Scientists Get One Step Closer To Their “Most Viable Nuclear Fusion” Technology

Scientists Get One Step Closer To Their “Most Viable Nuclear Fusion” Technology
Test cell of the NSTX-U. Credit: Elle Starkman/PPPL Office of Communications

The U.S. government have recently backed plans that could see a new kind of nuclear fusion device created that has the ability to be the most viable and efficient design that the world is yet to see.  Although nuclear fission is mega efficient, the managing of the toxic waste it expels is a costly experience.  But nuclear fusion, on the other hand, doesn’t produce any radioactive waste or other harmful by-products.  It is also the same process that has fuelled the sun for the past 4.5 billion years, so there must be some good to come from it.

Nuclear fusion works by generating large amounts of energy as the nuclei of two or more lighter atoms fuse together at very high temperatures to create one heavier nucleus.  By finding a way to replicate this process and building machines that could withstand nuclear fusion reactions, would solve the world’s energy needs for good.  But, the process is not as easy as it sounds and for more than six decades scientists have been trying to perfect this “star in a jar” technology to be able to use it effectively.

In order for a nuclear fusion machine to be successful, it must first be able to reach temperatures of at least 100 million degrees Celsius.  Two teams that are the closest to achieving this form of nuclear fusion are physicists at the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator in Greifswald, Germany and a team of researchers at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) in China. The German team managed to heat the hydrogen gas to 80 million degrees Celsius and sustain a cloud of hydrogen plasma for a total of one-quarter of a second.  Meanwhile, the Chinese team managed a total of 102 seconds at a temperature of 49.999 million degrees Celsius.

So, although this is one step forward in the search for efficient nuclear fusion technology, there is still a long way to go. But, physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) are confident they have found a way to close that gap a little more.  Where most current nuclear fusion machines (tokamaks) are shaped like a doughnut, these physicists want to build more spherical shaped tokamaks.  The team is confident that with the spherical shape halving the size of the hole in the doughnut shape, the plasma can be controlled more easily with lower energy magnetic fields.  They are also looking to replace the traditional copper magnets that are used with high-temperature superconducting magnets that are far more efficient. So, with research continuing scientists are hopeful that one day we will get our “Star in a Jar” technology and are getting closer to this every day.

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