Germany Just Successfully Fired Up a Nuclear Fusion Reactor
by Robin Andrews
You probably didn’t notice, but a few days ago, the world took a huge step towards the goal of achieving clean, limitless energy through nuclear fusion.
View of the burn chamber of TEXTOR.
Controlled nuclear fusion – a clean, near-perpetual source of energy – would revolutionize the world. In recent years, significant steps on the path to a fully operational, efficient fusion reactor have been made, and this week another milestone has been reached: German engineers from the Max Planck Institute have successfully fired up their nuclear fusion reactor, announcing that they have managed to suspend plasma for the first time.
Their 16-meter-long (52-foot-long) experimental fusion reactor, Wendelstein 7-X (W7X), is one of the largest in the world. It took 19 years and €1 billion ($1.1 billion/£715 million) to complete, and contains over 425 tonnes (470 tons) of superconducting magnets, all of which need to be cooled to absolute zero. Within it, the process that operates at the heart of stars can hypothetically take place.
Wide-angle view inside the W7-X stellarator (under construction), showing the stainless cover plates and the water-cooled copper backing plates (which will eventually be covered by graphite tiles) that are being installed as armor to protect against plasma/wall interactions.
In order to generate energy, extremely high temperatures are required; the center of our own Sun, for example, has temperatures of up to 15 million degrees Celsius (27 million degrees Fahrenheit). At these temperatures, and with the aid of an effect called “quantum tunneling,” atoms of the lightest elements (hydrogen and helium) become energetically excited. At a high enough “ignition temperature,” they begin to collide and fuse, releasing energy and forming heavier elements.
The first suspended plasma within the W7X reactor. IPP
— MPI für Plasmaphysik (@PlasmaphysikIPP) December 10, 2015
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