19 April 2012

May 2012 Science Café tackles the energy crisis


It sounds like the premise for a great science-fiction saga: The countries of planet Earth unite to build a colossal machine that will make clean energy and save the world from its impending energy crisis.

Charlie SanabriaCharlie Sanabria examines some superconducting wire at a lab in the Applied Superconductivity Center.But science fiction it's not. It's science fact. More, this impressive international collaboration is underway – and people right here in Tallahassee work on it every day!

Intrigued? You can learn more about this mind-boggling project known as ITER (pronounced E-ter) at the May 1 Science Café. Speaking will be graduate student Charlie Sanabria, a young materials scientist who works on the ITER project at the Magnet Lab's Applied Superconductivity Center. The Café is sponsored by the MagLab and held at Ray's Steel City Saloon, 515 John Knox Road, from 6:15 to 7:30 p.m.

“It's just fascinating, the fact that we're going to create this benign and limitless source of energy,” the 23-year-old says. “The power that ITER is going to give us is 10 times as much as the power we're going to put into it.”

While turmoil often marks the relationships of the world's nations, the ITER project is a massive, collaborative effort among the United States, the European Union, China, Japan, Korea, Russia and India. Together, ITER's members represent more than half the world's population. The machine itself is being built in France.

The ITER community describes the project as “the way to new energy,” and notes that, in Latin, “iter” means the way or path. But ITER began its life in 1985 as an acronym for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. The words thermonuclear and experimental sitting side by side made too many people uneasy, however, so today the project links itself to its Latin name.

And ITER does indeed plan to create a very different type of nuclear power than the kind produced in today's nuclear plants. ITER will produce power using the same method stars use: nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion creates little nuclear waste.

Unlike ITER, today's nuclear power plants produce power using nuclear fission, and the waste from fission lasts for tens of thousands of years. Fusion's byproducts, on the other hand, become benign in about 40 years.

But how in the world do ITER's scientists intend to contain the energy of a star? There's no material we know of that can hold such power. That's why scientists plan to contain it inside high magnetic fields.

Enter the experts at the Magnet Lab. Every day, they work with high magnetic fields and materials with exotic properties.

Want to learn more about this amazing planetary collaboration and the science behind it? See you at Science Café! The ITER presentation is the last in the MagLab's 2011-2012 Science Café season. The next series will begin in September.