When Earl Scime was growing up, he read a lot of books about scientific discoveries and the scientists who made them, developing a passion for unsolved problems.

Now, as chair of the Physics Department at West Virginia University, Scime and a team of students are embarking on an experiment that is part of a larger quest to develop hydrogen fusion energy. This world goal has the scope of the moon race, he says, and he sees this experiment, if successful, as WVU’s chance to take a role in developing this energy.

“We would establish ourselves as a serious collaborator on a fusion experiment,” Scime said.

Success in this experiment could lead to involvement on more experiments, allowing WVU to become a part of the big picture of the journey to harness this type of energy.

“The idea of being able to control thermonuclear reactions and therefore have a nearly inexhaustible supply of energy is attractive,” Scime said. “As physicists, many of us want to make a difference in the world, and, clearly, solving the energy problems of the world is making a pretty big difference.”

But the experiment that could get WVU’s foot in the door has an element of risk.

“It is a gamble in a sense,” Scime said. “We have calculated as much as we can calculate for this experiment, and we think it will work.”

Click below to hear WVU Physics professor Earl Scime describe what the laser experiment entails.

[ Click to listen ]

His group will build an ultraviolet laser experiment that is intended to measure fuel inside the chamber of the largest fusion experiment in the U.S., located in La Jolla, Calif. Scime compares the main challenge in the experiment to holding up a candle with the sun as a backdrop and trying to distinguish the flame’s outline.

“The signal we are going to be looking for is very small compared to the background, and that’s what makes this a tough experiment to accomplish,” he said.

It’s risky because no one knows if it will be successful, he says, but at the same time, it’s very exciting.

The planet is decades away from seeing an energy-producing fusion reactor. The experiment in California, run by General Atomics, will not produce energy and is seeking to have more questions answered to better predict the performance of future reactors. By the 2020s, a fusion reactor in France known as ITER should be up and running, but a lot of unanswered questions have to be solved to get there.

That’s where an experiment like WVU’s comes in. Because of the extreme heat – about 10 million degrees Fahrenheit – of the thermonuclear plasma inside the chamber at General Atomics’ facility, conventional measuring tools like a physical probe would be destroyed before gathering any information. So the plasma physics area at WVU developed an experiment that uses lasers to gather information inside the chamber. The lasers are intended to measure how much fuel is in a certain location in order to create a stable and reproducible reaction.

The one megawatt-laser pulses of ultraviolet light will be split in half and sent into the plasma from opposite directions. Where the lasers intersect, the neutral gas in the plasma can absorb the laser light. By measuring how much light is subsequently re-emitted, Scime’s team will be able to measure the amount of gas at that location in the experiment.

It’s the first time ultraviolet lasers will be used in this way in a fusion experiment.

Overall, there are several advantages to pursuing this type of nuclear power, Scime said.

“Thermonuclear fusion would be a nuclear power plant, if it were to be successfully developed, that doesn’t rely on limited supplies of fuel like uranium that you mine from the ground,” Scime said.

The fuel for this kind of reaction is a hydrogen isotope known as deuterium that could be mined from seawater, and which could be extracted to provide power at current consumption levels for millions of years, he said.

Using fusion energy in this way is practical, but it is a different aspect of this power that has captured the hearts of many, including Scime as a young man.

“If you can make fusion work and actually do controlled fusion reactions, you can conceivably –although it’s not clear how you get there—use the same approach for space propulsion, and so that’s always a fascinating thing to scientists and young people in general,” Scime said.

The department has already ordered specially manufactured equipment and will test it with experiments at WVU until the end of 2011 before integrating it with the chamber in California in 2012.

WVU’s portion of the project is funded by a $599,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and is expected to last three years.



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