Hydrogen fusion offers a nearly endless supply of clean energy. It works by slamming single-proton hydrogen atoms together to form helium – an inert, harmless gas. This process generates four times more energy than fission without producing greenhouse gases and long-lived radioactive waste. Fusion doesn't use materials like uranium and plutonium, and there's no risk of a Fukushima-type nuclear accident in the most commonly used fusion reactors.
However, scientists still haven't figured out the perfect formula to make fusion practical. No one has yet managed to create a controlled, sustained fusion reaction that spits out more energy than what gets consumed by the reactor. The Los Alamos researchers are hopeful that PLX will teach scientists how to create fusion energy efficiently.
PLX works by combining two fusion methods: magnetic and inertial confinement. The former is used in fusion reactors called tokamaks, which create powerful magnetic fields to suspend the superheated, ultra-dense plasma of atoms inside the machine so the atoms keep fusing.
Meanwhile, inertial confinement is used in machines like the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. NIF is a large system that fires powerful lasers at tiny fuel cells that trap hydrogen to heat atoms and cause them to fuse. Though NIF is operational, it doesn't generate more energy than it uses.
The physicists already performed some early experiments using the first 18 guns installed on the reactor, producing early data on how the plasma jets behave when they collide inside the machine. This data is important as theoretical models of plasma behavior during fusion have been contradictory, according to the researchers. The team plans to conduct more experiments using the full 36-plasma-gun battery by the end of the year.
In early November, British researchers successfully demonstrated that a tokamak called the MAST Upgrade is able to heat hydrogen gas into plasma to produce fusion energy. The achievement is considered an important proof of concept that scientists at the U.K.'s Culham Centre for Fusion Energy worked on for seven years.
"Powering up the MAST Upgrade device is a landmark moment for this national fusion experiment," said Amanda Solloway, Under Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the U.K.
The MAST Upgrade is the improved version of the original MAST fusion reactor that ran from 1999 to 2013. The reworked device improves upon the prototype with a spherical tokamak design, which is expected to enhance its efficiency and performance.
Now that the MAST Upgrade was proven to be operational, the scientists can begin testing new technology to solve other problems. One such technology is the "Super-X divertor," a heat exhaust system designed to reduce heat that can damage reactor components and make fusion energy costly. If the divertor works, it can offer a 10-fold heat reduction compared to previous exhaust systems, according to the researchers.
Read more articles about ground-breaking experiments at Breakthrough.news.