Nuclear Fusion At 100: The Hidden Race For Energy Supremacy

It’s hardly a secret that nuclear fusion has had a rough time when it comes to its image in the media: the miracle power source that is always ‘just ten years away’.  Even if no self-respecting physicist would ever make such a statement, the arrival of commercial nuclear fusion power cannot come quickly enough for many. With the promise of virtually endless, clean energy with no waste, it does truly sound like something from a science-fiction story.

Meanwhile, in the world of non-fiction, generations of scientists have dedicated their careers to understanding better how plasma in a reactor behaves, how to contain it and what types of fuels would work best for a fusion reactor, especially one that has to run continuously, with a net positive energy output. In this regard, 2020 is an exciting year, with the German Wendelstein 7-X stellarator reaching its final configuration, and the Chinese HL-2M tokamak about to fire up.

Join me after the break as I look into what a century of progress in fusion research has brought us and where it will take us next.

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China’s Fusion Reactor Hits Milestone

An experimental fusion reactor built by the Chinese Academy of Science has hit a major milestone. The Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has maintained a plasma pulse for a record 102 seconds at a temperature of 50 million degrees – three times hotter than the core of the sun.

The EAST is a tokamak, or a torus that uses superconducting magnets to compress plasma into a thin ribbon where atoms will fuse and energy will be created. For the last fifty years, most research has been dedicated to the study of tokamaks in producing fusion power, but recently several projects have challenged this idea. The Wendelstein 7-X  stellarator at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics recently saw first plasma and if results go as expected, the stellarator will be the design used in fusion power plants. Tokamaks have shortcomings; they can only be ‘pulsed’, not used continuously, and we haven’t been building tokamaks large enough to produce a net gain in power, anyway.

Other tokamaks currently in development include ITER in France. Theoretically, ITER is large enough to attain a net gain in power at 12.4 meters in diameter. EAST is much smaller, with a diameter of just 3.7 meters. It is impossible for EAST to ever produce a net gain in power, but innovations in the design that include superconducting toroidal and poloidal magnets will surely provide insight into unsolved questions in fusion reactor design.