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Nuclear fusion energy provides interesting possibilities in space and on Earth

by Benjamin Reese, on Feb 20, 2014 4:19:00 PM

Nuclear fusion energy provides interesting possibilities in space and on Earth

Sure, our ancestors probably thought that by 2013 we’d be flying around in miniature spacecraft like the Jetsons, traveling from planet to planet visiting our friends and family, going to school or shopping, and be home in time to watch the sunset. That’s not exactly our reality today, but thanks to advances in nuclear fusion technology, coupled with one man’s interest to send normal, everyday people into space, that concept isn’t “too far out there.”

Fusion for Fuel


Dennis Tito, a millionaire and the world’s first space tourist, has put together the Inspiration Mars mission to send a married couple on a 501-day adventure on a rocket to Mars and back by 2018. Why? Tito said his primary reason for launching this program is to inspire a new generation of space explorers who have never seen a man walk on the moon in their lifetime. He’s choosing 2018 to take advantage of the shorter distance between Earth and Mars at that time, which will reduce the travel time from about four years to less than two years.


So what could help make Tito’s plan more than just a one-time occurrence? Nuclear fusion propulsion. Right now NASA-funded researchers at the University of Washington are about to test a unique approach to nuclear fusion that they hope will replace rocket fuel to power spacecraft that are much quicker and less costly to operate. The use of nuclear fusion to power a rocket could reduce a trip from Earth to Mars and back to a mere 30 days.


Researchers report that a drop of this plasma the size of a grain of sand can produce the same amount of energy as one gallon of rocket fuel. This could drastically reduce the amount of time it takes to travel through space resulting from an increase in power and a decrease in weight from the swap in fuel.


ITER Tokamak: A Swiss Watch the Size of a Stadium

The use of nuclear fusion for such applications has been proven to work in isolation and now the research team is working toward testing the complete process. However, the challenge lies in finding a practical way to harness it. To develop nuclear fusion, a type of plasma is encapsulated in a magnetic field and exposed to high pressure.


Right now, scientists in Europe are embarking on a similar journey to produce this same type of fusion energy, with the same challenges. This global project, called ITER, is under development to produce a plant in the South of France that will create nuclear fusion energy to power our world.


The main challenge in this project is manufacturing the device that will house the plasma. The plasma needed to create fusion power is heated to temperatures over 150 million degrees Celsius—which obviously would melt any physical material it touches. Therefore, strong magnetic fields are used to keep the plasma away from the walls preventing major meltdown. The result? Plasma so hot that it produces steam used by turbines and alternators to create electricity 10 times the amount it consumes.


3DCS Analysis of ITER Assembly

However, the devil is in the details of how the device fits together when put under extreme pressure. All of its components must fit together perfectly the first time when they are squeezed together like a puzzle during the assembly process. Even a tiny imperfection in the size or shape of a manufactured part could cause problems down the line during operation.


ITER is relying on 3DCS Variation Analyst software to ensure parts are manufactured as precisely to their specs as possible. With the software, engineers can rest assured that the devices’ components will fit together effortlessly before they are even manufactured. The software also identifies conflict between a design and its manufacturing process and other potential problems.

So what happens when scientists, like those working on the ITER project, can leverage advances in manufacturing technology to overcome the challenge of creating nuclear fusion for use in powering a rocket ship? We, the ordinary people of the world, might be flying around in space sooner than we think.



See the model in all its glory at ITER's youtube channel:

To learn more about 3DCS and its use in this project, visit:



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