Scientists develop groundbreaking 'stellarator' for nuclear fusion.

Scientists

Researchers at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory have conducted a groundbreaking fusion experiment using remarkably simple techniques and permanent magnets, the first of its kind.

Advancements in technology;

Nuclear fusion, the reaction that powers stars like our sun, produces enormous amounts of energy by combining atoms, as opposed to the current method of nuclear fission, which splits atoms. Despite historic advances,
scientists have not yet managed to crack the code of nuclear fusion as an energy source. Scientists at the
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory have constructed a fusion reactor, known as a ‘stellarator”, which uses permanent magnets – a novel approach to fusion reactor design.

A revolutionary approach to nuclear fusion

The team at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) of the US Department of Energy has presented a new design for a fusion reactor, known as a stellarator.

Scientists, stellarator, nuclear fusion, technology

Left: Some of the permanent magnets that enable MUSE’s innovative concept. Right: MUSE’s shell produced with a 3D printer.

Stellarators traditionally build up complex magnetic fields with high-precision electromagnets. However, these systems are not usually used in fusion reactor designs due to their high cost. This is where the Princeton team’s innovation comes in. Their device, known as MUSE, breaks the mold, so to speak. Instead of electromagnets, MUSE uses permanent magnets. For the uninitiated, permanent magnets are common and inexpensive magnets found in refrigerators.

According to the research team, the use of permanent magnets in MUSE enables the rapid testing of new ideas for plasma confinement and the simple construction of new devices. The use of permanent magnets in stellarators has been theorized before, but it took about 10 years for the theory to be put into practice.

What is a stellarator?
Scientists, nuclear fusion

Stellarators are fusion devices that use complex magnetic fields to confine the plasma, the superheated state of matter necessary for the fusion reactions that power the sun and stars. At first glance, inexperienced eyes might confuse these devices with tokamaks, which we’ve been hearing a lot about lately. However, there are significant and fundamental differences between them. The main difference between stellarators and tokamaks is how the magnetic field that confines the plasma is generated.

Tokamaks are donut-shaped and use toroidal (ring-shaped) and poloidal (top-down) currents to control the plasma. These currents arise spontaneously within the plasma, which makes the construction and operation of tokamaks relatively simple. However, these currents can be unstable and hinder the sustainability of the fusion reactions.

A stellarator, on the other hand, is a toroidal device that captures the plasma using complex shaped coils. These coils are used to generate the magnetic fields that hold the plasma in place. In stellarators, the current comes from the coils and not from the plasma itself. This leads to a more stable plasma. An interesting note: Stellarators were first discovered in the 1950s in the United States and at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory.

Scientists, Lyman Spitzer

The founder of PPPL, Lyman Spitzer, with his invention and the first stellarator built at PPPL, known as Model A.

The Princeton team is now preparing various experiments to analyze the unique design of MUSE. Ultimately, the success achieved with MUSE points to a future where fusion energy devices will become more affordable and accessible, with permanent magnets potentially playing a leading role in this clean energy revolution.

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