Harnessing the Power of the Sun: Distinguished Professor Mohamed Abdou Leads the Quest to Unlock the Secrets of Fusion Energy

by Wileen Wong Kromhout

Energy is one of the most serious challenges facing society in the 21st Century.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), with the world’s population expected to grow from 6.2 to 8.1 billion and the rise in the standard of living, energy use is expected to increase as much as 60 percent by 2030.

Many scientists and engineers believe the answer is fusion, the energy source of the sun and the stars. It is an energy source that is potentially inexhaustible and offers some very attractive features. There would be no emission of greenhouse or other polluting gases like carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, usually released from fossil-fueled plants. There would be no risk of a serious accident because radioactive waste from fusion plants could be controlled and minimized by the choice of materials, in contrast to fission where radioactivity is a product of the fission reaction. Fusion energy could not only be used to produce electricity, but it could also be used for the desalination of water to solve the serious problems of shortage facing the world, and to produce hydrogen as a replacement fuel for the transportation sector.

Leading the quest in the United States to advance the nuclear sciences and technologies required to make fusion energy attractive and practical is Mohamed Abdou, distinguished professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. Abdou, director of both the Fusion Science and Technology Center and the Center for Energy Science and Technology (CESTAR), has been on this journey for three decades.

“We’re doing work that is very challenging and the thought of creating an energy source to solve the energy problems for humanity is an exciting prospect,” Abdou said.

Fusion is fueled by two elements, deuterium and tritium. Deuterium is a form of hydrogen found in ordinary water that costs only pennies to extract. It is said that the top ten feet of water from Lake Michigan could supply all of the U.S. energy needs for more than 15,000 years. Tritium can be produced from lithium, a light metal common in the Earth’s crust.

The challenge is creating a “star on earth” and making it economically feasible in a reactor the size of baseball stadium. The conditions for a fusion reaction are not only difficult to achieve, but also to control. Deuterium and tritium must be heated to ten times the temperature of the sun’s interior to achieve fusion. At the high temperatures required for fusion, electrons that orbit the atomic nuclei are stripped away resulting in a new state of matter called plasma.

Plasma is a swirling, superheated mass of negatively charged electrons and positively charged nuclei. Once the plasma is produced, an appropriate container must be built to hold and sustain it. The most promising has been a device known as a tokamak, in which plasma is confined by a donut-shaped magnetic field.

In the late eighties, scientists and engineers from the international community, including Europe, Japan, Russia, and the U.S. (China, South Korea and India joined recently), embarked on an unprecedented international collaboration to test and demonstrate the scientific and technical feasibility of fusion power by producing burning plasma with energy output ten times the input.

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), essentially a tokamak fusion reactor, is being built in the South of France at the cost of $10 billion. Construction is expected to be completed around 2016 and UCLA with Abdou’s team is leading America’s effort to develop and test the technologies for advanced power extraction and conversion as well as internal tritium breeding necessary to make the fusion fuel cycle self sustained.

“Our group at the Fusion Science and Technology Center is the premiere fusion technology group in the country. We changed the field by developing the computational tools, theory models and experiments for fusion nuclear technology,” Abdou said.

“In the ‘80s we were responsible for the technical planning of the entire U.S. fusion technology program. This plan is what the rest of the world is now following.” Abdou’s group is currently engaged in developing specific experiments for testing in ITER as part of the so-called ITER Test Blanket Module (TBM) Program

The mission of the ITER TBM Program is to perform integrated fusion nuclear science experiments. The team is hoping to unlock the complicated phenomenon occurring in the plasma chamber components that surround the burning plasma where fusion occurs. The UCLA team for the ITER Test Blanket Module Program includes adjunct professor Neil Morley, and research engineers Alice Ying, Sergey Smolentsev, Karim Messadek, and Mahmoud Youssef.

“We’re the lead research group on the technology side,” Morley explained. “ITER is mainly a plasma experiment and they are trying to build most of the machine so that it runs as a plasma experiment, without the additional cost and development of reactor relevant technologies.”

“So we’ll learn what we need to learn about the plasma but then how will we learn about the complex and elaborate plasma chamber components such as the blanket systems? That’s where our team and specialized TBM experiments come in,” Morley said.

Additionally, Abdou and a group of students and researchers led also by Ying and researcher Mahmoud Youssef are engaged in analyzing and designing nuclear components for ITER itself.

According to Abdou, along with the ITER program, the U.S. is also planning to build a parallel facility, called the Volumetric Neutron Source (VNS) or also the Component Test Facility (CTF), which was an idea generated by the FINESSE Study led by UCLA in the mid-eighties

“The studies that will lead to the design of the facility will start in 2009. The idea and technical foundations for VNS/CTF came out of UCLA, out of this group. ITER will only demonstrate the plasma physics of fusion, but VNS/CTF will validate the nuclear science and demonstrate the fusion nuclear components, which are essential to a practical, self-sustained, and attractive fusion energy system” said Abdou.

There is still much to be done in energy research and Abdou believes a collaborative environment among researchers, departments, universities, and countries, is how the most can be accomplished. This is also why he believes strongly in CESTAR and volunteers much of his own time as the director.

UCLA Engineering has many faculty with strong research programs in a number of key areas in the energy field. CESTAR promotes researcher teaming, expertise and equipment sharing, and information exchange. It also develops energy research seminars for its members. And as CESTAR continues its work in the primary areas of fusion, nuclear, hydrogen, materials for energy application and energy conversion and conservation, Abdou hopes the center will also continue to bring people together to solve the energy issues of today and tomorrow.

Main Image: Mohamed Abdou, center, with researchers and graduate students.