Scientists Are Getting Close To Controlling Fusion Power With Particle Beams

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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New research suggests scientists are getting close to using magnetic fields and powerful particle beams to control fusion reactions.

Scientists say they’ve found a way to put sensors inside a fusion reactor and link them to a computer algorithm capable of directly controlling particle beams to regulate the reaction. Controlling the reaction with particle beams means physicists can prevent instabilities from degrading a magnetic field and ultimately shutting down a fusion reaction.

“This is the first time these two actuators have been used together to control the plasma rotation profile,” Steven Sabbagh, an applied physics professor at Columbia University who was involved in the research, said in a press statement.

Researchers designed an effective algorithm for the National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade, a magnetic fusion reactor at Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. The algorithm performs well in simulations, but has yet to be tested in the real world.

The research necessary to develop the algorithm was funded by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

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. Other studies have found ways to make future fusion reactors better optimized by precisely shaping the magnetic field generated by their electromagnetic coils.

An American research team in January discovered a way to initiate nuclear fusion reactions in a process called “fast ignition” by 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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