Scientists Think This Simple Software Fix Could Make Nuclear Fusion A Reality

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Researchers think that simple software changes will lead to commercial nuclear fusion by making reactors easier and cheaper to build, according to a new study by the University of Maryland.

Computer modeling suggests that these changes will allow future reactors to be better designed. The new method will also eliminate much of the trial and error involved in building fusion reactors, making their construction much cheaper.

“Instead of optimizing only the magnetic field shape, this new method considers the complexity of the coil shapes simultaneously,” Dr. Matt Landreman, a University of Maryland physicist who authored the research, said in a press statement.  “So there is a bit of a tradeoff. It’s a bit like buying a car. You might want the cheapest car, but you also want the safest car. Both features can be at odds with each other, so you have to find a way to meet in the middle.”

The study could make future fusion reactors better optimized by precisely shaping the magnetic field generated by their electromagnetic coils. The largest such experimental reactor in existence is the W7-X at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, which began operation in 2015.

“Most designs, including W7-X, started with a specifically shaped magnetic field to confine the plasma well. Then the designers shaped the coils to create this magnetic field,” Landreman said.”But this method typically required a lot of trial-and-error with the coil design tools to avoid coils coming too close together, making them infeasible to build, or leaving too little space to access the plasma chamber for maintenance.”

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.

The research will allow scientists to design reactors that 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 reactor’s strong magnetic fields are used to keep the plasma away from the walls so that it doesn’t cool down and lose energy.

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.

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.

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.

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