Scientists successfully test-fired the world’s largest “Stellarator” fusion reactor. Dubbed Wendelstein 7-X, the thermonuclear reactor could be the first one to offer cheap and limitless energy supply.
Germany successfully launched its thermonuclear reactor Wendelstein 7-X on Thursday. Built with an initial investment of more than a billion euros, the reactor is expected to keep super-hot plasma contained within itself for more than 30 minutes. In the first test phase, the reactor successfully produced a special super-hot gas. Though it was for a very brief period of just a tenth of a second, Wendelstein 7-X is being lauded as the first concrete step towards producing cheap energy in abundant quantities for long periods of time.
Germany and the scientists associated with the construction of Wendelstein 7-X are hoping that the thermonuclear reactor becomes a big part of the country’s energy future. However, there’s a long way to go for the project to be commercially applicable. The reactor managed to produce helium plasma which reached a temperature of one million degree Celsius, shared Dr. Hans-Stephan Bosch, whose division is responsible for the operation of the Wendelstein 7-X, at the end of the first day of experimentation,
“We’re very satisfied. Everything went according to plan.”
How does Wendelstein 7-X produce energy? The reactor works on the principles of controlled thermonuclear synthesis. The reactor takes in heavy water, which contains the hydrogen isotope deuterium and tritium. Wendelstein 7-X has 50 superconducting magnet coils about 3.5 meters high and collectively weigh more than 400 tons. Together, these coils are capable of producing a magnetic induction of 3 tesla.
An electrical current driven through the plasma and the magnetic induction confines the plasma at a temperature of 60-130 million degrees Celsius and ensures it does not come in contact with the walls, reported The Cubic Lane. The setup is referred to as a Stellarator device. Though the concept is pretty old, it has never been built on such a large scale and such a unique design. Moreover, Wendelstein 7-X can be presumed to be the Holy Grail since it uses heavy water, which can be made in abundance.
Once a sustained stream of superheated helium plasma is achieved, scientist then add energy that removes the electrons from their host atoms, forming what is described as an ion plasma, which releases huge amounts of energy, reported the Daily Mail.
Owing to the design specifications, Wendelstein 7-X is the most powerful Stellarator device in existence today. The next biggest device is in the Japanese city of Toki. There are only three such devices in the world today. The third is referred to as L-2M is based in Russia. The reactor is affiliated to the General Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, but owing to severe lack of funding, all development on the reactor remains suspended, This allowed Germany to take the lead in making Wendelstein 7-X, the construction of which started over two decades ago.
Evidently, it took a long time for the reactor’s commissioning. This was because the project encountered numerous hurdles including escalation of costs that nearly derailed it. Despite the costs doubling over the period, the Germans managed to build the Wendelstein 7-X which required over 1.1 million man-hours and 1.06 billion euros. The reactor is run by a team of 400 highly qualified scientists, who are confident the reactor will eventually alleviate the looming energy crisis.
The immediate challenges facing the team is extending the duration of the plasma discharges. The team is also evaluating techniques, most of which rely on microwaves, that offer the quickest, safest, and most economical way of heating helium plasmas.
The trick to develop the Wendelstein 7-X lies in its rather unusual design. A twisted design of the superconducting magnets allowed a similar flow of the plasma, which could flow without damaging the reactor. As the world increasingly relies on nuclear power plants, the Wendelstein 7-X may soon prove to be an ideal energy generator.
[Image via YouTube Screen Grab]