The tens of millions of visitors who passed through General Electric’s Progressland Pavilion at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair were treated to an animatronic-filled Progress Carousel designed by Walt Disney and a Skydome Spectacular presented as “the epic story of man’s efforts to harness and utilize nature’s new sources of energy for the benefit of all.
They also got a glimpse of something almost no one had seen before: a demonstration of nuclear fusion.
About every six minutes for 10 hours a day, a magnetic field from a fusion reactor would exert pressure on a plasma of deuterium gas, producing bright bursts of light and loud crackles of electricity.
“You have just witnessed one of the first public demonstrations of fusion – the power source that could one day provide all the electricity we will ever need,” reads the exhibit’s souvenir booklet. “A lot of new knowledge, a lot of new skills are needed before sustained fusion power can be achieved on a large scale.”
Which was, if anything, understating the challenge. A day has not yet arrived.
“The joke is that the merger is still ten years away,” said Andrew Christlieb, a mathematician at Michigan State University. “It’s a technology that hasn’t really lived up to its promises.”
Except it may be about to, and Christlieb is leading a five-year, $15 million project for the U.S. Department of Energy to develop the computer tools needed to make it happen.
“It’s really kind of saving the planet,” he said.
Fusion is the process that powers the sun. Under the right conditions – and in the case of the sun, those conditions are temperatures above ten million degrees Celsius and immense gravitational pressure – light atomic nuclei will combine into larger nuclei, releasing massive amounts of energy.
The promise of harnessing this process is immense: essentially unlimited energy with no greenhouse gas emissions and only small amounts of short-lived nuclear waste.
Fusion releases four times more energy than the fission reactions that power today’s nuclear power plants and, because of the way fusion reactions work, carries virtually no risk of nuclear disaster.
But, while scientists have known how to create fusion reactions since the 1930s, maintaining them has proven extremely complicated.
“We can definitely create a plasma,” Christlieb said. Plasma is a material so hot that electrons are torn from atoms, forming a cloud of charged particles. It is inside this cloud that fusion occurs. The sun is more or less a ball of boiling plasma. “But confining him so he doesn’t escape long enough to get him to do what we want is the hardest thing.”
And, after decades of intermittent progress, some promising recent developments have taken place.
Last year, the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory generated 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power for a split second by focusing lasers from the football field-sized facility onto a target of the size of a raindrop.
In February, the Joint European Torus project in the UK, which uses powerful magnets to compress fusion fuel and produces temperatures 10 times hotter than the sun, broke its own world record for energy projection.
And then there’s ITER, a $23 billion collaboration between European Union countries, the United States, China, Russia and India and others, which is building the world’s largest tokamak. , a doughnut-shaped magnetic fusion device, about an hour north of Marseille. in France.
It shoots to achieve what the project leaders call “the first plasma” at the end of 2025.
But, to date, the reaction at the National Ignition Facility last year is the only one to create what is called a burning plasma, which heats up from its own internal reactions, and scientists have not was able to recreate it.
The MSU-led center, dubbed the Center for Hierarchical and Robust Modeling of Non-Equilibrium Transport, or CHaRMNET, was created to design computational approaches that will allow researchers to simulate plasmas in real time.
Which is even harder than it looks.
There is a fundamental equation that, in theory, would allow researchers to model plasmas.
The problem is that solving it would take “longer than the lifetime of the universe”, given the limitations of modern computers, Christlieb said.
The problem is something mathematicians call the “curse of dimensionality.”
“Every time you add a new parameter as part of your problem, it’s multiplicative,” said Bill Spotz, applied mathematics program manager at the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science. “The size of your problem, you multiply it by the size of your new dimension, then you add another dimension and another and so the curse is that it becomes very large very quickly.”
The plasma modeling problem will need to be solved in at least seven dimensions, he said.
The center will involve 20 research teams from MSU, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Delaware, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, University of Washington, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.
And it will develop new computational and statistical methods, hoping to replace complex simulations with simpler equations without compromising physics.
The merger, according to Christlieb, has “a fun story.”
“If you look at the history of merger funding, there have been major advances, there have also been cuts in funding which at the same time have slowed progress,” he said.
But recent breakthroughs and the promise of developing technologies “have resurrected people’s creative ideas”, he said, both in universities and in spin-off start-ups.
“I think now is the time to try to find the tools that we need to be able to make this kind of physics experiment a technical reality,” he said.
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