The Enstein's Legacy

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Above is a report I made that served as a medium at the occasion of an examinated talk I gave a couple of weeks ago.This document is available in french only.


Below is a CCD video : 4mn 25s world record discharge - 19/09/2002 (mpg, 26 833 ko)

Einstein submitted his special theory of relativity for publication exactly 100 years ago. We look at the legacy of his revolution in physics, and how it has led to developments such as the new ITER nuclear fusion test plant

One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein's special theory of relativity also heralded the atomic age. However, the genius of the century could not have imagined at that time that his theory would one day form the basis for all atomic power plants and atomic bombs, and would also help to reveal the secret of solar energy.

Subsequently, researchers have unleashed the fire of nuclear fusion on Earth and see a realistic prospect that it will one day meet the growing energy needs of mankind.

"Atomic fusion could form the basis for electricity supply in the second half of the century," according to Professor Alexander Bradshaw, Scientific Director of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) in Garching near Munich and Greifswald.


Revolutionising space and time

Einstein submitted his special theory of relativity - one of five revolutionary works from his 'annus mirabilis' or miracle year - to the prestigious journal Annals of Physics on 30 June 1905.

Einstein helped pave the way for the understanding of nuclear fusion the process that powers the Sun.

The work was titled 'On the electrodynamics of moving bodies' and described how two observers in motion relative to one another would perceive each other. Here Einstein deprived time of its absolute character: no objective simultaneity existed for spatially distinct events.

Shortly afterwards, a further implication of his relativity principle occurred to the Berne patent clerk: it requires that the mass of an object (m) multiplied by the square of the speed of light (c) is a direct measure of its energy content. The famous E=mc2 formula was born.

"The consideration is amusing and captivating; but I can't know for sure that the Creator isn't laughing and pulling my leg," wrote the physics genius to his friend Conrad Habicht.

The European research reactor JET holds the current record for nuclear fusion.

The dream of inexhaustible energy

Einstein helped pave the way for the understanding of nuclear fusion the process that powers the Sun.

At the approximately 15 million degrees Celsius of the solar furnace, hydrogen nuclei fuse into helium. This releases gigantic amounts of energy.

Nuclear fusion would provide an almost inexhaustible energy source on Earth as well: a single gram of fuel could release as much energy as 11 tonnes (11 million grams) of coal, according to the IPP, without producing any environmentally-harmful carbon dioxide.

Not only that, but the fuel for fusion is available almost everywhere. "Two litres of water and half a pound of stone contain the raw materials for the annual electricity consumption of an entire family," according to IPP spokeswoman Isabella Milch.

Physicists also emphasise the advantages of the technology in terms of safety. In contrast to nuclear fission power plants, a fusion reactor would not require a large stock of radioactive fuel. And unlike nuclear fission, nuclear fusion does not occur in a chain reaction which could get out of control.

A receding deadline
However, despite decades of research, commercially viable nuclear fusion remains approximately 40 years in the future in the opinion of experts - the same time interval as was already being predicted in the 60s.

Experts say commercially viable nuclear fusion remains approximately 40 years in the future -- the same time interval as was being predicted in the 60s.

Maintaining a stable fusion process has proved to be complicated. This is because nuclear fusion requires extreme conditions: the fuel must be heated to approximately 100 million degrees Celsius and must be confined within the combustion chamber without any contact. This requires extremely strong magnetic fields with a particular structure.

The first significant success with fusion occurred in 1991 at the European research reactor, JET. In 1997, they succeeded again and in two seconds produced approximately 65 per cent of the energy which had been used for the ignition of the fusion process - a record unbroken to this day.
The international test plant, ITER which will be built at Caderache in Southern France should release ten times as much energy as is required to ignite the fusion fire.