Engines of Exploration

By Grose, Thomas K. | ASEE Prism, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Engines of Exploration


Grose, Thomas K., ASEE Prism


Putting the BIG in Big Science.

ABINGDON, England

Inside the control room

of the Joint European Torus (JET) at Britain's Culham Center for Fusion Energy (CCFE), a clutch of physicists and engineers gaze with rapt attention at a triptych of wall monitors. On the screens appears a ghostly, red apparition dancing in the dark like the Northern Lights. It's plasma: a light, superheated gas created when a mixture of deuterium and tritium - two hydrogen isotopes - is puffed inside JET's doughnut-shape containment vessel (see cover), then zapped with a high-powered pulse of electricity. For a few seconds, temperatures reach tens of millions of degrees - "the hottest place in the universe," says Nick Balshaw, a JET diagnostic engineering group leader.

JET is the proof of concept that energy can be harnessed from the fusion of nuclei. Already, its superhot plasmas have created up to 16 megawatts of power, hastening the day, it is hoped, when fusion power can provide the world with a clean, safe, and pretty much unlimited supply of energy. Yet JET still requires slightly more power to heat the gas than it produces, because of heat loss. So scientists and engineers are taking knowledge largely gleaned from JET to the next stage of the fusion experiment: the $19 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in the south of France, due for completion in 2018. Twice JET's size, ITER is intended to produce many times more power - 500 megawatts' worth - dwarfing the amount needed to produce plasma. "Size matters for fusion," says Ken Blackler, who is in charge of construction and operations at ITER. "It's easier with a bigger machine" because more volume reduces heat loss.

Plasma physics projects like JET and ITER, along with particle physics experiments conducted at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland - the world's largest particle accelerator - as well as the breathtaking astronomical observations made with the Hubble Space Telescope, are all high-profile examples of Big Science. These are massive scientific investigations at the national or international level requiring teams of hundreds of researchers, and budgets that can easily run into billions of dollars. And none of them would be possible without strong, working alliances of scientists and engineers - alliances so close and collaborative that the traditional boundary between the two domains blurs. "The distinctions between science and engineering are totally redundant in big technology science projects," asserts Gerhard John Krige, a science and technology historian at Georgia Tech.

Historically, the dividing line between the two fields was simple and clear. As Theodore von Karman, the late Hungarian-American engineer and physicist, once succinctly summed it up, "Scientists study the world as it is; engineers create the world that never has been." But a disintegration of that dividing line began in earnest during World War II with the huge government-financed research and development effort that created the atomic bomb. That was the beginning of Big Science. And as experiments scaled up, physicists learned that they needed to work with and understand the engineers who would design their mansion-size maehinesand incredibly precise instruments. The 1984 Nobel Prize in physics consummated the collaboration, going both to Simon van derftleer, a Dutch engineer, and Carlo Rubbia, an Italian physicist, for their discovery at CERN of the W and Z particles. "Engineers (have) utterly transformed physics," says Peter Galison, a Harvard University science historian, by making possible experiments and revelations once considered out of reach. Ken Blackler agrees. At ITER, he says, "physics is driving the engineering, and engineering drives the physics." Electrical engineers are particularly important to big physics projects, but nearly all the engineering disciplines - from mechanical to cryogenic to civil - have roles to play. …

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