At the end of last year, Germany switched on a new type of massive nuclear fusion reactor for the first time, and it was successfully able to contain a scorching hot blob of helium plasma.
Scientists in northeast Germany have successfully completed their latest experiment on the road to harnessing nuclear fusion power.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute injected a tiny amount of hydrogen and heated it until it became plasma, effectively mimicking conditions inside the sun.
It’s part of a worldwide effort to harness nuclear fusion, a process in which atoms join at extremely high temperatures and release large amounts of energy.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute injected a tiny amount of hydrogen and heated it until it became plasma, effectively mimicking conditions inside the sun.: Here, the first hydrogen plasma in Wendelstein 7-X
Construction has already begun in southern France on ITER, a huge international research reactor that uses a strong electric current to trap plasma inside a doughnut-shaped device long enough for fusion to take place.
The device, known as a tokamak, was conceived by Soviet physicists in the 1950s and is considered fairly easy to build, but extremely difficult to operate.
HOW DOES FUSION POWER WORK?
Fusion involves placing hydrogen atoms under high heat and pressure until they fuse into helium atoms.
When deuterium and tritium nuclei – which can be found in hydrogen – fuse, they form a helium nucleus, a neutron and a lot of energy.
This is down by heating the fuel to temperatures in excess of 150 million°C, forming a hot plasma.
Strong magnetic fields are used to keep the plasma away from the walls so that it doesn’t cool down and lost it energy potential.
These are produced by superconducting coils surrounding the vessel, and by an electrical current driven through the plasma.
For energy production. plasma has to be confined for a sufficiently long period for fusion to occur.
The Wendelstein 7-X machine in Germany, which cost €1billion to build, creates conditions similar to those inside stars (illustrated). It’s part of a worldwide effort to harness nuclear fusion, a process in which atoms join at extremely high temperatures and release large amounts of energy.
While critics have said the pursuit of nuclear fusion is an expensive waste of money that could be better spent on other projects, Germany has forged ahead in funding the Greifswald project.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who holds a doctorate in physics, attended today’s event, which took place in her constituency.
Over the coming years W7-X, which isn’t designed to produce any energy itself, will test many of the extreme conditions such devices will be subjected to if they are ever to generate power, said John Jelonnek, a physicist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany.
Jelonnek’s team is responsible for a key component of the device, the massive microwave ovens that will turn hydrogen into plasma, eventually reaching 100 million °C.
Compared to nuclear fission, which produces huge amounts of radioactive material that will be around for thousands of years, the waste from nuclear fusion would be negligible, he said.
‘It’s a very clean source of power, the cleanest you could possibly wish for. We’re not doing this for us, but for our children and grandchildren.’