Image of CFS's SPARC reactor

Commonwealth Fusion’s 20 Tesla Magnet: A Bright SPARC Towards Fusion’s Future

After decades of nuclear fusion power being always ten years away, suddenly we are looking at a handful of endeavours striving to be the first to Q > 1, the moment when a nuclear fusion reactor will produce more power than is required to drive the fusion process in the first place. At this point the Joint European Torus (JET) reactor holds the world record with a Q of 0.67.

At the same time, a large international group is busily constructing the massive ITER tokamak test reactor in France, although it won’t begin fusion experiments until the mid-2030s. The idea is that ITER will provide the data required to construct the first DEMO reactors that might see viable commercial fusion as early as the 2040s, optimistically.

And then there’s Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a fusion energy startup.  Where CFS differs is that they don’t seek to go big, but instead try to make a tokamak system that’s affordable, compact and robust. With their recent demonstration of a 20 Tesla (T) high-temperature superconducting (HTS) rare-earth barium copper oxide (ReBCO) magnet field coil, they made a big leap towards their demonstration reactor: SPARC.

A Story of Tokamaks

CFS didn’t appear out of nowhere. Their roots lie in the nuclear fusion research performed since the 1960s at MIT, when a scientist called Bruno Coppi was working on the Alcator A (Alto Campo Toro being Italian for High Field Torus) tokamak, which saw first plasma in 1972. After a brief period with a B-revision of Alcator, the Alcator C was constructed with a big power supply upgrade. Continue reading “Commonwealth Fusion’s 20 Tesla Magnet: A Bright SPARC Towards Fusion’s Future”

Fusion Ignition: What Does The NIF’s 1.3 MJ Yield Mean For Fusion Research?

Earlier this month, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) announced to the world that they had achieved a record 1.3 MJ yield from a fusion experiment at their National Ignition Facility (NIF). Yet what does this mean, exactly? As their press release notes, the main advancement of these results will go towards the US’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

This pertains specifically to the US’s nuclear fusion weapons, which LLNL along with Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and other facilities are involved in the research and maintenance of. This traces back to the NIF’s roots in the 1990s, when the stockpile stewardship program was set up as an alternative to nuclear weapons testing. Much of this research involves examining how today’s nuclear weapons degrade over time, and ways to modernize the existing arsenal.

In light of this, one may wonder what the impact of these experimental findings from the NIF are beyond merely ensuring that the principle of MAD remains intact. To answer that question, we have to take a look at inertial confinement fusion (ICF), which is the technology at the core of the NIF’s experiments.

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Fueling Up For Fusion: MAST’s Super-X, JET’s Deuterium-Tritium Experiments For ITER, And More

We’ve had nuclear fission reactors in operation all over the world for ages, but nuclear fusion always seems to be a decade or two away. While one cannot predict when we’ll reach the goal of sustained nuclear fusion, the cutting edge in test hardware is advancing at a rapid pace that makes us optimistic. Beginning as soon as this month and extending over a few years, we’re living through a very exciting time for nuclear fusion and plasma physics.

The Mega Ampere Spherical Tokamak (MAST) got a big upgrade to test a new cooled divertor design. JET (Joint European Torus) will be testing the deuterium-tritium fuel mixture that will be powering the ITER (the research project whose name began as an acronym for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor but has since been changed to just ITER). And the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator is coming back online with upgraded cooled divertors by next year.

Here the MAST Upgrade’s Super-X divertors have so far shown a ten-fold decrease in the temperature which the divertor is exposed to while carrying thermal energy out of the tokamak reactor. This means a divertor design and ultimately a fusion reactor that will last longer between maintenance sessions. On the stellarator side of things, Wendelstein 7-X’s new divertors may allow it to demonstrate the first continuous operation of a stellarator fusion reactor. Meanwhile, JET’s fuel experiments should allow us to test the deuterium-tritium fuel while ITER is working towards first plasma by 2025.

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Twenty Seconds At 100 Megakelvins

The Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research (KSTAR) magnetic fusion reactor claimed a new record last month — containing hydrogen plasma at 100 megakelvins for 20 seconds. For reference, the core temperature of the Earth’s Sun is a mere 15 megakelvins, although to be fair, it has been in operation quite a bit longer than 20 seconds.

South Korea is a member of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) team, a worldwide project researching the science and engineering of nuclear fusion. One of their contributions to the effort is the KSTAR facility, located in the city of Daejeon in the middle of the country (about 150 km south of Seoul).

It is a tokamak-style fusion research reactor using superconducting magnets to generate a magnetic flux density of 3.5 teslas and a plasma current of 2 megaamperes. These conditions are used to confine and maintain the plasma in what’s called the high-confinement mode, the conditions currently favored for fusion reactor designs. Since it went into operation in 2008, it has been creating increasingly longer and hotter “pulses” of plasma.

For all the impressive numbers, the toroidal reactor itself is not that huge. Its major diameter is only 3.6 meters with a minor diameter of 1 meter. What makes the facility so large is all the supporting equipment. Check out the video below — we really like the techniques they use in this virtual tour to highlight key components of the installation.

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NASA Claims Cold Fusion Without Naming It

Do you remember in 1989 when two chemists announced they’d created a setup that created nuclear fusion at room temperature? Everyone was excited, but it eventually turned out to be very suspect. It wasn’t clear how they detected that fusion occurred and only a few of the many people who tried to replicate the experiment claimed success and they later retracted their reports. Since then, mentioning cold fusion is right up there with perpetual motion. Work does continue though, and NASA recently published several papers on lattice confinement fusion which is definitely not called cold fusion, although it sounds like it to us.

The idea of trapping atoms inside a metallic crystal lattice isn’t new, dating back to the 1920s. It sounds as though the NASA method uses erbium packed with deuterium. Photons cause some of the deuterium to fuse. Unlike earlier attempts, this method produces detectable neutron emissions characteristic of fusion.

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Where Do You Get Your Neutrons? Neutron Sources For Nuclear Fusion, Science, Medicine, And Industry

All of us probably know what neutrons are, or have at least heard of them back in physics class. Yet these little bundles of quarks are much more than just filler inside an atom’s nucleus. In addition to being an essential part of making matter as stable as it (usually) is, free neutrons can be used in a variety of manners.

From breaking atoms apart (nuclear fission), to changing the composition of atoms by adding neutrons (transmutation), to the use of neutrons in detecting water and inspecting materials, neutrons are an essential tool in the sciences, as well as in medicine and industrial applications. This has meant a lot of development toward the goal of better neutron sources. While nuclear fission is an efficient way to get lots of neutrons, for most applications a more compact and less complicated approach is used, some of which use nuclear fusion instead.

In this article we’ll be taking a look at the many applications of neutron sources, and these neutron sources themselves.

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Nuclear Fusion Power Without Regular Tokamaks Or Stellarators

When it comes to nuclear fusion, the most well-known reactor type today is no doubt the tokamak, due to its relatively straight-forward concept of plasma containment. That’s not to say that there aren’t other ways to accomplish nuclear fusion in a way that could conceivably be used in a commercial power plant in the near future.

As we covered previously, another fairly well-known type of fusion reactor is the stellarator, which much like the tokamak, has been around since the 1950s. There are other reactor types from that era, like the Z-pinch, but they seem to have all fallen into obscurity. That is not to say that research on Z-pinch reactors has ceased, or that other reactor concepts — some involving massive lasers — haven’t been investigated or even built since then.

In this article we’ll take a look at a range of nuclear fusion reactor types that definitely deserve a bit more time in the limelight.

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