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Matin Durrani: May 2009 Archives

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Weird stuff: a model of the Wendelstein 7-X outer magnet

By Matin Durrani

It’s amazing who you can meet at a conference.

At a sumptuous four-course dinner at Prague’s Kaiserstenjsky Palac last night - held as part of Europe’s Research Connection conference — I sat next to an Italian architect called Pietro Laureano, who researches the ancient tradition of digging tunnels in the Saraha desert.

Sounds a bit mad, but as he explained to me through mouthfuls of “saffron risotto with smoked salmon and red parmesan pancakes”, the water condenses underground, creating pools from which you can drink or use to irrigate crops. He’s funded by UNESCO and has written a book all about it.

On my right was another Italian architect and anthropologist, who has written, among other things, a book on the history of pasta. He reckons that pasta was never a tradiational Italian dish but has only became so after being eaten by Italians who left for new lives in other countries. Pasta came to embody what it meant to be Italian, apparently.

Anyway, back to physics.

Out in the exhibition at the conference, I caught up with physicists from a couple of projects we’ve been following on Physics World over the last few years. One is ASPERA - a European group seeking to improve the continent’s work in astroparticle physics.

As Thomas Berghöfer from the DESY lab in Hamburg explained, they’ve been funded through cash from the European Commission to form what is known in the jargon as a European Research Area Network (ERA-NET). With seven big new facilities on the drawing board, it’s a concrete example of what the European Research Area is all about - enhancing Europe’s strengths in science through co-ordinated action.

Meanwhile, Patrizio Antici was on hand to talk about Europe’s plans for a European Light Infrastructure - a planned exawatt laser that would be a thousand times more powerful than Megajoule in France or the National Ignition Facility in the US. (Memo to Physics World’s news editor: this is something we need to keep readers updated on.)

I also bumped into Chris Ibbott, a mechanical engineer who, working closely with physicists, helped to design one part of the ITER fusion reactor that’s currently being built in France. In front of a scale-model of the experiment, he explained just how complex this facility will be, not least trying to keep the plasma stable.

That’s why the Wendelstein 7-X reactor in Greifswald, Germany, is interesting: it can keep a plasma stable without needing a central solenoid. The snag is it’s got an outer magnet bent into a really weird shape, as the model in the photo above shows.

Like digging water-gathering tunnels in the Sahara or trying to get 27 separate European nations to collaborate, the Wendelstein 7-X reactor seems weird, but it might just work.

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Revolutionary thinker: Jeremy Rifkin (right) with European research commission Janez Potocnik

By Matin Durrani

I can’t say I was hugely inspired by the opening address here in Prague at the Research Connection conference by European Commission science and research commissioner Janez Potocnik.

There was lots of hot air about “synergy leading to new quality”, “capacity building”, “structural and cohesion funds” and “community instruments”. I almost fell asleep.

To be fair to the Slovenian former economist, he admitted that while the conference features some top speakers, he wasn’t sure “it is polite to include myself in this category”. Refreshing honesty from a politician.

Much more interesting was the main plenary address on sustainable energy by Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and advisor to the European Union. He’s also head of a group of 100 industrial bosses committed to “address the triple challenge of global economic recovery, energy security and climate change”.

So clearly a guy with fairly small ambitions.

In a doom-laden first half of his talk, Rifkin warned how too many politicians have completely underestimated how bad climate change will be — his talk was of anything up to 70% of species going extinct, oil supplies peaking within the next decade, and plenty of floods, storms and disaster.

Thankfully Rifkin has a solution — distributed energy.

Just as the computing Grid can carry out massive calculations by farming out chunks of processing to individual computers around the world, so distributed energy would involve individual houses and factories generating electricity using solar panels and wind turbines.

It’s revolutionary stuff — gone would be big, centralized oil-, gas-, or nuclear-powered stations. In would be small scale production, distributed around the world.

Better still, if it works, the idea is that people would sell unused energy to other people connected to the Grid.

It’s what Rifkin calls the “third industrial revolution”.

I was interested that Rifkin reckons the European Union is at the forefront of this idea — he hopes the EU will champion it at this year’s Copenhagen climate-change conference — whereas the US is still more resistant to it.

But as he pointed out at a later press conference, Obama has twigged what he’s on about and once the US sets itself a challenge, it could end up implementing distributed energy much faster than Europe’s fragmented nation states could.

Rifkin’s a polished performer and a man for the soundbite. Potocnik - take note. It might get you noticed.

Right, where’s that solar cell…

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Fusion followers: the COMPASS reactor in Prague with delegates to the Research Connection conference

By Matin Durrani

When they reach retirement age, physicists in many countries are simply told to pack their bags and go.

Not so for Jan Stoeckel, former head of tokamaks at the Insitutute for Plasma Physics in Prague. When he turned 65, he simply stepped down from the hotseat, found a successor in Radomir Panek, and carried on working.

At least that’s what he told me yesterday on a fascinating guided tour of the institute’s COMPASS reactor, organized as part of the European Commission’s massive 2009 Research Connection conference Connection conference here in Prague.

In a sort of parallel with Stoeckel’s career, the COMPASS reactor, which used to be based at the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s based in Culham, was all set to be mothballed until the IPP stepped in with an offer to rebuild it in Prague.

As Stoeckel explained to me as he took me round the brand new building in which COMPASS is housed, the reactor was originally built in the late 1980s, but was sold to the IPP for one pound in 2007, shipped to Prague and rebuilt over the last 18 months.

What makes COMPASS still useful is it that it is essentially a scaled down, one-tenth version of the ITER fusion reactor being built in Cadarache in southern France.

Although COMPASS initially won’t actually fuse nuclei together - deuterium-tritium reactions can be dangerous and expensive - the reactor will still be useful to study turbulence in hydrogen plasmas. And because it’s basically a tiny version of ITER, that work should give invaluable insights into how to keep ITER’s plasma stable.

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No expense spared: the Janacek Chamber Orchestra

By Matin Durrani

To adapt the immortal words of the singer Billy Bragg, if you’ve got a gravy train, I want to be on it.

It was in that spirit — and the quest for journalistic truth of course — that I accepted an offer from the European Commission for Physics World to go on an all-expenses trip to its 2009 Research Connection conference in Prague in the Czech Republic. The country currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

The offer looked too good to refuse with over 1500 European researchers convening on the Prague Congress Centre for an event designed to showcase the best of European research funded by the Commission’s massive €50bn, seven-year Seventh Framework research programme.

Two nights in the luxury Corinthia Towers hotel didn’t sound too bad either.

Clearly the Commission is not short of cash - it has invited about 100 other journalists from across Europe to attend as well - and laid on a concert by the Janacek Chamber Orchestra at Prague’s Municipal House last night, followed by a lavish “cocktail dinner”, which was a kind of topnotch buffet.

I was taken to the venue by the very kind physicist Jan Stoeckel, former head of the Institute of Plasma Physics at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. He had shown me round the COMPASS fusion reactor earlier in the day, which I’ll say more about in my next posting.