Germany’s Fusion Reactor Creates Hydrogen Plasma In World First
Scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany have successfully conducted a revolutionary nuclear fusion experiment. Using their experimental reactor, theÂ Wendelstein 7-XÂ (W7X) stellarator, they have managed to sustain a hydrogen plasma â€“ a key step on the path to creating workable nuclear fusion. The German chancellor Angela Merkel, who herself has a doctorate in physics, switched on the device at 2:35 p.m. GMT (9:35 a.m. EST).
As a clean, near-limitlessÂ source of energy, itâ€™s no understatement to say that controlled nuclear fusion (replicating the process that powers the Sun) would change the world, andÂ several nationsÂ are striving to make breakthroughs in this field. Germany is undoubtedly the frontrunner in one respect: This is the second time that itâ€™s successfully fired up its experimental stellarator fusion reactor, a serious competitor to theÂ tokamakÂ model.
Last December, the team managed toÂ suspend a helium plasmaÂ for the first time, and theyâ€™ve now achieved the same feat with hydrogen. Generating a hydrogen plasma is considerably more difficult than producing a helium one, so by producing and sustaining one in todayâ€™s experiment, even for just a few milliseconds, these researchers have achieved something truly remarkable.
As a power source,Â hydrogen fusionÂ releases far more energy than helium fusion, which is why sustaining a superheated hydrogen plasma within a stellarator represents such a huge step for nuclear fusion research.
John Jelonnek, a physicist at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, led a team that was responsible for installing the powerful heating components of the reactor. â€œWeâ€™re not doing this for us,â€ he told theÂ Guardian, â€œbut for our children and grandchildren.â€
â€” Mattias Marklund (@MattiasMarklund) February 3, 2016
In order to initiate the fusion process,Â extremely high temperaturesÂ of around 100 million degrees CelsiusÂ (180 million degrees Fahrenheit) have to be reached within the reactor. At these temperatures, atoms of hydrogen become energetically excited and form a plasma cloud.
In order for the plasma to be sustained, it must not touch the cold walls of the reactor, so the stellaratorâ€™s 425 tonnesÂ (470 tons) of superconducting, super-cooled magnets are used to keep it suspended in one place. At a high enough ignition temperature â€“ along with the aid of an effect called â€œquantum tunnelingâ€ â€“ the hydrogen particles begin to collide and fuse, releasing energy and forming heavier elements.
This 16-meter-long (52 feet)Â experimental fusion reactor is one of the largest in the world. It took 19 years and â‚¬1 billion ($1.1 billion)Â to complete. This reactor is not designed to produce any usable energy, but rather recreate the conditions found deep within our own Sun â€“ namely, to create a sustained, super-hot plasma, the energy source of a viable fusion reactor.
By successfully creating and capturing helium plasma last year, the scientists at the Max Planck Institute showed that it was certainly possible. This earlier plasma generation also â€œcleanedâ€ out the stellarator, removing dirt particles that would have interfered with todayâ€™s more important hydrogen plasma-generating test.
via iflscience.comÂ by Robin Andrews
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