View of the Wendelstein 7-X fusion device taken on September 18, 2015 at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald, northeastern Germany. © DPA / AFP
The inauguration of the world’s biggest stellarator, a type of nuclear fusion reactor, took place at Marx Planck Institute in Germany as the Wendelstein 7-X heated hydrogen gas to 80 million degrees for a quarter of a second.
The ceremony was attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who pressed the button to launch the reactor in Greifswald. The oddly-shaped 5.5m radius helical machine was completed in April last year and is an alternative design to the more popular tokamak nuclear fusion device.
Both tokamak and stellarator are designed to confine plasma hot enough to start fusion of nuclei long enough for the reaction to produce more energy than used to start the reaction. The difference is that a tokamak uses current driven through the plasma to prevent it from dissipating. A stellarator uses a system of magnetic coils shaped in a way that compensates for the lack of uniformity in a ring-shaped reactor.
While a tokamak is generally considered more promising for creation of a commercial fusion power plant, the stellarator design has its advantages, such as allowing plasma containment over long periods of time. The inauguration pulse was relatively brief, but when the Wendelstein 7-X is fully operational it will contain plasma for some 30 minutes.
The fusion reactor will help German scientists study the behavior of plasma. In December, researchers at Greifswald tried it with helium plasma and the reactor ran as expected, allowing the team to switch to hydrogen, which has different properties.
“This was really the beginning, and the machine works nicely. The confinement time was very large, we knew we were on the right path,” said Hans-Stephan Bosch, who directs the division responsible for the operation of the stellarator.The experiments are to continue throughout March with the power of microwave pulses, which heat the hydrogen rising to 20 megawatts. In 2019, the scientists will switch to deuterium, a hydrogen isotope needed for fusion reaction to happen.
Ready when you are. (EPA/Stefan Sauer)
Germany Is Getting Closer To Nuclear Fusion —The Long-Held Dream Of Unlimited Clean Energy
German scientists today will set about the first steps towards what has become the Holy Grail of energy—nuclear fusion, which has the potential for unlimited amounts of clean power. There are a number of challenges to harnessing this power—researchers need to build a device that can heat atoms to temperatures of more than 100 million °C (180 million °F).
After almost nine years of construction work and more than a million assembly hours, researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Greifswald areset to do just that by heating a tiny amount of hydrogen until it becomes as hot, hopefully, as the center of the Sun.
Researchers are keen to tap into the incredible amount of energy released when atoms join together at extremely high temperatures in the super-hot gas known as plasma. Today’s test will not produce any energy, just the plasma—a different state of matter created at extremely high temperatures. German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has a doctorate in physics, will reportedly attend.
The Wendelstein 7-x is the largest stellarator fusion device in the world—dubbed the “darkhorse in fusion energy research” and costing €370 million (US$404 million) to build—rivalling the standard tokamak fusion reactor that was developed by Soviet researchers. Researchers were able to carry out the first successful experiment last year, producing helium plasma. Satisfied with the initial results, researchers are setting out to work to produce the first plasma from hydrogen.
Scientists are still many years away from producing a clean and safe form of nuclear power and there have been plenty of setbacks. In the last 60 years, scientists have failed to create a fusion reaction that makes more energy than it consumes.
The international coalition behind a rival, multibillion-dollar ITER fusion project, which aims to show that nuclear fusion is technically feasible, recently announced it would take six years longer than planned to build their device—and require a lot more funding.
Originally published (STORY 1) in RT and (STORY 2) in QUARTZ AFRICA