Did Germany Just Unlock Nuclear Fusion?

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Scientists in Germany may have unlocked a secret of nuclear fusion, according to a new research paper published Tuesday.

Researchers found fusion reactors are feasible by determining that an experimental reactor was generating the right kind of magnetic field to trap plasma for long enough for nuclear fusion to occur. The scientists confined the hot plasma in a magnetic field with a device called a “stellarator.”

“To our knowledge, this is an unprecedented accuracy, both in terms of the as-built engineering of a fusion device, as well as in the measurement of magnetic topology,” the scientists wrote in their research’s abstract. “This is a significant step forward in stellarator research, since it shows that the complicated and delicate magnetic topology can be created and verified with the required accuracy.”

The scientific team was led by American physicist Dr. Sam Lazerson of the Department of Energy and the German scientists.

Stellarators enable scientists to control the plasma far more than other fusion power devices. These devices heat the plasma to more than 150 million degrees Celsius, simulating the conditions that cause natural nuclear fusion reactions in stars. The stellarator’s strong magnetic fields are used to keep the plasma away from the walls so that it doesn’t cool down and lose energy.

German engineers from the Max Planck Institute successfully activated the experimental nuclear fusion reactor used in the research last December and successfully managed to suspend plasma for the first time. The reactor took 19 years and $1.1 billion to build and contains over 470 tons of superconducting magnets, all of which need to be cooled to absolute zero.

“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,” John Jelonnek, a physicist at the German Karlsruhe Institute of Technology who was involved in the reactor’s construction, told The Guardian.

Nuclear fusion is different from conventional nuclear reactors, as fusion causes atoms to join at extremely high temperatures and release huge amounts of energy. The process would generate essentially no hazardous waste and wouldn’t even require hazardous fuel.

“[Fusion is] 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,” Jelonnek continued.

Operational fusion power would put most other forms of electricity generation permanently out of business and could occur very soon. Fusion power could be “too cheap to meter,” meaning that the cost of generating new power would be below the cost of determining how much power an individual was using, effectively making electricity generation nearly free.

Other recent breakthroughs in fusion could restart the atomic age, an era when nuclear progress was lauded as a pinnacle of human achievement.

Lockheed Martin Skunk Works is developing a compact fusion reactor small enough to fit in a truck and would generate enough electricity to power 80,000 homes.

An American research team in January discovered a way to initiate nuclear fusion reactions in a process called “fast ignition” using a high-intensity laser, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Scientists believe that “fast ignition”could be a major breakthrough that could allow a fusion reaction to be controlled, because it requires less “start-up” energy than other methods.

Despite the country’s increasing interest in nuclear fusion, Germany has turned away from conventional fission based nuclear power. Germany abandoned nuclear energy after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan galvanized political opposition.

In the year 2000, nuclear power made up 29.5 percent of Germany’s energy. In 2015 the share dropped down to 17 percent, and by 2022 the country intends to have every one of its nuclear plants shutdown. The cost of replacing nuclear power with wind and solar is estimated by the government to be over a trillion euros.

Nuclear power’s decline has created an opening for coal power in the country. Coal now provides 44 percent of  Germany’s power. This shift caused Germany’s CO2 emissions to actually rise by 28 million tons each year after Germany’s nuclear policy changed.

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