Physicists in Germany have managed to successfully fire up a nuclear fusion device called Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X). This latest success in the field of plasma physics could open up a revolutionary new doorway to a technology that could ensure a future of clean energy on a massive scale.
Even though similar experiments have been successful in the past, previous fusion attempts could never be maintained for more than six and a half minutes. This would leave the machine eating up more energy than it would create.
— MPI für Plasmaphysik (@PlasmaphysikIPP) December 10, 2015
In their most recent nuclear fusion experiment, the team of scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physik (IPP) in Germany was successfully able to contain super-hot blobs of helium gas, also known as plasma.
Nuclear fusion happens when atoms fuse together at very high temperatures, while generating energy in the process. This is the same process that has been keeping our Sun running for 4.5 billion years.
Scientists are excited about the recent breakthrough, as it has brought them closer to being able to generate an almost unlimited supply of energy from something as little as salt water.
The German team of scientists were able to maintain the super hot helium-plasma generated in the W7-X for about one-tenth of a second. This doesn’t seem like much, but it’s sufficient to prove that the new fusion machine — also known as a stellarator — works.
“We’re very satisfied. Everything went according to plan,” said Dr. Hans Stephan Bosch from the department responsible for running the W7-X.
Watch this video from Max-Planck-Institut für Plasmaphysik, and learn from the scientists in Germany on how it works. Then watch as they count down the first test of W7-X, and whether it will produce helium plasma:
The purpose of this first experiment with the W7-X fusion machine was to test the main components. These components will then be used to build a future fusion-machine based on the new stellarator technology.
David Campbell, the head of the Science and Operations Division at ITER, said: “The detailed studies of fusion plasma performance and physics processes to which the Wendelstein research program opens the gateway will be significant for the future development of fusion energy.”
Based on the tests, a future stellarator is predicted to be able to control plasma for 30 minutes at a time.
In previous attempts to maintain plasma using tokamak reactors, scientists were only able to maintain plasma for a maximum of six-and-a-half minutes, which is not enough to draw any significant amounts of usable energy from the device.
The W7-X is a “milestone,” with scientists anticipating great things to come. “The [W7-X] device is the world’s largest advanced stellarator, and opens a new era in research into magnetically confined fusion plasmas,” says Campbell.
This is a big step towards the goal of generating sustainable clean energy on a large scale using nuclear fusion instead of fission. Nuclear fission is currently used to power our nuclear plants, but creates radioactive waste materials, making it not very clean.
As the American astronaut Neil Armstrong put it: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
To learn more about Wendelstein 7-X, watch this video from Science magazine: