by Dion Boyd
An interesting article written by Nathaniel Scharping in Discover Magazine on February 3, 2016 examines the completion of an early phase of German scientists’ nuclear fusion experiment. The purpose of the experiment is to test processes of a reaction that will one-day produce nuclear fusion for use as energy. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Particle Physics in Greifswald, Germany conducted the experiment using a machine called the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator, a donut-shaped device that uses magnetic fields to suspend hydrogen gas while zapping it with powerful microwaves. During the reaction, researchers heated up a hydrogen sample to 180 million degrees Fahrenheit and succeeded in creating a sweltering hot plasma that lasted for a quarter of a second. The Wendelstein stellarator experiment has been developing for over twenty years now, costing nearly €1.06bn with Germany being the primary funder and the US, Poland, and the European Union following closely behind. Although the W7-X isn’t designed to be a major energy producer itself, the experiments it runs will show that plasma can be contained for a period of time when heated to such extremes. [http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2016/02/03/germanys-nuclear-fusion-experiment-marks-initial-success/#.VrU7_ZMrIdU]
Nuclear fusion is the exact opposite of nuclear fission, the process currently used at nuclear power plants. In nuclear fusion, energy is created from combining atoms whereas in fission the energy is created when atoms are split. Nuclear fusion is the preferred process because it is safer, more efficient, and one of the cleanest forms of renewable energy that we could realistically wish for. Fusion is attractive to scientists because the process typically includes combining hydrogen atoms, which are extremely plentiful and produce negligible amounts of waste. [http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/03/nuclear-fusion-germany-scientists-experiment-angela-merkel] As of now, the major problem with fusion is that the amount of energy required to create the reaction is greater than the amount the reaction produces itself. Therefore, nuclear fusion will not be a viable energy source until scientists reach the point where energy output exceeds input and the reaction can become self-sustaining. In other words, not until the energy produced from the reaction becomes the energy that is used to fuel future reactions, this is called ignition. In the coming years, scientists aim to reach progressively higher temperatures in order to sustain the plasma for longer periods of time, preferably up to 30 minutes. If scientists are able to engineer a way to sustain a plasma with fewer energy input, nuclear fusion may be the energy resource of the future.
Discover Magazine [http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2016/02/03/germanys-nuclear-fusion-experiment-marks-initial-success/#.VrU7_ZMrIdU]
The Guardian [http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/03/nuclear-fusion-germany-scientists-experiment-angela-merkel]