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February 15, 2008

Magnetized by Thermonuclear Energy

Magnets_2 I snuck away from a session this afternoon to wander through the enormous exhibition hall at the heart of the convention. Dozens of scientific institutions, companies and agencies are advertising what they do, and some have a clever pitch. Like the magnets that drew to me to one particular booth, that of the International Thermonuclear Energy Reactor.

ITER is the $12 billion international facility to be built at Cadarache, France, by 2014. The project is an experiment to demonstrate the feasibility of using hydrogen fusion--the reaction that powers the sun--to generate a vast supply of energy.

A man from the U.S. office of ITER was performing a trick with small, egg-shaped magnets. I walked over to take a closer look. He was throwing a pair of magnets up in the air, one with each hand, and catching them as they came down stuck together. As the magnets fell, they rubbed against each other, making the dull sound of two pebbles. The goal of the trick was to represent the idea of two hydrogen atoms fusing together.

The folks at the stall were giving away pairs of magnets. I pocketed one. I don't think I'll give them to my two-and-a-half-year-old son to play with. They look too much like candy.

The idea of drawing attention to ITER--presumably to make the case for a bigger U.S. contribution to the project--seems to have worked. Not just with me, but with at least 300 other people who stopped by the stall today to pick up the magnets  and learn more about fusion. Whether that will be enough to persuade Congress to pony up money for ITER (the U.S. backed away from a commitment this year because of a last-minute budget cut by Congress) is another question.

--Yudhijit Bhattacharjee


Wow that sure was a tour de force of evidence loaded, highly convincing argument Simon! I sure am convinced!

ITER is a fine science project. It will never lead to useful fusion plants.

Congress is right to use the money for approaches with better immediate prospects of return.