German physicists took an important step toward a new type of clean, limitless energy through nuclear fusion by successfully starting up a fusion reactor called the Wendelstein 7-X.
The machine harnesses the process that’s fueled our Sun for the past 4.5 billion years, nuclear fusion, in a revolutionary new way.
“We’re very satisfied,” said Hans-Stephan Bosch, team leader at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics.”Everything went according to plan.”
The 16 metre wide device was fired up for the first time on December 10th and to the scientists delight performed well. The superconducting magnetic chamber was filled with helium and heated with a laser to around 1 million degrees Celsius. The machine was successfully able to maintain plasma (hot blobs of helium gas) for around one-tenth of a second, confirming the device works.
The goal for scientists is to contain the helium plasma discharge for up to 30 minutes. In January, scientists will begin experiments creating plasma from hydrogen, which is what would be used in a commercially viable nuclear fusion machine.
Scientists have always been excited about the potential of nuclear fusion to produce an almost unlimited supply of energy from little more than salt water. Nuclear fusion occurs when atoms fuse together at high temperatures and generate energy. Unlike nuclear fission, which powers current nuclear power plants, nuclear fusion doesn’t produce any radioactive waste and is much safer.
Frustratingly, physicists have found it increasingly difficult to achieve and maintain nuclear fusion because it requires a machine to control 100 million degree blobs of plasma. The best reactors up to now have only maintained fusion for a maximum of 6 minutes and 30 seconds – not nearly enough time to harvest significant energy.
The new machine engineered by the German team (nicknamed the Wendelstein 7-X) is called a stellarator. Physicist have been talking about the potential of stellarators for decades, but this is the first time such a device has been shown to work. The machine is predicted to be able to maintain hot plasma blobs for an unheard of 30 minutes. The short term plan for scientists is to gradually build up to the 30 minute goal as quickly as possible.
Have a look at the official live stream from the “first light” event at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics. Around the 23 minute mark scientists get super-excited when the machine produces the first plasma – a truly revolutionary breakthrough that deserves more fanfare and exposure.