The magnetic appeal of fusion technology

Europa 31 March 2017

Nuclear fusion could, potentially, solve our energy problems once and for all, but we’re not quite there yet. However, we are already reaping benefits from the research. Technology development for ITER, for example, generates new know-how with possible applications in industry. It has inspired world-leading innovation for a type of analytical instrumentation.

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At times, it may seem as if returns on the EU’s investment in nuclear fusion will be a long time coming. But the scientists and engineers developing this technology have already produced many advances, some of which have inspired innovation in other areas, says Walter Fietz of the Institute for Technical Physics (ITEP) of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), in Germany. “Fusion research generates a lot of science, although this may not always be apparent,” he notes.

Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy is a case in point, and Fietz is ideally placed to provide insight on technology transfer in this area. KIT has been involved in nuclear fusion research for many years, and ITEP has been applying the know-how it has gained through its contribution to this research to support Bruker BioSpin. This company is part of the Bruker Corporation group, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of analytical instrumentation.

NMR spectroscopy is a technique that capitalises on the magnetic properties of certain atoms. It is used to study the structure or interaction of molecules, in areas as varied as medical research, materials science and quality control.

A driver of innovation

High-end NMR spectrometers are very powerful instruments underpinned by superconducting magnets, and the long-standing partnership between the company and the institute builds on a shared interest in this type of magnet.

ITEP, Fietz explains, has developed particular expertise in this area through its work on high-field magnets intended for use in ITER, the nuclear fusion facility that is currently being built in southern France. The research has benefited from EU support through the Euratom Fusion Research programme.

Particular attention was dedicated to the superconductors used in the magnets’ coil windings. “Initially, in the early 80s, they were based on niobium-titanium, producing a field of 8 tesla or so,” Fietz notes. While this is already impressive, ITER will require much stronger fields. “In fusion, you have to contain a plasma that’s hotter than the sun to keep it away from the walls, which would melt immediately,” Fietz remarks.

By the late 80s, he says, the limits of what could be achieved with niobium-titanium had been reached, and the focus shifted towards niobium-tin. ITEP carried out extensive research on this brittle material to find a way of harnessing it for use in coil windings, and it is this specific know-how, Fietz reports, that inspired Bruker BioSpin to approach the institute in 1985.

From ITER to industry

ITEP has been supporting Bruker with research on magnets for use in NMR spectroscopy ever since, Fietz reports. Since the cooperation began, Bruker has launched five new systems shaped by this long-standing partnership, consolidating its leadership in this market. Each of these instruments commanded higher field strengths than the previous one, he notes. The latest model in the series registers at a staggering 23.5 tesla.

“The stronger the field, the better the resolution, and the more you can see,” Fietz explains. Four of the new systems were world firsts in this respect, breaking new ground for the technique, he adds.

ITEP has had other opportunities to support businesses with know-how gained in fusion research, Fietz reports, although the cooperation with Bruker is the institute’s most prominent example. “Fusion requires the best of everything, in every field,” he concludes. “You need the best physics, the best chemistry and the best electrical engineering and so on, and then you have to put everything together. This creates a lot of new ideas.”

Many of these ideas can be developed into innovative products and services, creating growth and jobs.

Project details

  • Project acronym: EURACT-NMR
  • Participants: UK (Coordinator), Belgium, Germany, France
  • Project N°: 269923
  • Total costs: € 634 415
  • EU contribution: € 577 517
  • Duration: February 2011 – September 2013