Fusion record paves way for commercial reactors

Fusion record paves way for commercial reactors
The WEST reactor uses a tungsten lining
The WEST reactor uses a tungsten lining
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The WEST reactor uses a tungsten lining
The WEST reactor uses a tungsten lining

The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) hits a new fusion reactor endurance record that could open the door to practical fusion power on a commercial scale. Using a tungsten lining, the WEST reactor held a reaction for six minutes.

Fusion reactions may power the Sun and make life on Earth possible, but duplicating that process on this planet is currently stuck at two ends of an extreme. On the one hand, fusion can be set off instantly in the heart of a hydrogen bomb with enough energy released to blast a city off the map. At the other, fusion can be induced on a lab-bench level at such low energy returns that such a setup was showcased at the General Electric pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair, where it regularly fused atoms together for the public.

The hard part is getting these two extremes to meet somewhere in the middle. No, that's not right. The hard part is to get them to meet in the form of a reactor that can generate more energy than it takes in on a sustained, practical, commercial scale.

To do this, the reactor doesn't just need to achieve fusion or do so for an extended period. It needs to be able to do so on a large enough scale using a machine that can stand up to all of the stresses of recreating the conditions in the heart of the Sun.

According to the US Department of Energy's PPPL, the recent record set by the W (the chemical symbol for tungsten) Environment in Steady-state Tokamak (WEST) of sustaining a reaction for six minutes after an injection of 1.15 gigajoules of power steady-state central electron temperature of 4 keV isn't an absolute record. There are other tokamaks that have done better, WEST scores in the practicality stakes.

Located at the nuclear research center of Cadarache, Bouches-du-Rhône in Provence, France, WEST is a reconfigured version of the Tore Supra tokamak. During the six-minute run, the plasma suspended inside the reactor's super-powerful magnetic fields reached a temperature of 50 million ºC (90 million ºF) and achieved 15% more energy with twice the plasma density.

But the real showstopper was that this was done with a tokamak chamber lined with tungsten. Earlier versions used a graphite lining, which achieved better performance. But graphite tends to absorb the fuel into itself, which is undesirable in a commercial reactor. Tungsten has a much lower rate of this, making it more practical and desirable. However, tungsten atoms can also get into the plasma, rapidly cooling it.

PPPL says that WEST is very far from a practical reactor, but it is a major step as the laboratory works on how to tweak the tungsten.

"The tungsten-wall environment is far more challenging than using carbon," said Delgado-Aparicio, PPPL’s head of advanced projects and lead scientist for the physics research and the X-ray detector project. "This is, simply, the difference between trying to grab your kitten at home versus trying to pet the wildest lion."

Source: Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

George the Engineer
Let's see.
6 minutes.

Only 788,394 more minutes to go to compete with fission reactors of the PWR variety on an 18 month cycle, or 1,051,194 minutes to compete with BWR and PWR reactors operating on a 24 month cycle.

I'm not saying I don't want fusion to succeed. Not at all.

I do find the fawning over a minor achievement, saying it heralds a new age of fusion energy to be a bit exaggerated.

And yes, we've been hearing that for 40 years. Nothing has changed.
Thanks David for the update on an incremental improvement - and new frontier of fusion problem solving. Some may yawn at the milestones of a stepped learning curve, but I'm impressed. What I don't quite get is with this 15% more plasma energy measured - did the 6 minute fusion milestone actually produce more energy than it consumed? Even the source article puts it exactly the way you did, that this 6 minute snapshot of fusion achieved 15% more energy measured. Or as the Engineer of the Jungle alluded: ho-hum, fusion not ready for prime time......
Unbelivable! A whole 6 minutes! Now they just have about a million more minutes to make the power produced useful. Jeeze these authors really must be bored to deathto think this is newsworthy.
In other words, we have no clue as to how to achieve a practical fusion reactor.
Jose Gros-Aymerich
I'd say the best, if not only, approach to Fusion Energy is 'Compression Ignition', plasma temperatures reached as hydrostatic pressure does it inside stars.
The ITER in Cadarache is not completed yet, but keeps on draining billions, and the fuel for it, tritium Hydrogen, had one and only source in Canadian Uranium nuclear reactors, on their way to shutdown from gov decision.
So, what?
The German Stellarator keeps on going in a silent, efficacious way.
Gesund +
I'm with George the Engineer. Climate change is probably too late to stop now,and people are still wasting time with fusion,when FISSION works well,and is producing power right now. Heard on the radio this AM that last year was the hottest ever recorded. Our next step should be building out SMRs,and setting up carbon capture schemes like Brilliant Planet's operation
George. You beat me to this comment. All I can say is "me too."
Shouldn’t they immediately put the same 100% back into the reactor, or even 105% and send the 10% to a battery?
Wow, a WHOLE six minutes with a net energy generation of a HUGE negative percentage over input. Yup, we'll see commercial fusion energy in about another 50+++ years.