Is it hot in here, or is it just Germany's Wendelstein 7-X stellar fusion device?
Yeah, it's the Wendelstein. Scientists at Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics (IPP) this week fired up the experimental nuclear fusion reactor to a temperature of 80 million degrees Celsius. That's correct: 80 million degrees. As a result, the facility generated its first batch of hydrogen plasma.
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"With a temperature of 80 million degrees and a lifetime of a quarter of a second, the device's first hydrogen plasma has completely lived up to our expectations," said Dr. Hans-Stephan Bosch in IPP press materials issued this week.
The Wendelstein reactor, in Greifswald, Germany, has been online since October of last year, performing trial runs with helium plasma at a mere 6 million degrees Celsius. Breezy! The production of the hydrogen plasma is part of a long-range plan to build nuclear fusion power plants that generate energy in much the same manner as the sun and other stars.
The event was attended by scientific and political luminaries from across Europe and the world, including German chancellor Angela Merkel - who earned her doctorate in quantum chemistry, by the by. In fact, Merkel herself pushed the button that sent the two-megawatt pulse of microwave power, which in turn transformed a small quantity of hydrogen gas into superheated, low-density hydrogen plasma.
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In case you're wondering how scientists can essentially conjure a little slice of the sun here on planet Earth, it works like this: The superheated plasma is kept contained within a magnetic field generated by superconducting coils that are cooled down to near absolute zero. The 30 cubic meters of plasma never come into contact with the walls of the vacuum chamber itself.
The objective of the project is to prove the feasibility of fusion power plants for generating safe, clean and virtually limitless energy. The Wendelstein reactor is built around one of two designs that use magnetic fields to confine plasma. The advantage of the Wendelstein design - known as a stellerator - is that it could eventually generate power continuously, rather than in pulses.
To that end, successive extensions are planned until, in about four years, discharges lasting at least 30 minutes can be produced.
"This makes everything ready for the next step," said project leader Dr. Thomas Klinger. "We are changing from helium to hydrogen plasmas, our proper subject of investigation."