Magnetic fusion energy has the promise of a nearly-limitless supply of cheap, available fuel: water and dirt. When the deuterium in a gallon of water is burned in a fusion reaction with tritium (bred from lithium) the energy equivalent is 300 gallons of gasoline. Fusion does not produce greenhouse gases (only He), nor can it “runaway”, but fusion neutrons can cause low-level activation and embrittlement of the reactor itself.
Achieving controllable fusion has proven a very challenging task, requiring development of a whole new field of plasma physics, viz., magnetohydrodynamics and related confinement and stability. The world’s leading fusion confinement configuration is the tokamak, with a large international project, the International Thermonuclear Engineering Reactor (ITER, http://www.iter.org) presently being built in France. While very likely to produce a net-energy burning plasma, the experiment itself is fairly expensive (~$10B). The University of Washington has had an active fusion research program since the 1960s. Presently we specialize in “alternatives” to the tokamak, with the goal of reducing reactor size, costs, and complexity.<p
A review of fusion, present status and plans, and an overview the UW fusion program will be presented.
Brian A. Nelson has been working on plasma physics and fusion energy research since 1980, first as an EE undergrad at the University of Iowa, then as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, before coming to the UW in 1987, where he is presently a Research Associate Professor in EE.