The team of physicists working at the German star-type fusion reactor known as Wendelstein 7-X has taken another major technological step that brings us closer to effectively harnessing the infinite energy of nuclear fusion. According to a new article published in temper natureIn fact, the star will now be able to contain temperatures twice as high as those in the core of the Sun, meaning physicists were able to reduce heat loss, an important aspect of this type of technology.
“It’s very exciting news for the merger that this project has been a success,” said physicist Novimir Pablant of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). “It clearly shows that this kind of optimization can be done.” Fusion energy is at the heart of energy development efforts around the world. In theory, it relies on harnessing the energy released when cores fuse in plasma to produce a heavier element – the same process that occurs in the cores of stars. If we can achieve this, the benefits will be enormous: clean energy and virtually inexhaustible high production.
However, that is easier said than done. Fusion is a very active process and it is not easy to contain. Fusion energy was first studied in 1940; Decades later, fusion reactors still don’t produce as much energy as they lose, by a very large margin, despite the gap narrowing. The fusion technology currently breaking temperature records is the tokamak – a doughnut-shaped ring of plasma trapped within magnetic fields, propelled at high speed by fast pulsations. The relative simplicity of this technique helps contain the high temperatures, but only in bursts of pulses.
On the other hand, Stellarators rely on an incredibly complex configuration of magnets set by artificial intelligence that can direct plasma to keep it liquid. They are very difficult to design and build, with the result that stellar stars lose a great deal of energy from fusion, in the form of heat loss.
Because tokamaks have their own shortcomings, researchers at PPPL and the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics have attempted to design a W7-X magnet to try to minimize the effects that cause heat loss and now the measurements, taken with a single instrument called the X-Crystal Imaging Spectrometer, will show high temperatures very inside the reactor.
This exciting achievement represents an important step forward in improving the stellar design, which will serve as the basis for future efforts. It’s also an important step towards a workable fusion reactor, although there is still a lot of work to be done. For a fusion reactor to be practical, it must not only have high temperatures, but also have the appropriate plasma density and appropriate holding times. With so many fusion reactor technologies currently in development, it seems only a matter of time before one of them provides enough power, and when it does, it could very well change the world.
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