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Fusion Plasma Plant in The Future 640

NightWulf writes "The BBC reports that Europe and Japan are currently looking to host a new JET power plant. This new plant creates plasma, which is akin to creating a star on Earth. Interesting to note that 1kg of fusion fuel would produce the same amount of energy as 10,000,000kg of fossil fuels."
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Fusion Plasma Plant in The Future

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  • Yes, indeed (Score:5, Funny)

    by Control Group ( 105494 ) * on Monday May 24, 2004 @11:45AM (#9238334) Homepage
    Akin to creating a star on Earth.

    In the same sense, my logging on to slashdot today is akin to designing TCP/IP.

  • NOT a fusion plant! (Score:5, Informative)

    by dmayle ( 200765 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @11:46AM (#9238348) Homepage Journal
    Step away from the car... This is a fusion research reactor, not a reactor to be used as a power source...
  • by Whitecloud ( 649593 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @11:47AM (#9238350) Homepage
    does this solve the energy problems? [slashdot.org]
    • by Councilor Hart ( 673770 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:08PM (#9238623)
      In about 50 years.
      Iter - latin for "road" - is the next stage, but not the final.
      It will produce more energy than put in, will will not create electricity as such.

      "Creating" electricity, as a normal powerplant does, will be the next stage. As in DEMO.
      So another year before knowing where to build iter, it should have been decided long ago. A few years to build it. 20 to 30 years of research. A few years op political maneuvering for deciding demo, building and doing research for another generation.

      So 50 or 60 years before we have an electricity producing fusion plant.

  • How much energy? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by strictnein ( 318940 ) * <(moc.oohay) (ta) (todhsals-ooftcirts)> on Monday May 24, 2004 @11:47AM (#9238361) Homepage Journal
    One kilogram of fusion fuel would produce the same amount of energy as 10,000,000 kg of fossil fuel.

    How much energy do they estimate it will take to create (and control?) that one kilogram of "fusion fuel"?
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 24, 2004 @11:53AM (#9238431)
      I'm guessing at least 9,999,999 kg...
    • Re:How much energy? (Score:5, Informative)

      by meringuoid ( 568297 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @11:54AM (#9238441)
      How much energy do they estimate it will take to create (and control?) that one kilogram of "fusion fuel"?

      Deuterium... cheap. The oceans are full of the stuff. Tritium and helium-3 are harder to come by; we'd probably need a lunar harvesting operation if we were going to go for fusion on a commercial scale.

      • by pavon ( 30274 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:40PM (#9238998)
        Getting the materials are not the main operating cost. Creating extreme pressure and temperature is the expensive part. EFDA is the group that is putting this together. The best yeilds that they have gotten with their current tokamak reactor (JET) are about 60%, and this is for very short time periods. They are confident that ITER will be able to opperate for long periods of time and will break even on energy use. They hope to produce up to 10x as much energy as is input. Determining the appropriate amount of scepticism is left as an exercise for the reader :)
    • by Strange Ranger ( 454494 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:10PM (#9238659)
      > One kilogram of fusion fuel would produce the same amount of energy as 10,000,000 kg of fossil fuel.

      No no, we all know that different fossil fuels have different efficiencies by weight.. e.g. a kilogram of pure natural gas produces a different amount of energy when burned than a kilogram of kerosene.

      So the REAL question is, how many Libraries of Congress would we have to burn to generate equivalent energy.
  • Sweet! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by El Pollo Loco ( 562236 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @11:48AM (#9238369)
    Wow, I had no idea fusion power was so far along.

    It would be the first fusion device to produce thermal energy at the level of conventional electricity-producing power stations, and would pave the way for commercial power production.

    This is awsome. Expensive for the amount of power though. Anything that can reduce our dependency on oil, deserves some research in my eyes.
    • Re:Sweet! (Score:3, Informative)

      Umm, They *hope* to get it to produce 500 MW for 500 seconds. That's less than 10 mins. Hardly far along.

      I've been hearing about fusion power being *just* over the next hurdle since I was born. White elephant.

  • by Fished ( 574624 ) <amphigory@NOsPam.gmail.com> on Monday May 24, 2004 @11:48AM (#9238370)
    "Interesting to note that 1kg of fusion fuel would produce the same amount of energy as 10,000,000kg of fossil fuels."
    Be expecting the environmental types to scream. One of the things I think environmentalist groups often miss is that, while nuclear waste is undoubtedly toxic, it also does not come in large quantities. I'd much rather have 1kg of incredibly toxic stuff in a sealed container than 10,000,000kg of fossil fuel residues in the air I have to breathe.

    Of course, fusion is better than fission in this regard, but the same arguments hold in either case.

    • People were talking up electric cars ten years ago... nevermind that the coal power plant that was buying and selling pollution credits to generate the electricity to charge the batteries was pulluting 10x what the engine in a normal car would've polluted.

      • The attraction (Score:5, Insightful)

        by mcc ( 14761 ) <amcclure@purdue.edu> on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:21PM (#9238762) Homepage
        It's an OO thing. The attraction of moving to electric or hydrogen-cell cars isn't so much that these are more environmentally friendly *right now* as that it provides a potential for a vast environmental-friendliness advantage because it decouples the method of energy production from energy use.

        Yeah, at the moment this electricity or hydrogen would be probably just generated using fossil fuels. But the catch is it doesn't *have* to be. You could substitute a nuclear power plant for that coal-burning one and the electric cars would continue to run just the same... it makes productive change much easier. Whereas if you buy a gasoline-based automobile, it's going to be running on burned fossil fuels forever*.

        * Unless you are Doc Brown and you do some retrofitting.
    • by NaugaHunter ( 639364 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:06PM (#9238602)
      Most level-headed environmentalists would accept nuclear power as a mostly clean power source. What riles those up (so to speak) is when governments relax protections and don't watch themselves or the corporations they higher to ensure it is disposed of properly.

      As one of last season's Penn & Teller's Bullshit pointed out, the environmental movement is being highjacked by anti-corporate groups. Honest environmentalists only want to be sure we think about how what we do will affect the future world; they don't want to prevent all progress indiscriminately.
      • Agreed, (Score:4, Insightful)

        by El Camino SS ( 264212 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @01:59PM (#9239713)

        Currently, the DOE has so many clean up sites, not because the nuclear energy projects were not successful and profitable, but the fact that the DOE is required, COME WHAT MAY, to take care of any finality issue with a nuclear based energy company. So the companies have a whopping zero cost for failure or liability, and remember, we're talking nuclear.

        So, when they think their operating costs get too high, or they just don't want to do it anymore, the nuclear companies can literally drop what they are doing right there, walk out, and it is all a Department of Energy (DOE) problem from then on. Guess what? DAMN NEAR EVERY ONE OF THEM DOES. That is their little perk. This stuff is too dangerous without permanent government supervision. The US doesn't want some weird Iranian group that they don't trust buying up their workplace (because if anyone is going to sell something to Iranians we don't trust, by god, it should be bought direct from the US government), and after all, businessmen don't care what they have to do as long as they get the cash for doing it. So, as a protection, they have no responsibility for their nuclear actions.

        "We leaked some sludge? WHOOPS. That's it, it is now too expensive with the lawyers. Close shop. Call the DOE. It is their child now. Thanks for the BILLIONS, and see ya later, suckers!"

        The best analogy would be that the government would now be responsible for auto manufacturing recalls. "Sorry we made some bad cars. Call the government, it is their problem now."
      • by Jodka ( 520060 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @03:16PM (#9240411)
        "As one of last season's Penn & Teller's Bullshit pointed out, the environmental movement is being highjacked by anti-corporate groups."

        Exactly. If you look at something like the Clinton EPA new source review regulations, which punished corporations for more efficient energy production, and which environmentalists defend passionately, then its hard to reach any conclusion but that envnironmentalists are now pursuing an environmentally reckless anti-corporate agenda. As a result, there is new demand for legitimate environmentalism. This demand has spawned a conservative environmentalist movement. Among the tenets of conservative environmentalism:

        - If the government internalizes externalities by imposing fees for despoiling or consuming public goods (air, water) then this eliminates the "tragedy of the commons" problem and incentivizes business to reduce environmental impact. When resources cost money, the market will favor business which produce the most efficiently, that is, the most output for the least monetary (and therefore environmental) cost. The key idea here is that no government regulations are required. You don't need regulators in the EPA to approve powerplant designs. Just license for the right to pollute, measure the output and enforce the law, and the market works to develop and choose new technology to reduce the overall level of pollution. Liberal environmentalists oppose this plan. Sierra Club and other groups lobby against tradable pollution credits because they "give corporations a license to pollute." But that's just not true. They are selling, not giving, corporations a license to pollute. The selling part is the crucial aspect.

        - The primary goal of environmentalism should be to preserve and expand the land area of natural habitat. Liberal environmentalism, on the other hand, has set a whole bunch of additonal goals, such as advancing renewable energy resources, opposing fission, regulating private land use and regulating genetic diversity. These other actually work against expanding natural habitat.

        - Reneable energy resources are anti-environmental because they have low-energy density; They take up too much space, displacing natural habitat. Ethanol fuel and solar power both require destruction of vast areas of natural habitat. The flux density of sunlight, collected either by crops or photovoltaics, is just too low to satisfy world energy demands without taking over a large surface area of the planet. The density of an energy source is the correct measure of environmental correctness. High density energy sources produce the most energy in the least space, displacing the least natural habitat. By this measure, petroleum is good. You only need about enough space to drill a hole in the ground and build a refinery. Fission has an even higher energy density. Geneticaly modified crops are good because they produce more food on less crop land, shrinking cropland and expaning natural habitat.

        There are books about this stuff. I suggest "Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists". The phrasing is overstylized, manifesto screedish. Like a poor immitations of Abi Hoffman. (Though a more acurrate imitation would be worse). Nonetheless, IMHO its a fact-filled, well-reasoned argument.
  • Helium (Score:5, Funny)

    by rf0 ( 159958 ) <rghf@fsck.me.uk> on Monday May 24, 2004 @11:48AM (#9238372) Homepage
    Well taking that you get left with helium its obvious that a by product will be a market for baloons

    • Re:Helium (Score:3, Interesting)

      Actually, if helium could be harvested as a byproduct of this it would be great. Until now, helium has been a nonrenewable resource and there have been worries that we would run out one day. Better yet, if the helium could be made cheaply, maybe some of the technologies that rely on extremely cold temperatures would become ecomonically viable.
      • Re:Helium (Score:5, Interesting)

        by h4rm0ny ( 722443 ) * on Monday May 24, 2004 @02:24PM (#9239939) Journal

        Estimates for remaining Helium supplies suggest we may run out in about 20 years. Here's a little more for those who don't know as much about Helium as CodeMonkey.

        Taken from here [k12.ca.us]:

        For most of this century the world's precious supply of helium has escaped from natural gas wells into the air. Only in 1958 did politicians heed the warnings of influential scientists including John Bardeen, the inventor of the transistor, that all our helium would be gone by 1980. Congress reacted by spending $1 billion--an astonishing sum in the 1950s--on a separation plant in Amarillo, Texas, and began stockpiling helium in empty gas wells.

        As it happened, helium turned out to be crucial to the success of NASA's space--programme. The most powerful rocket motors are fueled by hydrogen and oxygen, both of which have to be carried in liquid form, and helium is the ideal refrigerant. In fact, it was helium carried to the Moon on the Apollo spacecraft that determined how long the astronauts could stay on the lunar surface. Once the helium had boiled off it would have been impossible to keep hydrogen and oxygen in liquid form and the spacecraft would have been stranded.

        Thanks to the conservation measures, helium supplies were not exhausted by 1980. and other rich sources of the gas were discovered. however, sources of helium have remained few and far between because the geology of natural gas wells must be very special in order to hold onto it in commercial quantities.

        Against this background, the worldwide consumption of helium has increased by between 5 and 10 percent a year in the past decade, which the biggest growth in its use as a coolant for the superconducting magnets in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) body scanners. Present helium consumption is estimated to be about 100 million cubic metres, and is predicted to continue rising by 4 to 5 percent a year.

        No one is claiming that we are in imminent danger of running out of helium--there should be at least 20 years supply left. However, new sources of the gas will have to be found to meet the ever-growing demand. If not, God forbid, we may have to celebrate helium's 200th birthday in the year 2095--without any Mickey Mouse balloons.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 24, 2004 @11:48AM (#9238376)
    Slashdot has a strange fascination with potential energy solutions. Ah...so much energy wasted thinking about potential energy.
  • by Plaeroma ( 778381 ) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .amorealp.> on Monday May 24, 2004 @11:49AM (#9238384) Journal
    ...is how much energy it will take to maintain that 100 million degrees Celcius temp for 500 seconds or longer. Sure, 500 megatwatts sounds awesome, but fusion reactions are historically extremely difficult to maintain as the plasma constantly bumps into the container and kills efficiency. That being said, more research into the field is a Good Thing(TM).
    • the plasma constantly bumps into the container

      One reason the next machine will be larger is because it is easier to control the plasma (shown by the work done at JET).
    • by ahunter ( 48990 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:30PM (#9238871)
      JET reached (or came very close to) the break-even point (produced as much power as it consumed). ITER will surpass it and actually generate power. (5-10x as much out as is put in, so that would mean that the heating required during fusion would be around 50-100MW). See here [asme.org], for example.

      It's also designed to be repairable in the event of a failure (in the way a commercial reactor would need to be), and its designers have benefitted considerably from the experience of JET. The BBC has covered this reactor for some time: I'm surprised slashdot has only picked up on it now.
    • by MullerMn ( 526350 ) <andy.andrewarbon@co@uk> on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:36PM (#9238942) Homepage
      The plasma does not constantly bump into the walls of the container. As some previous posters have touched on, if the plasma touches the walls of the vessel it loses so much of its power that the reaction dies.

      Another problem is that if the current in the plasma passes through the walls of the vessel it creates a magnetic field around them which kicks against the plasma's own magnetic field with incredible force. This is called a disruption, and it kills the plasma. Back in the project's infancy a particularly bad disruption actually caused the entire torus to jump a clear centimetre off the floor. If that doesn't sound impressive then you need to have another look at a picture of the torus [efda.org]!

      I had the privlidge of working at JET during the third year of my degree*, and I can say that JET has some of the coolest gear and cleverest people working there that I have ever seen.

      For anyone who's wondering about the computing equipment they use: they have a lot of big Sun servers which host X sessions from Linux PCs or some Xterminal like things called Igels (they also still use some original X Terminals.. I don't know if those are still in production?) on which most development is done. They use Linux in as many places as they can, including a ~80 node analysis cluster (JET produces data at a rate of about a gigabyte a day during operations). Windows PCs are available for desktop use by those who prefer them.

      * If anyone thinks my very basic description of the physics is a sign of BS, I should point out that I was there as a Software Engineering student, not a physicist.
  • Japan (Score:3, Funny)

    by astrokid ( 779104 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @11:52AM (#9238414)
    But the decision on whether the Iter project (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is built at Rokkasho-mura in Japan, or Cadarache in France, has been delayed several times.

    I would have thought that decision to build the project in Japan would have been unanimous. How else could Gozilla be resurrected?
  • by MBAFK ( 769131 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @11:55AM (#9238457)
    If anyone is interested there is a wealth of information on JETs website [efda.org]

    Including some pretty cool pictures of their kit [efda.org].
  • by Control Group ( 105494 ) * on Monday May 24, 2004 @11:58AM (#9238483) Homepage
    After some quick googling, I can't seem to either confirm or deny the statement, but I admit that there's a little tingle in my bullshit detector when I hear them claim a ten million-fold increase in released energy.

    On the other hand, I don't know enough about it to confidently say it's crap. So - anyone out there able to tell me what, exactly, this "kg of fusion fuel" is made up of? And, if possible, provide support/debunking for the 10,000,000x as much energy claim?

  • by image ( 13487 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @11:59AM (#9238501) Homepage
    Goodness -- I was surprised by the number of wildly incorrect postings about nuclear fusion. Some I could have tried to clear up myself, but a better recommendation would just be to read up for five minutes before posting some misinformed comment.

    Wikipedia has a good article on Fusion Power [wikipedia.org]. Read it, then post.
  • by Bruha ( 412869 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:03PM (#9238556) Homepage Journal
    I would hope these same scientists would also be looking for a way to tap the energy off the reaction vs superheating turbine water. How much energy is wasted in the conversion process that could be better tapped through other methods.
    • by Councilor Hart ( 673770 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:19PM (#9238737)
      The energy used to boil the water comes from neutrons.
      Alpha particles - helium core - and neutrons are created in a fusion reaction. The alpha particles carry about 20% of the energy, the neutrons about 80%.
      After the alpha particles give of their energy to the surrounding plasma, the have to be removed in order to keep the fusion reactions going.

      So left are the neutrons. These are neutral particles. So forget about something like an ion-separator (sorry, don't know the correct english term. same principle as an ion-engine. Using lorentz force: f= qE + qvxB).
      So you use the energy of the neutrons to boil water.

    • Tapped through other methods? What other methods are you referring to? "Boiling water" as you refer to steam (presumably somewhat superheated) is a standard in the industry for heat and energy transfer. It's one of the most common methods for turning large stationary turbines, compressors, etc. . . because of it's energy conversion efficiency compared with other large scale methods (High heat of vaporization results is significant energy transfer per mass of water).

  • Awesome! (Score:3, Informative)

    by NetNinja ( 469346 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:03PM (#9238566)
    But since when do we power our power plants with oil?

    We will always depend on Arab oil in some way or another.

    Oil is used to make plastics, and from what I see it seems like everything is made out of plastic.
    American cars for one.

    So the Arabs will find a way to still charge $100.00 a barrel.

  • by Pedrito ( 94783 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:18PM (#9238726)
    After the slashdot story a few weeks ago on the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts [usra.edu] (sorry, I'm too lazy to go look up the original Slashdot reference, but at least I'm honest about it), I started reading a lot of their proposals and most of the ones regarding how to handle interstellar travel involved anti-matter.

    I started thinking about that and the two biggest problems with that are: A> It takes a huge amount of energy to create anti-matter, a hell of a lot more goes into the production than comes from using it. B> We don't really have a system for containing significant amounts of anti-matter.

    So I started thinking about alternative energy sources and one of them was fusion. Pound for pound, fusion produces about 1/27th of the energy of anti-matter (based on my naive calculations, so I may be way off) whereas other types of fuel are several orders of magnitude less efficient.

    To me, that makes fusion a pretty good option. The only problems I have encountered so far with the idea are:

    1: Fusion isn't quite ready for real applications, though by the time we're capable of sending an interstellar craft, I believe it will be.

    2: For an interstellar journey, you'll need a power plant that can survive for no less than decades, if not centuries, without maintenance. That's a serious issue given the harsh environment it would be operating in.

    I'm sure there are additional problems I haven't thought of yet, but I'm still thinking it might be a good option. Perhaps some sort of self-repairing reactor could be built to solve #2.

    But another huge advantage of hydrogen is that you could collect fuel along the way using the Bussard Ramjet [wikipedia.org] idea. You'd just need a way of separating out deuterium and tritium from the hydrogen that doesn't suffer from problem #2 as well, but it should be doable. As most here are probably aware, fuel mass is a serious issue for space travel.

    Anyway, I think fusion has a great deal to offer in a number of ways. Maybe I ought to work on my NIAC proposal ;-)
    • by pclminion ( 145572 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:45PM (#9239041)
      First: It takes a huge amount of energy to create anti-matter, a hell of a lot more goes into the production than comes from using it.

      Nobody has ever seriously considered antimatter as a fuel source, aside from a few science fiction writers. It's simply too impractical for exactly the reasons you mention. Impractical to the point where it's pointless to even think about it, at least not right now.

      Fusion isn't quite ready for real applications

      Electric power generation isn't real enough for you?

      For an interstellar journey, you'll need a power plant that can survive for no less than decades, if not centuries, without maintenance.

      There already are these huge fusion plants which survive in space for billions of years with no maintenance. They're called "stars." :-) More seriously, the engineering issues involved in designing a fusion reactor center exclusively on the multi-million-degree plasma which must be confined. In comparison to that, the problem of making the thing run in outer space is a toy issue. What's more difficult to design for: the emptyness and relative quiet of space on the outside of the reactor, or the extremely hot, energetic, radiation-soaked interior of the reactor? I think once we have fusion figured out, flying in space will be a piece of cake in comparison.

      As most here are probably aware, fuel mass is a serious issue for space travel.

      Fuel mass is important because it determines the momentum of the escaping exhaust. But momentum is the product of two numbers: mass and velocity. You can make up for low propellant mass by increasing the exhaust velocity. A high-power reactor like a fusion reactor is precisely the way to do this.

      And a reactor capable of producing a few megawatts could drive a high-power laser, and the craft could use pure light pressure to propel itself: no propellant required. Of course, this depends on how light you can make the craft, because even 100 megawatts of power will only produce 0.33 newtons of thrust :-)

  • by 5n3ak3rp1mp ( 305814 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:29PM (#9238858) Homepage
    My understanding is that not only will the *net* energy output not be very significant, if at all (yet!), the reaction won't be expected to be sustained for more than a few minutes, even at this new facility. All these figures here are *gross* values- I haven't seen any *net* energy figures yet.

    That said, this is the stuff that sci-fi dreams are made of. Maybe now that less geeks are going for CS degrees, they'll take some hard-science classes- that stuff is still sorely needed. As well as cool.

    I was once a physics major who couldn't cut it because of a lack of discipline to be able to master the difficulties of engineering calculus. Props. ;)
  • by sgage ( 109086 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:32PM (#9238902)
    ... how much energy it takes to find, gather, concentrate, etc., one kg of "fusion fuel".

    - Steve
  • by Drunken_Jackass ( 325938 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @12:52PM (#9239097) Homepage
    Finally, somebody has come up with a factory that can create the plasma needed for all of those big, flatscreen TV's. I just hope this drives the price down.
  • by Baldrson ( 78598 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @01:02PM (#9239194) Homepage Journal
    Take it from one of the founders of the Tokamak program, Robert W. Bussard [geocities.com] when he writes in his June 6, 1995 letter to Congress:
    The DoE committment to very large fusion concepts (the giant magnetic tokamak) ensures only the need for very large budgets; and that is what the program has been about for the past 15 years - a defense-of-budget program - not a fusion-achievement program. As one of the three people who created this program in the early 1970's (when I was an Asst. Dir. of the AEC's Controlled Thermonuclear Reaction Division) I know this to be true; we raised the budget in order to take 20% off the top of the larger funding, to try all of the hopeful new things that the mainline labs would not try.

    Each of us left soon thereafter, and the second generation management thought the big program was real; it was not. Ever since then, the ERDA/DoE has rolled Congress to increase and/or continue big-budget support. This worked so long as various Democratic Senators and Congressmen could see the funding as helpful in their districts. But fear of undermining their budget position also made DoE bureaucrats very autocratic and resistant to any kind of new approach, whether inside the DoE or out in industry. This lead DoE to fight industry whenever a non-DoE hopeful new idea appeared.

    I hope that this new Congress can and will reverse this situation, so that we can achieve clean, safe and economical fusion power sometime in the next 5-10 years. The country badly needs practical fusion for its near - and far-term survival; the enclosed bill has been constructed to do this.

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Monday May 24, 2004 @01:23PM (#9239408) Homepage
    General Electric had an actual fusion demonstration [ucla.edu] at the 1964 World's Fair. Less energy came out than went in, of course.

    Forty years later, there's still no useful fusion power technology.

    The US Department of Energy is terminating all work on fusion [ucsd.edu] effective September 30, 2004. That's probably a good thing; it will free up activities in the EU and Japan from US interference.

All science is either physics or stamp collecting. -- Ernest Rutherford