The Wendelstein 7-X: Our Nuclear Future?

Recently, groundbreaking experiments have been conducted regarding the Wendelstein 7-X, a stellarator constructed in eastern Germany, with the goal of advancing research into nuclear fusion as a fuel source, and especially the evaluation of necessary components.

 

That’s right, nuclear fusion. To harness its power is basically the holy grail of energy production, and a supreme challenge which has yet to be overcome. This is generally because the process produces so much energy that it’s impossible to reasonably contain, much less make use of. Without the massive gravity of a star to reign in the plasma, and considering that the heat of the substance precludes a solid (soon-to-be liquid) enclosing, there are few options remaining. The most promising of these alternatives seems to be Magnetic confinement fusion. As the name implies, it makes use of precision magnetic fields to control the path of plasma. Of the devices which use this technique, there are two overarching categories.

 

“Tokamak” reactors, presented first in 1968, channel the energy through a toroidal chamber. The main challenge is the prevention of outward plasma drift inherent to the circular and uneven magnetic field. These reactors were leagues ahead of anything else at their arrival, and are still heavily researched today.

The inside of a tokamak reactor. (source: nasa.gov)

“Stellarator” reactors actually originated earlier, in the 1950’s, but were abandoned for the superior results of tokamaks. However, they have begun to receive more attention as they solve some of the problems inherent to the tokamak. By using a twisted design (in a figure-eight or helix pattern) the unwanted magnetic forces are canceled out, producing a device which is more stable by nature. On the downside, they are much more complicated to build and therefore test.

The path plasma takes inside a stellarator. The blue rings are the magnets guiding the stream. (source: wikipedia)

 

It is this latter category which the Wendelstein 7-X falls into. To be more precise, the W7-X is a “helias” stellarator, one of the most promising concepts for use as a power plant. Here is a render of its build:

 

The internals and externals of the wendelstein. Pretty futuristic, huh?

Each of the seemingly hastily and randomly placed components is part of several meticulously constructed interlocking systems for cooling, heating, and measuring the plasma and operations of the W-7X. Despite the subtly comical appearance, it in fact has been demonstrated to work on a basic level, having already undergone tests with helium and hydrogen (the latter test was on February 3rd, and lasted approximately a quarter of a second). While scientists hope to increase the continuous running time to 30 minutes, development will continue for at least the next four years. Considering that the Wendelstein project was started in 1995, and began construction in 2005, it isn’t that much longer to wait. And just think: true nuclear fusion power could be within reach during our lifetimes.

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