WVU researcher working in similar areas to those recently highlighted in Lockheed Martin announcement
This week aerospace company Lockheed Martin announced that it was one step closer to producing nuclear fusion energy, an industry in development for decades that is expected to bring cheaper, cleaner and sustainable energy to the world.
Earl Scime, the Oleg D. Jefimenko Professor of Physics at West Virginia University, decided as a boy that he wanted to go into physics and his specialty of plasma physics to develop this bountiful clean energy.
He agrees with the scientists quoted in a variety of news publications from Forbes to The Huffington Post that the company hasn’t offered specific details to evaluate the strength of their progress.
“I’ve seen absolutely no details other than a schematic that looks vaguely like a conventional magnetic mirror, a fusion concept that has been around for quite some time,” Scime said.
The company’s marketing video purports that Lockheed intends to create a compact reactor that, because of its scale, would be produced sooner than otherwise anticipated.
“It will be interesting to see what they come up with,” he said of Lockheed’s research.
Scime, one of four faculty members in the plasma physics group at WVU (the University is hiring a fifth), said Lockheed is one of about a half dozen companies that have secured venture capital to research the various problems that need to be overcome to produce nuclear fusion, in addition to research institutes and universities studying the problem.
Nuclear fusion energy is different from current nuclear fission power plants in that the fusion process wouldn’t rely on materials such as uranium, which produces highly radioactive waste and has led to releases of radioactively contaminated air and water, such as the Fukushima accident that resulted from an earthquake-induced, 180-foot high tsunami in 2011.
Nuclear fusion would instead rely on fuel such as heavy hydrogen (deuterium) to create a controlled release of energy to use in a power grid. That goal has eluded scientists for more than 60 years.
Previously, large scale reporting of the quest for nuclear fusion had a negative impact on funding when media outlets in the late 1980s reported the failure of “cold fusion,” a nuclear reaction expected to take place at room temperature, which Scime said was a fraud.
“Funding has been very tight, and there have been no new fusion projects in the U.S.” in recent years, he said.
Fusion research started at WVU 28 years ago with the hiring of Mark Koepke, who is now the chairman of the national Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee through the Department of Energy. About eight years after that, Scime was hired. Now Paul Cassak and Felix Julian Schulze have joined them in researching properties and uses of plasma, which includes nuclear fusion.
Scime’s current research in the nuclear fusion arena is in the area of magnetic fusion where he and others in a U.S. Department of Energy project are using lasers to measure the density of gas used in nuclear fusion experiments. Right now scientists are using computer models to measure how gas fuel behaves at the edge of the reaction. This edge is where scientists can determine if the gas is likely to melt the experiment chamber wall, lose energy or behave in a way that otherwise disrupts the reaction.
Scime’s methods, once used in a current fusion experiment, can measure the 20-million degree plasma to better understand this aspect of fusion reaction and lead to concrete results.
Scime can be reached to offer commentary on this issue by e-mail at Earl.Scime@mail.wvu.edu
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