First Plasma In The World’s Largest Stellerator

If you’re looking for the future of humanity, look no further than the first plasma generated in the Wendelstein 7-X Stellerator at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics. It turned on for the first time yesterday, and while this isn’t the first fusion power plant, nor will it ever be, it is a preview of what may become the invention that will save humanity.

A glimpse of plasma in side the Stellerator
A glimpse of plasma in side the Stellerator

For a very long time, it was believed the only way to turn isotopes of hydrogen into helium for the efficient recovery of power was the Tokamak. This device, basically a hollow torus lined with coils of wire, compresses plasma into a thin circular string. With the right pressures and temperatures, this plasma will transmute the elements and produce power.

Tokamaks have not seen much success, though, and this is a consequence of two key problems with the Tokamak design. First, we’ve been building them too small, although the ITER reactor currently being built in southern France may be an exception. ITER should be able to produce more energy than is used to initiate fusion after it comes online in the 2020s. Tokamaks also have another problem: they cannot operate continuously without a lot of extraneous equipment. While the Wendelstein 7-X Stellerator is too small to produce a net excess of power, it will demonstrate continuous operation of a fusion device. [Elliot Williams] wrote a great explanation of this Stellerator last month which is well worth a look.

While this Stellerator is just a testbed and will never be used to generate power, it is by no means the only other possible means of creating a sun on Earth. The Polywell – a device that fuses hydrogen inside a containment vessel made of electromagnets arranged like the faces of a cube – is getting funding from the US Navy. Additionally, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works claims they can put a 100 Megawatt fusion reactor on the back of a truck within a few years.

The creation of a fusion power plant will be the most important invention of all time, and will earn the researchers behind it the Nobel prize in physics and peace. While the Wendelstein 7-X Stellarator is not the first fusion power plant, it might be a step in the right direction.

89 thoughts on “First Plasma In The World’s Largest Stellerator

        1. No, they haven’t. The stockpile is still being maintained, and the neutron initiators and tritiated lithium 6 boosters are replaced regularly to make sure they will work when needed.
          Maybe in your country they were disarmed.

          1. The whole point of nuclear weapons is that you know they’re there, or at least believe they’re there.

            Nobody actually wants to lob a multi-megaton nuclear weapon at anyone, because it would be practical suicide in so many ways, diplomatic and physical.

    1. lol thats called a fusion bomb and we have it for 40-50 years its not really a big deal and if someone makes a fusion powered hand-held weapon thats as good as it gets for me really i would even try to get one lol

  1. These projects are exciting. Thanks for the article.

    We should stop talking about the “peace” prize as if it was an honor. It’s just political and has nothing to do with Nobel or Peace.

  2. There’s an irony here: tokamaks are what the Big Physics community settled on when the first generations of stellarators and other continuous-plasma devices failed to show promising results.

    (I still remember being in physics class while the professor passed around plans for an inertial-confinement generator. That thing made a tokamak look dead simple.)

  3. Awesome stuff, I wonder how lockheed plans to get the steam turbine and an Olympic swimming pool worth of water not to mention the cooling towers stuck on the back of a truck, much less a plane… Can someone please elucidate, they reveal nothing as to the heat engine they plan on actually generating electricity with.

        1. Deuteron-triton fusion produces high energy neutrons. After thermalization they are then captured in the shielding. The neutron activation of these shielding materials yields radioisotopes that must be managed, further shielded, and sometimes processed for useful isotopes. The Lithium jacket design of ITER is designed to breed tritium for fuel use from the neutrons captured. There is (will be) a separate facility built just for this processing.

    1. well if they do direct conversion they can. of course direct conversion is something you are probibly not going to see until 3rd and 4th generation fusion power plants running on fuels other than d-t or d-d. you pretty much need aneutronic fuels that emit charged particles for direct conversion to work. they are of course harder to fuse and produce less energy, but are safer. p-b11 is probibly the most viable, boron is very abundant on the earth, he3 on the other hand is better but theres no earthly fuel source, so thats going to be a post space infrastructure fuel.

      i think the general idea is that you would load up the reactor on a truck, ship it to a coal fire plant, and retrofit it onto the existing steam turbines. replacing the boilers with the heat exchanger into your reactor loop.

    2. The web site talked about using the existing power generating infrastructure from gas fired turbine generating plants. I think the part that fits on the truck is just the fusion reactor itself, not the cooling and turbines.

    3. It’s used to replace the combustor in a gas turbine. Compressor+Combustor+Turbine in one land based “jet” engine. They’re presumably going to heat the compressed air directly with the reactor rather than with fossil fuel. The turbine shaft is mated to an alternator. This entire package could fit on a semi-truck.

  4. Every hour, each square meter of the upper atmosphere receives 1.367kWh of solar Energy. Am I the only person thinking that it would probably be cheaper to have a bunch of giant mirrors in space and reflect and focus energy from our local star. One problem would be that, that much energy would burn massive holes snaking through our ozone layer (UV-C breaks down DNA, so we do need our ozone layer), and it would raise the overall temperature of the planet! Maybe base a solar collection point on the moon, then you have the problem of converting solar energy into a small lightweight energy containment system for transport back to earth. That has always been a major problem, how to store massive amounts of energy quickly. There is only so much that can be stored in chemical bonds, maybe we as a species should be looking to store energy by creating unstable elements. It takes 6 thousand to 14million kelvin to fuse hydrogen into helium, 100million kelvin to fuse helium into beryllium-8, zap beryllium-8 with an alpha particles and it releases 2 gamma rays and becomes carbon-12. If only we could capture the energy from gamma rays that would be very efficient storage of energy.

    1. “Every hour, each square meter of the upper atmosphere receives 1.367kWh of solar Energy.”

      That’s wrong. The solar constant is just the solar flux at Earth, at *normal incidence*. The total area in the upper atmosphere is bigger than that – we live on a sphere, not a circle. The Earth receives 1367 kW/m^2 * pi * r^2 from the Sun, and the total surface area of the Earth is 4*pi*r^2. So if you average over the entire atmosphere, you receive (1/4th) of that, or ~342 kW/m^2. (Note that solar panels can do better than that if they track, but that’s power per solar panel area, not installation area. Plus this is averaged over all locations on Earth).

      “Am I the only person thinking that it would probably be cheaper to have a bunch of giant mirrors in space and reflect and focus energy from our local star. ”

      Given the cost of launching something into space and how little time a giant mirror in space would actually last, yes, you are probably the only one thinking that.

      1. It would have to be a geostationary mirror, and the optics to beam it to a point on earth would probably suffer from some sort of diffraction/diffusion/dissapation issue of trying to get the beam to converge from 36,000 km away.

        Even the tiniest vibration in the mirror would make the spot on the ground flicker by miles.

      2. “Given the cost of launching something into space and how little time a giant mirror in space would actually last, yes, you are probably the only one thinking that.” Nope that’s the plot of the James Bond Movie Die Another Day, I’m surprised you didn’t get the reference.

    2. Why not just focus the light on to a “converter station” in orbit hooked to a “space extension cord” (think space elevator but not lifting anything, just transmitting power)?

        1. I realize it’s semantics, but the power output IS zero, the net power is a huge minus…both correct, just talking about slightly different concepts (not sure concept is the right word here).

  5. Save humanity from what exactly? While workable fusion reactor would be a major change – it would not allow every one “Unlimited energy forever” (despite what the cover of a major US news magazine recently proclaimed.) Consider the heat generated by any use of energy (nothing to do with global warming) – and the rate at which we have been increasing energy use (about 2-3%/year). We can not go on increasing energy use on earth at the rate we have been for much longer (e.g. a few hundred years) without baking ourselves.

    http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2012/04/economist-meets-physicist/

      1. voxnulla is right.
        And at some point main stream humans will know that – the same way they know today that the earth is not flat and that we evolved from the same ancestors as did the apes.. it will just take time and probably a couple more revolutions.

        1. Um I could’ve told you that we will end up destroying the earth within the next 200 years based on the current rate of resource consumption, war and pollution
          Anything being done now is probaly to little to late

        1. Those saying that unlimited growth is impossible are assuming we are limited by the physical reality of space and living on one planet.

          At some point there will be no room to increase the amount of resources (people, things, etc.) being managed by an economy. At this point, the only “growth” in the economy will be inflation… that is, fictional growth.

    1. it is my understanding that humans aren’t that efficient metabolically because of all the work we must do just to continue to live regardless of current task, but at least we are versatile

    2. Also, you have a very serious medical problem if you exist at room temperature. I’d imagine the temperature inside mitochondria is quite high as well! Yes, I know I’m being pedantic, but I suppose this is an important distinction thermodynamically speaking.

  6. We’re still living in the steam age… there have only been two major advances in the last century pertaining to generation of electricity…. photovoltaics and thermoelectric couplers. Neither of which are in ubiquitous widespread use(percentage of grid production).

    The proposed fusion reactors are still just a steam engine with a fancy heat source, as are our current nuclear reactors, fossil fuel plants, and some solar facilities. “Wind,” you say… but that is just a combination of technologies that would not be “magical” to someone existing in the late 1800’s. Windmills had existed for centuries, and Faraday himself laid the groundwork for the electrical generator in the early half the the century. “Fuel cells” – also early 1800’s…

    While there have been truly astounding applications and “honing” of old knowledge lately, there has been a great stagnation in the expansion of the fundamental principles of the universe in the last century. Personally, I think it’s because a Tesla, Einstein, or Faraday(among other Greats) couldn’t function in today’s corporate-dominance environment of research – much of which is applied sciences, anyway, because that’s what makes the money and get the grants(to develop a way to make more money)… Universities are even now largely a profit-driven entity when it comes to the fruits of research.

    1. Are you sure you are not just missing all the neat new stuff that pure-science has been discovering in the last couple of decades, because it has no application (yet) and thus does not get circulated among non-experts of the respective fields much?

        1. Slowing of advanced – compared to what period? Scientific knowledge has always been cumulative. Particular areas may see variations in speed of advance, but doesn’t mean there is nothing new under the sun.
          As we more fully understand it becomes harder and harder to make additions (expect things to be more refinements, rather than whole new things).
          Asking for new and developed items –
          “Just one word – Plastics.” (Okay, discovered just before the last 100 years, but took a while to be applied and transform the planet.)
          Consider – most of relativity was only understood and applied during the last 100 years (first published just over 100 years ago, to little initial excitement from the scientific world).
          How about dark matter/dark energy (new, fundamental, too new to be much applied yet). Cosmic background radiation (confirmation of the big bang).
          Various fancy materials (carbon nanotubes, bucky balls, rare earth magnets, etc.)
          Superconductivity.
          Semiconductors (Solid state electronics, computers, the internet, complex control systems that aren’t biological).
          DNA – Epigenetics, gene mapping, genetic modification.

          All based on previous observations and work of course, but Einstein’s work was not totally new either.
          (Special relativity e.g. result of trying to resolve differences between Newton and Maxwell.)
          Several “discovered” just fractionally before the last 100 years, but 100 years ago if the same question had been asked
          “what newly-discovered(and harnessed) fundamental properties of the universe am I missing?”
          Few if any of these would qualify as being harnessed.

    2. These “18th century” windmills have been aerodynamically optimised by finite element analysis ran on digital computers that fit onto an office table. The blades are made of a cloth, that is made from glass fibers, it was impregnated with a synthetic resin and cured in an autoclave, all as a single, 20+m piece.
      Don’t even get me started on the generator part, which uses huge neodymium magnets and a computer controlled frequency inverter to match electrical grid parameters.

      1. all of that however is arguably only improvements on already working power generation, which was sort of his point.
        if we dont look at it from a pure power generation problem, then many of the fields and technologies you mentioned have evolved.

  7. Can I run one in my backyard?
    If it’s not distributed power it’s not going to compete with what we got today.. most centralized power that is available today is going to be shut down because of this.
    Proposing another centralized way of controlling the supply of power won’t help to ‘safe humanity’.

    And don’t come with ‘baseload’.. the German grid operator says they can run 70% of their grid with fluctuating RE before they need any meaningfull amount of storage.. and they got a lot of industry over there.

    The only use I see for fusion is in space when humans try to leave earth/sol.. but before ‘we’ can attempt that there is so many else to accomplish as society it’s just not funny.

    1. you are right that you cant have large scale power generation as the sole provider, they do however make a good backbone for a healthy grid and distributed generation or not the grid is probably a fairly good idea for most densely populated areas, rural alaska probably not so much.

      the reason RE works in northern europe is that we have a grid and extensive grid integration agreements between nations, denmark can produce more power from RE than it uses on the ideal day but on average it is quite a bit lower, so it helps to spread the “risk” of low power across a larger geographical area.

    2. “most centralized power…is going to be shut down”……. YOU WISH !
      I suggest you take a gander at the news. Numerous municipalities are
      fining and attempting to force “off grid” citizens using “renewable” energy
      (translation: solar power), to go back ‘on-the-grid’ – and fining/threatening
      them with legal action if they don’t. And the mass “sheeple” tacitly
      accept such control-tactics…usually these communities are run by
      democrats wanting more government intrusion/control over people’s
      lives…regrettably the ones wanting to go off-grid are the folks who are
      independent and wanting to get away from the clueless majority.

        1. I suggest you search for the term “woman forced back on grid”…. happening in
          Florida, happening in Colorado… hell, some municipalities have even outlawed
          rain water collection ! I repeat – some communities have made it illegal for you
          to put a barrel outside *your* home, on *your* land, to collect rain water falling from
          the sky !

          1. I did search for it. They capped her city sewer line, which she had been using without paying for. Claiming they forced her ON grid, when they actually forced her further OFF grid, is utter and complete nonsense.

            She has the option to connect to city water, even if she doesn’t use any water from that source, for the sole purpose of fairly billing her for sewer use – since that fee is collected on the water bill. But she is not being forced to do it, and the article I found said she has so far chosen not to.

      1. A lot of the “value” in shares is in the confidence people have in them maintaining, or increasing, in value. Commodities have an intrinsic value but people invest in them to make a profit. If prices start to fall, people sell. There’s a huge amount of dangerous hysteresis, positive feedback, in financial markets. Scares have destroyed economies, whether they’re valid or not doesn’t matter.

        In other words, they should let engineers and scientists run the world.

        1. Your understanding of “hedging” in the commodities business is lacking.
          If I (as a producer), want to lock-in a price for my goods for some future date, in order
          to protect my profit (say as a farmer with a corn crop), that is a “futures contract”. A
          counterparty (be it investor or Green Giant), takes on the other side of the deal…now,
          these contracts are standardized and trade on an open market freely.

          As a derivatives trader, it is the essence of capitalism at work. You need liquidity in
          the markets to maintain the supply/demand/competitive pricing.

    1. US still uses coal.. and there might be more primitive countries that do..
      Also oil is used for way more uses than just fuel to burn. It’s much a more universal ingredient.

      Also: No electric 300+ passenger planes on the horizon, although – maybe a stellerator with exhaust to push it along? :)

      1. If you can produce hydrogen cheaper than other fuels they all become redundant. You can even use the hydrogen to reform bio-oils for industrial feedstock. Foil carbon is only useful if it is cheap enough, and so it is getting cheaper. A sure sign of competition, or just a coincidence and the world markets are in the dip of their 8 year cycle.

  8. That picture is from a internal camera, but the camera is black&white so they colored it afterwards. Now what I wonder is why it’s red, I would expect helium plasma to be blueish bu that’s a gut feeling and I’m not sure what it is in reality.
    Anybody know the real color? Maybe at 1 million degrees it’s just pure white?

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