The “star in a jar” fusion reactor, formally known as the Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X), is functional and theoretically capable of producing “infinite energy” according to a new report from Nature Communications, a publication of the journal Nature.
“The largest and most sophisticated stellarator in the world, Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X), has just started operation, with the aim to show that the earlier weaknesses of this concept have been addressed successfully, and that the intrinsic advantages of the concept persist, also at plasma parameters approaching those of a future fusion power plant,” reads the report, authored by T. Sunn Pedersen and several of his colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Germany. “This is a significant step forward in stellarator research, since it shows that the complicated and delicate magnetic topology can be created and verified with the required accuracy.”
— Nature Physics (@NaturePhysics) November 30, 2016
In layman’s terms, that means the “fusion energy device is on track and working as planned,” as translated by Glenn McDonald at Space.com.
The potential applications of such a fusion reactor are, in practical terms, virtually limitless. If adapted for use at power plants, fusion reactors like the Wendelstein 7-X could provide endless amounts of clean and sustainable energy.
“For several decades now, scientists from around the world have been pursuing a ridiculously ambitious goal: They hope to develop a nuclear fusion reactor that would generate energy in the same manner as the sun and other stars, but down here on Earth,” McDonald explains. “And according to new reports out of Europe this week, we just took another big step toward making it happen.”
The stellarator design is one thing that distinguishes the Wendelstein 7-X reactor from other atomic reactors. The type of fusion performed by the W7-X involves fusing the nuclei of atoms together into heavier atoms. The W7-X process uses the hydrogen from water for “fuel” and does not produce any radioactive waste, as other nuclear reactors do, McDonald says. It does, however, require extremely high temperatures to heat the hydrogen into a plasma state.
“The plasma is so hot, in fact, that it would instantly burn material used to contain it,” according to Space.com.
— Friedrich List (@simulator8) December 11, 2016
If you’re curious as to just how hot it gets, think of something along the lines of the 80 to 100 million degrees Celsius range. For comparison, the surface of the sun is approximately 5,500 degrees Celsius.
That’s obviously going to melt any substance known to man.
Here’s McDonald’s explanation of how the stellarator design of the Wendelstein 7-X works to overcome the seemingly impossible obstacle of dealing with such extreme temperatures.
“The W7-X device confines the plasma within magnetic fields generated by superconducting coils cooled down to near absolute zero. The plasma…never comes into contact with the walls of the containment chamber.”
Now that is some hardcore science.
The Wendelstein 7-X is currently the “largest and most sophisticated stellarator” in the world, according to McDonald. It’s based at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, but researchers from several countries, including scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), have participated in its development.
It is no exaggeration to say that the effective implementation of a fusion reactors such as the W7-X could solve most, if not all, of the world’s energy problems.
“The fuel source is found in seawater in quantities sufficient to last tens of thousands of years,” David Gates, the principal research physicist for the advanced projects division of PPPL, told McDonald. “The waste product is helium, an inert gas. A viable fusion reactor would provide a secure, plentiful and environmentally benign energy resource to all nations.”
In a time of ongoing disputes about diminishing fossil fuels and clean energy, the “star in the jar” fusion reactor could provide hope for a simpler, cleaner, and more energy efficient future.
[Featured Image by Sean Gallup/Getty Images]