|United Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 15, Number 1, 1998 (UNU, 1998, 12 pages)|
By Takaya Kawabe
The UNU Centre in Tokyo is rapidly becoming a major nodal point of scientific networking - the place the working scientist checks in with to get the newest development technologies, the latest zero-emissions work or the state of global hydropolitics.
Of all its computer-driven networks, however, none have quite the enormous promise as does PlasmaNet - which deals with the type of energy generated on the Sun, nuclear fusion, a potentially limitless source of energy and producer of new materials. Plasma physics lie at the outer reaches of the effort to find new energy sources. At issue is the energy released by nuclear fusion, a concept embodied in Einstein's famous equation, E = mc2 - the energy released (E) is equal to the mass (m) multiplied by the square of the speed of light (c2). The amount of energy generated by such a transaction is immense at least a million times greater than energy available from a similar amount of fossil fuel.
Most of the effort in recent years has focused on the ability of plasma to form hard, impenetrable coatings on all kinds of surfaces. This has proved to be a property invaluable to everything from drilling tools to artificial blood veins to reducing air conditioning needs.
In the following article, written for Work in Progress, Takaya Kawabe, a scientist from the Institute of Physics at the University of Tsukuba, the Japanese "science city," discusses this energy source and the role envisioned for PlasmaNet. Professor Kawabe is an Adjunct Professor at the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU/IAS). - Editor
Successful technology transfer is one of the keys to a successful "catching up" process by the developing nations. To date, many of the technologies that have been transferred to the developing countries have been so-called "low level;" by the time they are in place, they are already obsolete.
Plasma technology, I believe, is a 21st century advanced technology which could be transferred successfully to the developing countries. This is the aim of the UNU's recently established "PlasmaNet" which brings the latest developments to scientists around the world.
To understand why plasma technologies are so important, a bit of elementary school science would perhaps be in order first. The lowest energetic state of matter is solid. In the case of water, it is ice. Heat the solid and you get a liquid, water. When you heat the liquid, it eventually changes into a gaseous state - as in vapour.
But what happens if you apply heat - or energy - to the gaseous state? At a very high temperature, the gas has all the electrons stripped off its atoms. In the ionization process which ensues, the gaseous state changes into clouds of positive ions and electrons. It becomes the fourth state of matter - known as "plasma."
We can find plasma wherever matter is heated up: in the flare of a flame; the spark in an electrical discharge; the discharge inside a fluorescent lamp. Lightening is plasma - so is the ionosphere. Most of the light emitted by stars is plasma - as is most of the matter between the stars. It is far and away the most prevalent state of matter - estimated to compose 99.99% of the matter in the universe.
A most interesting point about plasma is the fact that electrical conductivity is the function of the temperature of the electron. When an electron becomes very hot (again, remember millions of degrees), plasma becomes more conductive than copper.
Research on plasma physics has been under way for about 60 years. The initial applications were in telecommunications, using the reflection of electromagnetic waves by the ionosphere. Beginning in the 1960s, the focus shifted to studies of controlled fusion to produce electricity. This mainly involved enormous and very expensive equipment from the high technology laboratories of the North.
The UNU explored its potential in the Third World in the project directed by Dr. Lee Sing at the University of Malaya. Experiments there with a plasma focus machine were successful in producing plasma nuclear fusion at the lowest voltage recorded to that time - in the late 1980s.
Dawn of Plasma Age
In recent years, there has been a virtual eruption of plasma applications. It seems safe to say that here at the beginning of the 21st century, we are also at the dawn of plasma age.
Plasma has a number of characteristics which make it useful. Because of its exceedingly high temperatures - 10,000 to 20,000°C - we may use plasma technology to separate out various gases and liquids which are harmful to humans and the environment.
This ability has proved beneficial in the production of optical fibre, an essential new material in modern communications. Optical fibre is produced from refined quartz. Japan, for example, imports this quartz from Brazil. In the refining process there, charcoal is used and carbon monoxide, a deadly poison gas, is a by-product. Hot plasmas, however, can dissipate the carbon monoxide and thus reduce the hazards to those working in or living close to the quartz refineries.
The ability of plasma to form new coatings is another very useful property. While the plasma temperature must be high, it is not necessary that the matter to be modified need to be the same temperature - this in contrast to the ordinary chemical processes. In this way, a thin metal coating can be applied to the surface of a plastic lens, say, without melting the plastic. When plasma particles and other gaseous particles come together on the surface of solid materials, many useful reactions occur.
Since the plasma particles (atoms, molecules, charged ions) are pure energy, they stick on a number of surfaces - metal, ceramics, plastic, glass, fabric, wood. The plasma particles actually penetrate the atoms of the solid target, forming a very strong and hard surface. Some of the typical uses here are for drills and other cutting tools, anticorrosion piping (oil, artificial blood tubes), anti-friction coating, anti-rusting, or even the application of gilt to decorative jewellery items.
Lessen Air Conditioning
Plasma technology makes a major contribution to energy conservation through its ability to coat window glass and thereby reduce infra-red rays. Air conditioning is a major consumer of electricity in hot climates and during summertimes. Infrared rays normally pass through glass windows and help to warm a room. By using plasma technology to coat windows, infra-red warming can be cut, thus reducing air conditioning needs.
It has been found that the cost of such plasma coating is more than justified by the reduction in electricity costs. Plasma technology has been used in a number of other coating applications: anti-reflection for eye glasses or automobile front windows, shielding of electro-magnetic noises, ceramic coating (automobile engines, artificial bones and teeth), special colour cloths, waterproofing.
Such technology obviously could make many important contributions to economic growth. Diffusion of plasma technology to the poorer countries is thus an important need in the achievement of sustainable technology. Plasma technology is a high-tech process with potentially enormous economic benefits to developing countries. And since the technology is relatively young, there are undoubtedly many other applications which have not yet been explored. It is essential, therefore, that the developing countries keep abreast of the advances in this field.
International cooperation for the transfer of plasma technology has been going on between Japan and Argentina for several years. I personally have been deeply engaged in this endeavour since early in this decade. We expect shortly to send Japanese plasma experts to work at the Research Institute of the Argentine Atomic Energy Commission. Nissin Electric Co. Ltd. has donated a plasma reactor to this institution. Another will be built on site with the help of Japanese experts and titanium nitride (TiN)-coating technologies will be explored.
Last summer, the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies brought together Argentine and Japanese plasma technology experts for a seminar on plasma processes. About 40 Latin American scientists participated, from Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. A programme of technology transfer is being built around a regional centre in Latin America. Another regional centre - for Eastern and Central Europe - is being planned in Romania.
PlasmaNet: Available to All
As a further important step in disseminating the latest information in the plasma field, the UNU has established the network known as "PlasmaNet." All members in the network have e-mail service. UNU/IAS sponsored the computer system to do this, and the Institute of Physics of Tsukuba University offered technical support. There are already more than 500 subscribers, and the network membership is growing quite fast. Reactions from individual subscribers indicate they very much appreciate the service.
PlasmaNet is built around a number of lists, identifying regions and topics of interest. Each list has a coordinator. There are two major lists, for general news and announcement and for international cooperation. There are six regional cooperation lists: Latin America, Asia and Oceania, Eastern and Central Europe, Africa, former USSR, and the Baltic Sea region. Topical forums on the PlasmaNet include areas like environmental plasma technologies, materials processing, laser-produced technologies, and light source plasma.
A homepage on the World Wide Web has just been created. For those countries who cannot afford to use the Internet, a printed version of the PlasmaNet is published with the collaboration of the Institute of Plasma Research, India. It is published quarterly and distributed tree of charge. All in all, we believe that the UNU PlasmaNet is quickly becoming a real world centre of excellence in this field.