Research in the field of fusion energy is not only yielding scientific advances; it is also producing highly trained scientists and making diplomatic inroads.
Dr. Robert Hunter, director of the Energy Research Division of the Department of Energy, addressed the Eighth Topical Meeting on the Technology of Fusion Energy at the Little America Motel Wednesday night, giving an overview of his department's research advances. In a brief interview before his speech, he explained some of the less obvious benefits of fusion research."The program has produced a large number of highly trained people," said Hunter, and fusion research has enjoyed a high degree of international participation since the 1950s.
The conference, in its third day, has drawn scientists from around the world, said J. Stephen Herring, spokesman and engineering specialist. Representatives from many foreign countries are present, including scientists from France, Germany, Canada, England, Japan and the Soviet Union. Held every two years, the conference makes possible an exchange of knowledge between nations.
"A library in a town is better than everybody having four books," said Herring.
Fusion energy itself shows potential, said Hunter. Unlike nuclear fission, which splits matter to create energy, fusion binds matter. The fusion process still causes radiation, but it is safer, and not susceptible to certain types of nuclear accidents, said Hunter. The disposal of radioactive waste is also easier.
"It has the potential of being environmentally very attractive," he said.
The drawbacks of fusion energy include some difficult technological problems, in that it is a more complicated method of extracting energy, said Herring. One problem is that the binding process that creates the energy takes place at temperatures around 2 million degrees Fahrenheit and designing structures that can generate and contain the extreme heat is part of the research.
There are test reactors in several countries, said Hunter, that are in operation but they use more energy than they produce. He said within 15 years fusion technology should make it possible for the plants to create more energy than is consumed in the fusion process.