pun.


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Physics World 2013 Focus on Vacuum Technology is out now

Physics World 2013 Focus Issue on Vacuum Technology

Physics World 2013 Focus on Vacuum Technology.

By Matin Durrani

What would happen if the global positioning system (GPS) were suddenly to stop working or be switched off? A lot more than a few wrong turns during a car journey, that’s for sure.

With so much technology relying on GPS, which is owned and operated by the US, it’s vital that alternative global satellite-navigation systems enter service. Thankfully, Europe’s Galileo system, currently in production in the UK, will be fully operational by the end of the decade. It will also be more accurate than GPS, which could lead to a host of novel applications.

But what’s interesting for physicists is that Galileo would not be possible without advanced vacuum engineering and testing – as you can find out in our new focus issue of Physics World on vacuum technology.


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A factor of two

conference image

Worrying signs at the National Ignition Facility.

By Michael Banks in Boston

“A factor of two is not a small thing, it is quite a challenge,” says Robert McCory from the University of Rochester in New York.

McCory was speaking about the latest in laser-based fusion research (known as inertial confinement fusion) at the 2013 AAAS conference.


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A trip to MIT

By Michael Banks in Boston

Alcator C-Mod

Alcator C-Mod at MIT.

It may have been the prospect of free pizza that led me to hop on a bus heading to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

But apart from a free lunch, we were also promised a tour of MIT’s fusion facilities, which are based at institute’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC).

So after a few slices of pepperoni pizza, we donned the hard hats and moved on to the tour, which included a look at MIT’s main experimental fusion facility – the Alcator C-Mod fusion tokamak.

Operating since 1991 and with a budget of around $25m per year, Alcator C-Mod is a magnetic-confinement fusion device. It heats up a plasma of deuterium and tritium atoms to millions of degrees kelvin, which causes the hydrogen isotopes to fuse and release energy.

However, Alcator C-Mod faces an uncertain future. Last year Congress slated the facility for closure after increasing the budget for the ITER fusion reactor in France. Given no increase in the Department of Energy’s budget for fusion – standing at around $450m per year – the cut had to then come from the domestic fusion programme.


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