In November 2015, Germany switched on the WX7 stellarator, their billion dollar nuclear fusion machine and produced stable helium plasma for the very first time. Just 3 months after their initial success, the German physicists were able to produce and sustain hydrogen plasma for the first time. The generation of hydrogen plasma is an important step towards carrying out nuclear fusion, a process where two smaller atoms join together to form a bigger one, releasing lots of energy. But heating hydrogen to temperatures that would facilitate nuclear fusion is not nearly as easy.
What physicists achieved last month was 80 million C, a good 20 million C short of the 100 million goal. By the next 3 years, the creators of this machine hope to see actual nuclear fusion by using deuterium, a higher isotope of hydrogen. But even then, researchers predict that we still cannot break even – there is a long road ahead to producing more energy than we put in. So then, what is the path forward and how do we go about creating the perfect machine could carry out nuclear fusion? “The main goal is to develop and study the components and systems that will end up being essential parts of a commercial stellarator fusion plant. Much in the same way that, in the design of a new type of spaceship, you might do early feasibility tests just on a prototype of the complicated engine.”, says Nicolas Sawaya, a PhD student in Chemical Physics at Harvard University. Sawaya adds that an essential next step could be to extract and couple the massive amounts of thermal energy generated during fusion to an electricity generator, such as in a steam turbine.
If you’re still wondering why nuclear fusion could mean anything to you, it is because harnessing the clean and limitless energy from fusion can help help power our planet for generations to come, all without high costs and pollution. You may not be here to see when the day finally comes, but maybe your grandchildren will.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Nicolas Sawaya, PhD students in the Chemical Physics program at Harvard University for his thoughtful insight and comments.
Managing Correspondent: Utsarga Adhikary