Scientists Claim They’ve Overcome Problem Plaguing Nuclear Fusion Research Since 1976

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Scientists claim to have solved a major problem that has plagued nuclear fusion for years, and they released their findings in a study published Wednesday.

Chalmers University of Technology researchers claim to have fixed the problem of runaway electrons suddenly accelerating to dangerous speeds that can destroy experimental fusion reactors. Researchers say they can decelerate runaway electrons by injecting heavy ions, like neon or argon, to act as “brakes.”

Runaway electrons have been known as one of the biggest roadblocks to commercial fusion power since 1976.

“When we can effectively decelerate runaway electrons, we are one step closer to a functional fusion reactor,” Linnea Hesslow, a doctoral plasma physics candidate involved in the research, said in a press statement. “Considering there are so few options for solving the world’s growing energy needs in a sustainable way, fusion energy is incredibly exciting since it takes its fuel from ordinary seawater.”

The runaway electron problem prevented fusion reactors from generating more energy than they are supplied.

“[I]t’s easier to travel to Mars than it is to achieve fusion,” Hesslow said. ” You could say that we are trying to harvest stars here on earth, and that can take time. It takes incredibly high temperatures, hotter than the center of the sun, for us to successfully achieve fusion here on earth. That’s why I hope research is given the resources needed to solve the energy issue in time.”

Fusion power is generated when light atomic nuclei are combined at temperatures of up to 150 million degrees Celsius, mimicking how the sun generates energy.

Conventional nuclear reactors are based on the principle of nuclear fission and produce large amounts of nuclear waste. A fusion reactor would generate essentially no hazardous waste and require no hazardous fuel.

Operational fusion power would put most other forms of electricity generation permanently out of business since it could be “too cheap to meter.” Other recent breakthroughs in fusion are on the horizon that experts say could restart the atomic age, but that remains to be seen.

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.

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.

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