Today’s output from Blogistan Polytechnic Institute’s state-of-the-art HEMMED (High-Energy Meta Mojo Elucidation Detector) machine is an update on some work being done to create energy the progressive way.

Many feel that nuclear energy is the bridge fuel which will bridge the gap until we can get to 100% clean renewable energy. The problems in Japan, after an earthquake and devastating tsunami, exposed some of the very real issues related to the safety of nuclear energy.

It has also enhanced interest in the other nuclear: nuclear fusion.

An article about work being done on fusion research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison caught my eye:

“It’s the holy grail of alternative energy research,” said Robert Wilcox, a graduate student working on one of several UW-Madison fusion projects. “It’s the energy of the stars,” said David Anderson, a UW-Madison computer and electrical engineering professor. “It’s the energy of the future.”

Several characteristics of fusion eliminate some of the safety problems of traditional fission plants that became apparent as the situation in Japan worsened. There, damage to the reactors and waste storage pools caused the nuclear fuel to overheat and release radioactive material into the air and water.

Anderson said one major problem with nuclear fission is that even when you stop the reaction, several of the radioactive byproducts can continue to generate heat for days and even weeks. With fusion, once the reaction is stopped, the generation of heat stops so there is no threat of the reactor melting down.

“The whole idea is that once you terminate the reaction, which is hard to get going in the first place, there is no more heat produced and everything returns to a relatively safe state. So loss of cooling isn’t really a problem,” Anderson said.

Unlike fission, the process of fusion does not result in the large and long-lasting amounts of dangerous waste because the major byproduct of a fusion reaction is helium, which is not radioactive. “You can use it to fill circus balloons. You can breathe it and talk like Mickey Mouse,” Anderson said.

So there would be no need to store radioactive waste for thousands of years, an issue that has nearly brought the construction of nuclear fission plants to a standstill.

Another advantage of fusion is that the plasma used to create the reaction is superheated hydrogen. Hydrogen is readily available from sea water, and the process produces no materials that could be used as weapons.

Researchers believe that commercial use of nuclear fusion to generate electricity is still at least 50 years away but it is certainly promising technology. This is the part that intrigued me: fusion is what the sun uses to produce energy. What could be better than learning from the sun?

I am not a physicist so I started searching for some simple explanations of the differences between nuclear fusion and nuclear fission. Here is one from the state of California:

The word fission means to split apart. Inside the reactor of an atomic power plant, uranium atoms are split apart in a controlled chain reaction.

In a chain reaction, particles released by the splitting of the atom go off and strike other uranium atoms splitting those. Those particles given off split still other atoms in a chain reaction. In nuclear power plants, control rods are used to keep the splitting regulated so it doesn’t go too fast. If the reaction is not controlled, you could have an atomic bomb.

Fusion means joining smaller nuclei (the plural of nucleus) to make a larger nucleus. The sun uses nuclear fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium atoms. This gives off heat and light and other radiation.

In the picture to the right, two types of hydrogen atoms, deuterium and tritium, combine to make a helium atom and an extra particle called a neutron. Fission

Also given off in this fusion reaction is energy! Thanks to the University of California, Berkeley for the picture.

Scientists have been working on controlling nuclear fusion for a long time, trying to make a fusion reactor to produce electricity. But they have been having trouble learning how to control the reaction in a contained space.

The UW-Madison will take you on a tour of their nuclear reactor (from the safety of your computer!) and provides an explanation of the differences in a more technical way, including some animation.

Here is the gist of it.

Fission, what we use now, creates energy by splitting atoms to create more splitting and explosions and energy.

Fusion, what we want to get to, creates energy by bringing the atoms together to create super heat which can be used for energy.

Sounds kind of progressive, don’t you think?

Happy Tuesday to everyone and fist bumps!

The BPI Campus Progressive agenda:
1. People matter more than profits.
2. The earth is our home, not our trash can.
3. We need good government for both #1 and #2.

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