Nuclear fusion just got a boost with the arrival of this stellarator

Fox News By Michael Casey November 02, 2015

In November 2011 the interiour of Wendelstein 7-X was still open: Visible was the plasma vessel, one of the stellarator coils, a planar coil, part of the support structure and the cryostat together with a lot of cooling pipes and power supply lines. (IPP, Wolfgang Filser)

Researchers could be one step closer to producing energy through nuclear fusion with word that a device called the stellarator is set to go online later this year in Germany.

The largest contraption its kind, the Wendelstein 7-X fusion device is housed in a branch of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) near Munich. It won’t actually produce energy, the Institute said, but will be used to test the “specially shaped magnet coils which produce a magnetic cage which confines the plasma and keeps it away from the walls of the plasma vessel.”

“When Wendelstein 7-X will produce the first plasma – hopefully this year – we will know whether all components are working hand in hand,” Isabella Milch, the director of communications for the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics , told via email. “Stepwise, then the scientists will check whether the calculations have been transformed properly into hardware and Wendelstein 7-X shows the desired performance.“

Scientists have long dreamed of harnessing power from nuclear fusion –the same process that produces light from the Sun. And in recent years, the sector has gained plenty of high-profile backers including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft.

In the case of the Sun, the huge plasma ball at its center is mostly made up of hydrogen and a fusion fire burns at its core. The hydrogen atomic nuclei merge into helium, producing the energy that heats and light Earth.

The goal of fusion research is to do something similar on Earth. The target would be hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium, which fuse most readily, according to the IPP. In the fusion process, a helium nucleus is produced as well as the release of a neutron and huge quantities of energy.

To give you an idea of just how much, one gram of fuel could generate 90,000 kilowatt-hours of energy in a power plant – the combustion heat of 12 tons of coal, according to the IPP.

Fusion fuels would be cheap and found all over the globe. Seawater, for example, contains deuterium in unlimited quantiles. Tritium, meanwhile, rarely occurs in nature but can be formed in a power plant from lithium, which is likewise abundantly available.

“If fusion research goes according to plan then a power plant can be expected in the middle of the century,” Milch said. “Climatically harmful emission will not occur in fusion power plants. Yet they could serve the base load. With about 1,500 megawatts of electric power, they could be incorporated in the grid system of the power supply like present-day large-scale power plants.”

Nuclear fusion devices would also earn their place in the power industry as a buffer to renewables like solar that are dependent on the sun to produce energy, Milch said.