Scientists Say They’re Finally Getting Close To Fusion Power

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Scientists at Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Germany claim they are finally getting close to perfecting nuclear fusion.

New research indicates scientists are much closer to developing nuclear fusion power because of changes in how plasma is confined. These developments have led to advances in reactor design so plasma can be contained in a doughnut-shaped magnetic field.

“Increasing the pressure by additional heating of magnetically confined plasmas had the consequence that turbulent processes became more violent and plasma confinement degraded,” Dr. Fritz Wagner, who authored the new study, said in a press statement. “Since this experience from the early 1980s, fusion research was dominated by the search for confinement regimes with improved properties.”

These design changes allowed physicists to work out that these tokamak-type reactors could cause plasma to “self-organize,” which could soon lead to a revolution in fusion power.

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.

Current fusion research hopes to allow scientists to design reactors capable of better controlling plasma. Current experimental fusion reactors 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 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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