University’s nuclear fusion device to be complete, available for use Friday

Daily Illini By Michael Semaca | 04/18/16

illinois reactor

Photo courtesy of Michael Semaca | The Daily Illini
The HIDRA, the University’s fusion device.

The University’s nuclear fusion device, the Hybrid Illinois Device for Research and Applications, or HIDRA, will finally be completed and will form its first plasma Friday.

This process will allow researchers like Dr. Daniel Andruczyk, the head of the HIDRA project in the Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering (NPRE), to conduct tests with the machine.

“We’ll get our first plasma (Friday). It’ll be the first official start of the machine. That’s really exciting,” Andruczyk said. “All machines go through this: you have your first plasma, and from there you start to do experiments.”

The HIDRA is a machine thats able to execute nuclear fusion, the process of colliding two hydrogen isotopes together to create helium, which releases a massive amount of energy. The problem is that these hydrogen molecules need to be at a temperature hotter than the sun and in the form of a plasma, the highest energy state of matter, to actually fuse together.

Since a plasma is so hot, it takes an incredible amount of energy to actually make fusion happen, even more than the reaction outputs. Many scientists around the globe have been working on several things that can make fusion more economical.

At NPRE’s Center for Plasma-Material Interactions (CPMI), professors like Andruczyk have focused on the plasma’s effects on the reactor itself.

“We’re really interested here in understanding what’s called the plasma material interactions,” Andruczyk said. “How does the plasma interact with the materials that are confining it? What’s the plasma doing to those materials, and vice versa? How does that then feed back to the plasma and affect the performance of the plasma?”

For professors at CPMI, having access to their very own fusion device is a huge blessing.

“Sometimes you have to sit and wait years to (conduct tests),” Andruczyk said. “With HIDRA, we can now test whenever we want, however we want, on our own machine, show that it works in the smaller fusion devices before we go and put it on the larger devices.”

Andruczyk worked on the HIDRA, which was originally stationed in Germany, before he was hired by CPMI Director David Ruzic. Both were instrumental in getting the device here.

Andruczyk’s former colleagues told him HIDRA was to be replaced by a newer, more powerful device. He warned Ruzic, who then had to overcome political and financial obstacles to bring the machine to the University.

“He called me up and said, ‘Hey do we want a stellarator?’ And I said, ‘Of course we want a stellarator.’” Professor Ruzic said.

Since the University acquired the machine in August 2014, the team at NPRE has been hard at work bringing it across the Atlantic and rebuilding it on campus. This week, the rebuilding effort will finally be complete.

“We’re still putting some of the final touches on it,” Andruczyk said. “We’re almost there. It’s just a few little things that we’ve got to finish up here.”

Andruczyk and his team of NPRE students have been hard at work preparing the machine for the first plasma. One of these students is Andrew Shone, sophomore in engineering, who started working on HIDRA as a freshman.

“The more I work on it, the more I learn,” Shone said. “It’s a really good opportunity for me to get hands-on experience with an actual fusion device.”

This is an incredibly rare experience. The University is one of only four schools, the others being Auburn, Wisconsin and Columbia, that let undergraduates work on a fusion device.

“It’s a lot of little work, but someone’s got to do it,” Shone said.

There’s still a long way to go until fusion can be a viable energy source. A running joke with the nuclear community is that fusion is 30 years away, and has been since the 1970s, Ruzic said.

Nevertheless, he believes that there’s been considerable progress in the field.

“We can make a fusion powerplant making electricity today,” he said. “Economic fusion is some number of years away. But 30 years ago I could not make the statement I just did; we could not guarantee you that, if you give me enough money, I’ll make you a powerplant that would make fusion electricity. Today we can. That’s enormous progress, and we know how to do it. Now the question is, can we find ways to do it that make it smaller, cheaper and therefore economic?”