Harnessing the Power of the Sun

The Sun consists of hot plasma with a strong and complex magnetic field. Solar  activity is connected with these magnetic properties and it is a source of heat which sustains life on Earth and controls the climate and weather.

Nobel Laureate Irving Langmuir named this state of matter plasma in 1929, a term well known in medical science because, according to Langmuir, the unpredictability of plasma bared a resemblance to life itself

With greater energy demands, utilizing energy from the sun does not seem to be a sufficient alternative to our heavily depleting store of fossil fuels. But can we harness the energy of the sun rather than from the sun? Can we create our own hot ball of plasma?

Plasma is not a liquid, solid or a gas; it is an electrically neutral ionized gas of charged particles at high energy. Believe it or not, it makes up 99% of our universe.

Auroras occur when low-energy plasmas known as solar wind stream from the sun and connect with the magnetosphere and produce heated particles that give rise to the light shows.

Man- made plasma can be seen in fluorescent lights, neon signs and plasma TV screens.

I took Issac Tobin, PhD Research student in plasma physics at Trinity College Dublin out for a cocktail to ask about his perspective on plasma. Needless to say, a Singapore Sling does not contribute much to an already baffling subject. Tobin explained; ‘’because plasmas are conductive and respond to electric and magnetic fields and can be efficient sources of radiation, they are used in applications were control and precision are required such as in the production of computer chips. Plasma is also used when special sources of energy or radiation is required, like in fusion power.’’

The sun’s 15.7 million ᵒC temperature is created through fusion reactions. In it’s core, the pressure is high enough to fuse two light atomic nuclei to form a heavier nucleus. Energy is produced in the form of intense light and heat. Without this reaction, there would be no life on earth, never-mind cocktails on the beach.

All nuclei have a positive charge, and as like charges repel, it takes a considerable amount of energy to force nuclei to fuse. When heated, they can overcome this electrostatic repulsion and get close enough for the attractive nuclear force to achieve fusion. The fusion of lighter nuclei such as hydrogen, which creates a heavier nucleus, helium, releases more energy than it takes to force the nuclei together producing a self- sustaining reaction.

The use of lasers to replicate these extreme conditions in plasma is being researched at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) in California. By ‘’focussing 192 laser beams onto a tiny gold container’’, researchers hope to achieve the temperature and compression conditions that are required for a self-sustaining fusion or ”ignition” reaction, around 40- 120 million ᵒC!! Researchers hope to end up with 10 to 20 times the amount of energy that was supplied by the lasers. Even though the study was done without fully understanding the interactions taking place between the laser beams and plasma, scientists are still hopeful for our future. “These results are better than we were hoping,” says NIF boss Edward Moses.

The ‘‘ignition’’ is aimed to take place in spring 2012 so hold onto your seats for some interesting results to come.

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3 responses to “Harnessing the Power of the Sun

  1. very interesting, will there be a follow-up article on the results of the tests?

  2. Woo I’m famous, thanks for asking me 😀
    Gotta love plasma physics! I attended a talk in DCU by the group who make the tiny deuterium cells they use for the fusion reactions! Really cool stuff.

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