SHDO#1 – Fusion!

The first SHDO (SuperHappyDayOut) took place last week. A sideline of SHDC, SHDO is a chance to do those normal cultured things people like to do for days out (go to an art museum, a play, an old castle, etc), but for abnormal things. Like go to a Nuclear Fusion Reactor for example.

So that is what we did! SHDO#1 took us to Culham Science Centre, where the Joint European Torus (JET) lives; the world’s largest tokamak!

We didn’t really know what to expect. On arrival though, we we given tea and biscuits which was a great start! The evening consisted of a brief introductory talk on Nuclear Fusion itself, then some touring around the site to see the two main tokamaks; JET and MAST.

Check us out in front of JET!

This was a very impressive sight! There are huge concrete doors that are closed when the reactor is working, with a crystal maze style process for opening and shutting them (for safety reasons). The tokamak itself is hidden in the middle, surrounded by an array of fuel injection, heating and monitoring equipment. It is a strange cross between an incredibly well engineered machine, and an lab experiment, which makes the engineering even more impressive.

The engineers play jenga with the remote handling robot for practice

Apparently, because of the radioactive nature of the tokamak, the scientists need to use robot arms to perform maintenance. And play with Jenga. Hmmm.

JET Control room

The control room looks like a big computer room (maybe what you’d expect). What was interesting to me was that this part of the tour really showed it is in active use, and how routine it all is. Experiments are run very regularly, and it was interesting how the process was described; “The physicist decides what he is going to experiment, the so-and-so engineer loads up the program, the power-supply liaison guy speaks to the national grid, we then fire up the flywheels, …”. You can learn more from the following video about JET.

We also saw the MAST torus, which was interesting as the walls are actually a cylinder (rather than huging the shape of the torus), which means it is great for photos of the whole plasma:

MAST torus

Much of the work being done here is feeding in to ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), which is an international project to attempt to build a proof-of-concept nuclear fusion power plant. It gave us an excellent insight in to the state of play with fusion, and confirmed my general feeling of it being more a when, rather than if, it will happen. It may sound weird, but I really think there is a big future in understanding how we could use way more energy than we currently do (orders of magnitude), rather than understanding how we could use a little less (the story sung by the eco-friendly drum). But that is another story…

Topped off by a great late night curry in Abingdon, I’d say it was a pretty excellent day out!

So given the success, I’m thinking of planning SHDO#2. My idea is a trip to Southwold. Not just because i’m sure it is a lovely place, but more because:

If that sounds interesting and you might want to come, put a message the SHDC Group.

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