motherboard February 3, 2016
This story was translated from the original published by Motherboard Germany.
The Max Planck Institute in Greifswald reached a true milestone in physics and technical engineering today right in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s eyes. The brand-new reactor, an experimental stellarator design called Wendelstein 7-X, was successfully booted up to an extent where it created hydrogen plasma.
The news is not only a scientific sensation—a welcome one after building the reactor alone took 19 years and cost 1.2 billion euros. But it was the first time researchers were able to simulate the energy-producing reactions of our Sun in a laboratory setting.
Screens showing the creation of hydrogen plasma. Image: Getty
The reactor has already been reverently dubbed the “fusion reactor designed in hell” by the American media because of its sheer power. The researchers’ goals are ambitious, as Sibylle Günter, director of the Institute for Plasma Physics, reemphasized today. “We want to utilize the energy of the stars,” she said.
At 3:22 PM, Angela Merkel finally flipped a special switch set up for her, starting the countdown to the experiment. About a minute later, the actual flash of the first-ever hydrogen plasma created in a controlled setting flickered on a monitor in the control room.
Günter guided Merkel through the reactor, pointing out right after the experiment just how special the reactor’s capabilities are. “The Wendelstein reactor is actually developed enough to be able to sustain the reaction for half an hour, but we didn’t want to risk anything and so we only created the plasma for a split second this time,” Günter said.
For several minutes after the experiment, Merkel had researchers explain what conclusions can be drawn from the creation of plasma and what they’d been looking at on the monitors. The chancellor, who also holds a doctorate in physics, was visibly curious when asking the researchers questions in the control room.
In order to create the plasma, a mixture of electrons and atomic nuclei were heated to 80 million degrees celsius in a vacuum ring made of 425 tons of superconducting magnets, with the help of a two-megawatt-strong pulse, as the Max Planck Institute explained a press release. The magnets were constructed out of 50 specially-formed spools and were cooled down to near-absolute zero (-237 degrees celsius), while the magnetic fields kept the fuel suspended.
“Wendelstein 7-X is a fantastic example of cutting edge research made in Germany. And maybe when we look back one day, we’ll talk about this as science’s finest hour,” said Merkel with evident enthusiam before the experiment started. She ended her speech on scientific research, which she was visibly comfortable giving, with the grand appeal to “tame the sun’s fires.”