Temperatures in the reactor needed to reach 180 million degrees Fahrenheit!
Fantastic news from Germany! Scientists at the Max Planck Institute have successfully conducted a nuclear fusion experiment... and it’s revolutionary. Wendelstein 7-X (W7X), an experimental reactor that is one of the largest in the world at 52 feet long (16 meters), has managed to sustain hydrogen plasma — a key to finally creating nuclear fusion.
Nuclear fission, which is what our current nuclear facilities generate, splits the nucleus of an atom into smaller neutrons and nuclei. Fission is quite efficient. In fact, it is millions of times more efficient per mass than coal, however it produces dangerous radioactive waste.
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Nuclear fusion — a process that replicates the powers of the sun — is pretty much a clean (produces no waste), limitless source of energy, so developing controlled nuclear fusion would, without a doubt, change the world.
There are many countries trying to do this, however Germany is definitely leading the pack — this is the second time that it has successfully fired up its fusion reactor. Mattias Marklund, a physicist for the Gothenburg Centre for Advanced Studies, tweeted these images of the hydrogen plasma:
First hydrogen plasma at the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator at MPI Greifswald #fusion #energy pic.twitter.com/A754zZcJQb
— Mattias Marklund (@MattiasMarklund) February 3, 2016
Back in December, the team managed to suspend a helium plasma for the first time in history, and now they have done the same with hydrogen. It turns out that generating hydrogen plasma is much more difficult than helium, and as a source of power, hydrogen fusion releases way more energy than helium fusion — so sustaining hydrogen plasma for any amount of time is monumental in the research of nuclear fusion.
John Jelonnek, a physicist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology told The Guardian, “We’re not doing this for us, but for our children and grandchildren.”
So how did the researchers do it? To start the fusion process, temperatures around 100 million degrees Celsius (180 million degrees Fahrenheit) have to be reached within the reactor because at these temperatures, atoms of hydrogen become excited.
Once temperatures are high enough, along with the aid of an effect known as quantum tunneling — a mechanical phenomenon where a particle transitions through a classically-forbidden energy state — hydrogen atoms begin to collide and fuse, releasing energy within a plasma cloud.
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The really tricky part is to somehow sustain this plasma. In order to that that, it can’t touch the cold walls of the reactor, so 425 tonnes (470 tons) of superconducting, super-cooled magnets are used to levitate it in one place.
“Experiments with hydrogen plasma will continue until March when protective carbon tiles and a divertor for the elimination of impurities will be mounted inside the reactor vessel,” Alexander Hellemans reports for Spectrum IEEE. The hope is to be able to sustain the hydrogen plasma for 30 minutes.
Although this is fantastic news for nuclear physicists, this particular reactor was not designed to produce useable energy, but rather just reproduce conditions found within the sun.
Still, we are definitely one step closer to developing a clean and near-limitless source of sustainable energy!